City outlines vision for future of preservation

The city is now embarking on an ambitious vision for the future of preservation.

As Murray G. Miller, the city’s director of the Office of Historic Preservation, outlined  on Tuesday, March 12, at City Hall (and online) during his presentation, ‘A Vision for Historic Preservation in Boston,’ the city is now undertaking an in-depth analysis of all the processes and procedures within the Office of Historic Preservation itself. The review will evaluate city policies with a focus on uplifting underrepresented voices, as well as promote affordable housing and environmental stewardship.

(The Boston Landmarks Commission  – the city agency charged with identifying and preserving historic properties – operates within the city’s Office of Historic Preservation and includes the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, among other architectural commissions which oversee historic districts within the City of Boston.)

Longer-term priorities for the vision  include overhauling the  Landmarks Commission and replacing Article 85  of the Boston Zoning Code, which allows for demolition delay, as well as supporting efforts to revise the state legislative language for landmark designation in the City of Boston.

Among the goals that Miller outlined for ‘rethinking’ Article 85 include “incentivizing the optimization of embodied energy and providing for intensification that leaves a smaller carbon footprint”; “incentivizing interventions to mitigate climate change and facilitate energy efficiency actions in underserved communities”; and “preserving the history of Boston that is inclusive with a focus on underserved communities.”

A  Commemoration Commission, which would advise the Mayor and appropriate city agencies on planning events to commemorate historic anniversaries for the City of Boston, would comprise three subcommittees, said Miller, including the Events, Exbibits, and Trails Subcommittee; the Timelines, Archives, and Curricula Subcommittee; and the Legislation and Preservation Tools Subcommittee, which would be charged with the reforms for the Article 85 process, as well as with completing a citywide survey of historic buildings.

Meanwhile, Miller said the city has a decade’s worth of pending landmarks, some dating back to the late 1970s, which don’t have study reports but have been “identified as an extremely urgent priority.” But the city currently has no resources available to clear out this backlog, he said.

In response to a question regarding the fate of the historic first-floor music room at the Eben Jordan Mansion on Beacon Street, Miller said although an interior landmark designation has been pending for the property since 2000 per the Boston Landmarks Commission, it has no legal protection until the interior space has been designated as an official Boston Landmark. In order to finalize such a designation, a survey and report must be developed that justifies the significance of the space. Until then, any review of work happening on a pending landmarks is optional, as well as at the discretion of the property owner, he said.

Upon hearing public feedback, Mark Kiefer, chair of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, said one of his biggest takeaways is that “tension” exists between the interests of environmental stewardship versus those of preservation.

“Beacon Hill is a historic district because of local activism,” said Kiefer as he recounted how the Beacon Hill Civic Association led the successful effort to establish the Historic Beacon Hill  District – the first of its kind in the Commonwealth – in 1955.

And since then, the BHCA has remained  an active advocate for historic preservation in the neighborhood, added Kiefer, with representatives from the group on hand at every one of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission’s monthly hearings to provide well-researched input on applications.

“We couldn’t do this and wouldn’t be here without them,” said Kiefer, who, in another capacity,  previously served as the Civic Association’s board chair.

Since the Historic Beacon Hill District was first established in 1955, it has been expanded three times – in 1958, 1963, and 1975, respectively. Kiefer said a pending bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Livingstone  would expand the boundaries of the Historic Beacon Hill  District again via the addition of an approximately 40-foot-wide swath running from Charles Circle to Bowdoin Street along Cambridge Street currently not included in the district.

Kiefer encouraged anyone with questions about preservation in the Historic Beacon Hill District, including would-be applicants, to reach out to Nicholas Armata, BHAC staff and a senior preservation planner with the Landmarks Commission.

“He’s here to help you, and he’s on your side,” said  Kiefer, adding that Armata, who also offered remarks at the meeting, frequently works with applicants ahead of time to help them craft proposals that will work for all stakeholders.

Rev. Marianna White-Hammond, the  city’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, and Armata also joined in the discussion.

The meeting was the second of many planned throughout the city on its vision for the future of historic preservation. Subsequent meetings, which would be specific to each community,  would cumulatively incorporate feedback heard from the community at this and other subsequent meetings. The dates for upcoming meetings and other information will be announced on the city’s website on this project, said Miller.

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