Old stable meets new condo plan

March 21, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo By John Swan The Boston Landmarks Commission has imposed a temporary ban on demolition of the former stable on Meehan Street in the Stonybrook neighborhood.

STONYBROOK—A century-old former stable built by the founder of Doyle’s Café sits in the path of a proposed three-building condo development on Meehan Street.

The possible historic status of the stable—now used as a house—has become a way for residents concerned about the size of the development to get public process, according to City Councilor John Tobin and others. Resident Beth Charney told the Gazette she is considering filing a petition to have the building named an official Boston landmark.

The city’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) recently amended a deed restriction it holds on part of the property to allow the development. But, according to spokesperson Lucy Warsh, that was “an oversight on the part of DND.”

“DND is now looking into the legality of reversing that deed amendment,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) on March 11 imposed a 90-day ban on demolishing the 14 Meehan St. building so the developers can consider preserving it as part of the development.

“I’m happy to accept an invitation to come back and discuss other alternatives,” said Peter Bourassa, a JP resident and principal in the 14 Meehan Street LLC development company, at the BLC hearing. “We are interested in the neighborhood’s input.”

However, it appears Bourassa surprised the BLC by asking for the 90-day demolition delay instead of temporarily withdrawing his development plans. The BLC can’t force the company to consider preservation, and after the 90 days are up, can’t stop demolition.

“So [Bourassa] wants the clock to start ticking,” BLC commissioner David Berarducci said of the developer’s demolition delay request.
The development proposal targets an oddly-shaped piece of land on the east side of Meehan Street between Williams Street and Rossmore Road. Besides 14 Meehan, it includes two smaller parcels recorded as unnumbered lots on Keyes Street Place—a remnant of a street that used to run parallel to Meehan but no longer officially exists.

The proposal calls for demolishing the 14 Meehan building and erecting three new buildings, each with three condo units. The site would also have nine parking spaces.

Longtime owner John Sakowski Jr. was facing mortgage foreclosure and a tax lien when he sold the three parcels to Bourassa’s company last November, according to county records.

DND sold one of the Keyes Street Place parcels in 2000, splitting it between Sakowski and Maureen Monks, who lives nearby on Rossmore Road, according to Warsh. Monks is also co-chair of the Stonybrook Neighborhood Association (SNA) and attended the BLC hearing to call for delaying the demolition.

It is unclear why the Keyes Street Place parcel was in DND ownership. It was sold through DND’s “Yard Sale” program, which sells off small lots to abutters, usually to expand their yards.

DND retained a deed restriction on that parcel that required it to remain open space with no type of building, with the possible exception of an addition to the 14 Meehan building.

But early this month, DND amended the deed restriction to allow the new owners to build on the parcel, reporting that it “has no objection” to the plans.

DND now believes that amending the deed restriction, which required no public process, was an “oversight” and a “well-intentioned mistake” because the proposed project does not have full neighborhood support, Warsh said.

“We recognize that we should have done further vetting of this proposal by Mr. Bourassa,” she said, adding that DND is examining its internal review policies. She said she does not think it is common for DND to amend deed restrictions on such parcels.

DND now wants to restore the original deed restriction. In any case, DND will participate in other city reviews of the proposal, Warsh said.

“We’re not in any conflict with the neighborhood on this,” she said.

Condo plans

Bourassa told the BLC that the developers originally tried to plan new buildings around the existing 14 Meehan building. But they didn’t fit—at least, not in a way that meets the goal of requiring few or no zoning variances. To preserve the existing building, it would have to be added onto, he said, which would increase its density so much that a zoning variance would be required. It would also be “diluting the appearance of the [older] building,” he said.

The tear-down plan, Bourassa said, allows the developers to do two builds without any variances, and the third by seeking only a variance for housing in an industrial zone.

BLC commissioner John Freeman made a preservation pitch to Bourassa. Freeman acknowledged that keeping the old building in the plans might require more variances. But, he said, the city’s zoning Board of Appeal will often approve such variances if the BLC supports the plans as part of a preservation effort.

Bourassa expressed general interest in the idea, but said he would have to consult his business partners before accepting or declining any project changes.

The developers met once with SNA members in the 14 Meehan building early this month. But, some residents said, they needed more time to look at the plans, especially when they already are concerned with another large condo proposal on Brookley Road.

“We thought that our approach…was the right approach,” Bourassa said at the BLC hearing. “Apparently, the neighbors thought a little differently.”

Because 14 Meehan is more than 50 years old, a BLC demolition delay hearing was automatically required. Residents seized on it as a chance for more input into the project.

Tobin told the Gazette that the developers have been “moving along a little too quickly,” adding that he is pleased the demolition delay allows time to discuss the project.

“The project seemed to be going at breakneck speed,” said David Balerna, co-owner of the nearby Midway Café, at the hearing.

Many residents spoke in support of the delay or a withdrawal of the plans, including Monks. Also in favor of the delay were Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA) and Colleen Keller, the Jamaica Plain coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.

Historic, or just old?

The 14 Meehan building—a three-story brick structure—has a varied history. It produces equally varied responses.

Charney, who lives across the street at 15 Meehan, may seek to have it named an official Boston landmark. If the BLC went ahead with that designation, BLC approval would be required for any demolition or exterior changes.

“I have certainly always thought it was worthy of landmark designation,” Charney told the Gazette, adding that she has admired the building for years. She said that if she wins the lottery, she dreams of moving into 14 Meehan and tearing down her own house instead.

Tobin, on the other hand, said he’s just happy the building is old enough to trigger the demo delay hearing.

“There’s a difference between old and historic,” he said, suggesting he believes that 14 Meehan is more the former.

The building was erected around 1896-1905 by Patrick Doyle, founder of the famous Doyle’s Café at the corner of Williams and Washington streets, according to the BLC. Its first two floors originally served as a stable, presumably intended for Doyle’s.

Two-story stables—a sort of pre-automobile version of a multi-level parking garage—were once “commonplace,” Northeastern University history professor Clay McShane told the Gazette in an e-mail. McShane is an expert in the history of horse travel in American cities.

He said horses were usually housed on the second floor and carriages and wagons on the first floor. “If the reverse arrangement were used, ammonia fumes from equine urine would blister the paint on the vehicles,” he said.

Surviving stables are relatively unusual, McShane said. “There are not many left, although I’ve seen a few on Mount Vernon Street [on Beacon Hill] that have been converted into exceedingly expensive human habitations. Upper Newbury Street [in Back Bay] once held a large concentration of stables, now converted into boutiques or coffee shops.”

The Meehan Street stable underwent similar changes, first to a variety of industrial and commercial uses, reportedly including an auto body shop. Most recently, it was turned into a residence.

Stables were once common in the immediate area. There was controversy in the 1980s about the Minton Stables off Williams Street, which were eventually demolished. Community gardens occupy the site today.

Gerry Burke, a former co-owner of Doyle’s and a local history expert, said he knows little about 14 Meehan—except that it was the scene of a freak accident about 35 years ago that killed the son of Bill Doyle, the last Doyle family owner of the pub.

“His son was going up through a trap door [in 14 Meehan],” Burke said. “The wind blew it down, broke his neck.”

Doyle sold the building in the 1970s, Burke recalled.

The building witnessed a significant piece of JP history—the burial of the Stony Brook that once flowed openly along Meehan Street. The street is named for Patrick Meehan, a major JP property owner and developer of the era, who was a proponent of burying the sluggish, polluted stream. Originally, Meehan Street was separated from the 14 Meehan property by the stream. Keyes Street Place ran parallel to Meehan Street on the other side of the stream. (Today’s McBride Street and Rossmore Road were originally called Keyes Street.)

BLC Executive Director Ellen Lipsey said 14 Meehan “appears to be in excellent condition” and has “an unusual location and orientation to the street.”

“It does seem like an interesting building that’s worth more consideration,” the BPA’s Kelly told the Gazette.

“It is a unique building type,” she said, adding that it “appears to be fairly adaptable” to various kinds of use.

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