Sumner Hill design review suggested

July 11, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

If residents agree, Sumner Hill could be protected by a design review process intended to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character. The Sumner Hill Association (SHA) will hold a community meeting this fall to see if residents want the protected status, and how strong the protections should be if they do.

At a minimum, the Architectural Conservation District (ACD) status would require official permission for new construction, demolition and other major changes to historic buildings. ACDs usually also get into smaller details such as doors and windows, though that language can range from active review to mere recommendations.

“We don’t want the type of stringent designation that would keep you from painting your house a certain color or something,” said SHA president Janet Levitan.

“We’re not really looking at a lot of restrictions,” said SHA vice president Carlos Icaza. “What we’re looking to avoid is ugly [buildings] going into a historic neighborhood. Basically, what we’re looking for in a conservation district is some design review.”

A burst of controversial new development on Green Street, just outside the Sumner Hill border, was one of the reasons the long-dormant SHA revived about four years ago. Levitan and Icaza both cited concerns about new development—including a rumor that a demolition/renovation project is planned in Sumner Hill—as one motivation for the ACD idea.

But SHA secretary Diane Pienta sees it differently. “I think it’s just being proactive,” she said. “I think a lot of times, you see someone responding from something negative. It’s a proactive, positive conversation to have.”

The SHA has explored the idea before, going as far as meeting with a city official about it a couple of years ago.

Sumner Hill is already on the National Register of Historic Places
for its wealth of Victorian architecture, with dozens of buildings dating from the 1850s to the early 1900s. The neighborhood is bordered by Centre/South streets, Seaverns Avenue, the Southwest Corridor and Carolina Avenue.

The neighborhood and the hill its sits on are named for Gen. William Sumner (1780-1861), a real estate developer whose company essentially created East Boston. The Sumner Tunnel downtown is also named for him. His 1852 house still stands at 10 Roanoke Ave.

National Register listing is mostly honorary. It puts virtually no restrictions on demolishing historic buildings or erecting new ones.

An ACD would give that protection. Projects would be reviewed by a commission of local residents and members of the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC). An ACD can be proposed by anyone, but it can only be granted by a vote of the BLC at a public hearing.

There are four ACDs in the city: Aberdeen in Allston/Brighton; Back Bay West/Bay State Road and St. Botolph in the Back Bay; and Mission Hill Triangle in Mission Hill.

All of them were created after an extensive public process, including historic research and dozens of neighborhood meetings.

While ACDs automatically include review of major changes, they leave it up to the community to decide the “degree of protection” on smaller details.

All four existing ACDs include review of smaller details, though they sometimes vary by neighborhood. For example, both Back Bay ACDs review the choice of paint colors; the Allston/Brighton and Mission Hill ACDs do not. In some cases, minor changes can get an exemption from review, even if they’re technically covered.

ACD status can help leverage beautification efforts. In the Aberdeen ACD, new streetlights must have a historic design. The SHA has long sought Victorian-style streetlights for Sumner Hill. About 15 years ago, the city agreed to install them and dug pits for the poles, but never followed through. Now the sidewalks on such streets as Greenough Avenue and Elm Street are dotted with the square pits, each filled with concrete or asphalt that has either sunken or buckled over the years.

Sumner Hill appears to meet the BLC’s basic criteria for ACD designation, which include National Register listing.

Pienta said the SHA’s community meeting this fall will include a BLC official who will explain what an ACD is. She said the goal will be to see if the community wants an ACD and, “if they do want it, what level do they want it at?”

“At the most basic level, it’s a beautiful neighborhood,” Pienta said. “Do we want to put some parameters on it?”