Historic demolition process reviewed

July 5, 2013
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After a historic house in Jamaica Plain recently was partially demolished without Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) review, the City regulation controlling such acts has been thrust into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA) is in discussions with the City about the possibility about strengthening the regulation, as other cities have done.

Article 85 of the zoning code requires an automatic delay of 90 days in issuing a demolition permit for a building more than 50 years of age while BLC reviews possible historic preservation.

But the partial demolition at 6 Peter Parley Road, which is the former home of the pioneer physician Dr. Marie Zakrzewska and is more than a 100 years old, did not fall under BLC review because the structure was not being completely demolished. The house is being renovated into a three-condo building, though most of original structure is gone.

Greg Galer, executive director of BPA, said the organization is talking with BLC and the City’s Inspectional Service Department (ISD), which issues demolition permits, about possibly “tightening up” the language of Article 85.

“One man’s renovation can be another man’s demolition,” said Galer.

BLC Exectutive Director Ellen Lipsey confirmed that those discussions are underway.

Lipsey said that Article 85 came about in the early 1990s to address demolition of buildings more than 50 years of age. Before then, she said, review was limited to historic districts and previously landmarked buildings.

Lipsey said community members and neighborhoods were concerned at the time that there was “no warning” for demolition. She said there had been a lot of as-of-right demolition taking place during that time.

Article 85 went into effect on March 6, 1995. A community meeting requirement was added several years ago. These were two steps already taken to strengthen the demolition review process.

Galer said that the 6 Peter Parley Road case could be “a learning opportunity to enhance the process.” He said he has known other projects where a developer will leave one wall up in an attempt to skirt the demolition review, though he is not saying that is the case with the JP house.

He noted that some other cities and towns have regulations that a percentage of square feet being demolished will trigger a historic review. Galer also said some other cities and towns have longer delays, up to a year or even 18 months.

“I think it would be much better if it was longer,” said Galer, remarking that 90 days is not enough time to explore alternatives to demolition.

In another strange twist with Article 85, Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) last month held a demo review meeting on a historic building it plans to tear down before the proposal has even been approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority

When asked about that, Galer responded, “That doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense” and said that he would like to see an examination of that as well.

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