8 units planned to replace historic house

By Kate Sosin/Special to the Gazette

FOREST HILLS—The house occupies the biggest lot on the on the block, and residents say it is part of a patchwork of the neighborhood’s history.

But the 115-year-old Victorian at 57 Wachusett St. is facing demolition in a plan to replace it with eight townhomes in three new buildings. Residents hashed out their objections—including history, density and affordability—with the property’s new owner, Stephen Ballas, at a community hearing March 5 at Curtis Hall.

The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) considered the demo request at a March 11 City Hall hearing. It decided to impose a 90-day delay on demolishing the house and advised Ballas to work with the community on reaching some consensus. Jullianne Doherty, the Jamaica Plain coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, submitted a letter recommending the 90-day delay based on community response.

Ballas, who made a 2012 appearance on the real estate themed TV reality show “Flipping Boston,” purchased the property last November. Suffolk County land records show that Ballas paid $1.6 million and took out a $3.3 million mortgage on the property.

Ballas proposes demolishing the home as well as a detached carriage house. Several of the 13 residents in attendance argued that plan threatens the neighborhood’s character and property values.

The hearing was a requirement of the BLC, under Article 85 of the Boston Zoning Code, which mandates that buildings 50 years or older undergo a review process before demolition to consider preservation-oriented alternatives. That review includes a community meeting on the history of the building in question.

Ballas reported that BLC found the home met its criteria for review in two categories. The home could be considered to be historically and/or architecturally significant and its loss could have a negative impact on the historical integrity of neighborhood.

According to project architect Marija Ilic of Peter Quinn Architects, the home dates back to 1899 and has undergone a handful of revisions. It occupies both the largest and least-developed lot on the block, and would require significant improvements to bring it up to code.

“The house is not in a great condition,” said Ilic. “It’s not to say that it couldn’t be restored and preserved at some point.”

Ilic said that while the house had been assessed as a four-family home, it would likely only be able to accommodate two families. Both the basement and top floor fall short of code requirements to make them single-family dwellings, she said.

Ballas added that the house lacked modern amenities and concluded that it was “functionally obsolete.”

Ballas proposes subdividing the roughly half-acre property into three lots and replacing the existing buildings with eight units. The plan includes off-street parking for all the units, usable open space and landscaping, he said. The townhomes would be two-and-a-half stories with garages partially inlaid into the slope of the lot. The plan does not require zoning variances, according to Ballas.

The BLC process requires Ballas to present an alternative plan to demolition. That plan involves splitting the home into two townhomes and building seven other units. That proposal would require zoning variances, according to Doherty.

Ballas has said he is committed to maintaining the aesthetic of the neighborhood. But neighbors, largely dismayed by the project, grilled Ballas on the home’s historical significance, whether his new units would include affordable housing, and the impact the new structures would have on surrounding homes.

“You’re going to shake hands with me at my kitchen sink,” said Alice Bray, who has lived next door to the house since 1978. Bray worries that the new units would block natural light coming into her home.

Pressed by residents, Ballas estimated that construction could take six to eight months, but said it was difficult predict timelines before the project is approved.

Ballas declined to offer specifics on the proposed projects, telling residents that the purpose of the meeting was the review the history of the home.

Judy Kelly has occupied the home’s second floor for the past 32 years. Now, she said, she faces eviction.

According to Kelly, the home not historically significant on its own.

“The defense against demolition is that it is a building that maintains the historical nature and culture of the neighborhood and that to destroy it would significantly alter the culture of the neighborhood,” Kelly said.

But many residents said it was hard to know if they supported demolition without knowing more about what might replace it.

“The reality is, if this guy doesn’t develop it, someone else it going to develop the land,” said one resident.

Gazette reporter Rebeca Oliveira is an abutter of the property and attended the meeting as a private citizen.

Updated: This story has been updated to include information on the BLC’s decision, which staff originally refused to release.

Developer Stephen Ballas explains his plans to residents at the March 5 meeting. (Photo by Kate Sosin)

Developer Stephen Ballas explains his plans to residents at the March 5 meeting. (Photo by Kate Sosin)



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