Keep the Trees in Mind

Dear Mr Baron, chair JPNC Zoning Committee:

I want to share with you some of my “takeaway” from the JPNC Zoning Committee meeting last held at Farnsworth House, especially as pertains to the proposal for 13-15 Catherine Street. While I’ve lived in JP , in the Woodbourne area, for a good number of years this hearing was a first-time event of this sort for me, and quite an eye-opener. To see the efforts on the part of so many, for the welfare of our community was impressive, and I very much appreciate the work done by your committee, and its commitment.

I’m aware also, that in your role as discussion facilitator you and committee need to adhere to a number of rules or guidelines which restrict the kind of discussion deemed appropriate or relevant. I also formed the impression that when a building proposal such as this is brought forward for consideration, the burden lies largely with the town or city to show why said proposal may not be approved, even when it comes asking for a list of “variances” from what building codes do allow. It would seem that while the “building boom” in Boston is “hot”, it signals builders to “get in there while the getting is good” and ride the momentum to overcome whatever “obstacles” a neighborhood might present. That would explain, I believe, why it is that the builder in this case has come back repeatedly with variations of the same design, refusing to make any real concessions, as if there’s no need for them to listen.

I believe your committee acted correctly in giving a “thumbs down” to this proposal, and I take heart in the fact that the vote was unanimous even in this “building climate.” I was left nevertheless with feelings of unease, which led to my writing this letter. This concern — which you may even feel as “audacity” on my part — is on behalf of what I would consider a whole ‘nother constituency, one hardly represented at all the other night, and only then in terms of what it’s “loss” would amount to, its “impact”, in terms of practical differences, economically, in ways we could measure. I would recognize this constituency as having legitimate and long-standing importance in our community, in spite of its being seen as a “nuisance” factor by mansion-builders perhaps, and very often overlooked by us. That this constituency is “unknown” or not well heard from, I would submit, has mainly to do with limitations on the part of those who’ve lost their ability to hear well, and to see wisely — though I think we all had that ability, as humans, when we were younger.

Of course I’m alluding to those venerable inhabitants who’ve lived here by far the longest, namely our arboreal dwellers, just doing their “tree thing” — some, on the property in question, or right next to it, for the last century and a half and more. Well, I cannot say, Mr. Chairman, whether you yourself have ever in any way felt impacted by, or touched, or even “spoken to” by a Tree but you may be assured that trees have spoken and do “speak to me” — and I daresay — I was by no means the only person in that room who would admit to having significant arboreal rapport with many of our local stalwarts. But of course who would want to be laughed at, or considered “too sentimental”? I will tell you it was my concern for trees which led me to attend the meeting. You could even call it love.

So, in regard specifically to those individual trees who reside at the Catherine Street address or adjacent, those mature ones I mean, one whose branches tower over everything, how would we assess their value, or the “impact” of their loss? Perhaps you’ve heard figures cited in terms of tree canopy worth, what that contributes to our air quality, our benefits in water filtration, even our mental health and well being, not to mention aesthetic value. Well, I learned that when Arboretum Director Ned Friedman was asked recently by the Mayor’s Office to quantify the economic value of trees, he refused. I say that’s much to his credit and it makes him considerably more than just a “tree expert.”

Could you even imagine a tree having the “inalienable right” to exist, or would you be more of the mind-set of those early Bostonians — not those who were already here — but those who sailed here to the “promised land” who considered all Nature to have been planted here solely for them, just waiting for them to use or to be destroyed and to own as they chose? I offer this all to you as food for thought, as part of the greater discussion which I believe is called for, and which concerns all of us at this time, since actually we are all part of nature. And because I believe it is not only narrow, but arrogant of us to value only those things we can measure, or assign a dollar value to — as in “property value” or “what is that guy worth?” “What is the value of our community?” I wonder. Can we not have our “market economy” without losing sight of everything else?

I learned also that the particular Sugar Maple residing on Catherine Street was tapped by the children living next to it for its sap, which they boiled into syrup. Having myself tapped a few maple trees as a youth, I’m quite certain that for those kids a bottle of store-bought maple syrup will never compare to what they got out of their bottling experience thanks to that tree, and if that tree is cared for, it will continue doing its thing, and may provide future urban children the opportunity to taste the sweetness of nature.

I understand other cities in fact have put in place legislation meant to protect our living tree canopy, and I would support this. But my real aim here is to raise awareness. And whether or not I’ve succeeded in getting your attention, or of those whose votes will influence the changes to come in our community, I would not be at peace with myself without giving voice to these thoughts and feelings. I’m letting you know that trees do speak to me, and therefore, at least indirectly, they are speaking to you as well.

Robert Bussewitz

On O’Malley’s Endorsement

Dear Editor:

The progressive values of Representative Kennedy are absolutely important but how do the commitments that Councilman O’Malley identified compare to those of US Senator Markey?  A one-sided picture does not allow for an informed analysis, a view that one would hope Councilman O’Malley understands. Is the implication in the editorial (October 11, 2019) that Senator Markey does not advocate for progressive causes, e.g., a cleaner environment, women’s right to choose, economic justice, and humane treatment of migrants and their children? Councilman O’Malley states that “we all know the GOP-controlled US Senate is where climate legislation goes to die.” Is Senator Markey now running for re-election as a Republican?   

Thomas L. Geraty

Regarding the Redesign at 701 Centre St.

Dear Editor:

This is an open letter to the community-at-large. Certain contents/ earlier versions of this letter have been distributed to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), Centre South Main Streets (CSMS), Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association (JPBAPA), Jamaica Pond Association (JPA), elected officials and others.

We are licensed architects practicing for over 30 years each, long-standing members of the Jamaica Plain community, and were Chairpersons or members of the former CSMS Design Committee. We are writing to express our disappointment, dismay and disbelief over the recent storefront alterations at 701 Centre Street (former Bukhara, now to be Chase Bank) and to raise concerns over what we perceive to be a breakdown in communication between the city and the community as it relates to permitting and architectural design review in our neighborhood.

As volunteers to the former CSMS Design Committee, we were privileged to lead and work with a team of enthusiastic community volunteers who cared about design, were curious about understanding what makes ‘good’ design vs. ‘bad’, and were always looking for ways to translate that to the district streetscape. Our Design Committee always sought to work in close coordination with the city, other community groups and the BPDA to encourage not only adherence to Main Streets design guidelines, but to design guidelines embedded in the City of Boston Zoning Code (many of which are the same, or are generally just good practice). Typically, projects requiring design review under zoning that occurred in the district would be referred to our Committee for review, and we would be asked to review any project seeking Main Streets funding in the district. However, even when it was still in existence, the CSMS Design committee had limited authority and scope to its review and recommendations. In general, our experience is and has been that community design review in JP may oftentimes be incomplete, disjointed, ‘ad-hoc’ or without any real authority.

Whereas projects requiring ‘large’ or ‘small’ project review under the City of Boston Zoning Ordinance Article 80 may be subject to more a comprehensive design review process including adequate community input and participation, projects not meeting the threshold of ‘small project’ design review (<20,000sf), or small projects not within a zoning ‘design overlay’ district are left unaddressed, or may be reviewed ‘internally’ by the BPDA only. Some may be referred to the community or presented as a ‘courtesy’, with no rigorous design review, consequence or follow up. Others may not be reviewed or referred at all, as appears to be the case with 701 Centre Street/ Chase Bank.

The result of this is that we are seeing projects permitted, under construction or with zoning approvals that have seemingly ‘slipped through the cracks’ or were able to receive approvals without design review by the BPDA or the community. This pattern is likely to continue considering future pressures to develop or redevelop properties in the JP business district, and given the lack of any current organized design review in the neighborhood.

For some time, we have been having conversations amongst ourselves, with CSMS, JPNC, JPA, JPBAPA members and others to see what might be done going forward to help guide good decision-making and to preserve and elevate the physical character of the public realm on Centre Street and in general the built environment throughout JP. Beyond simply strengthening and better coordinating the efforts of existing committees or neighborhood groups, some have suggested creation of a new community architectural design review board, or alternately, making design review more of an integral component of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council/ JPNC Zoning Committee.

Any solution should be tethered to city processes and authorities having actual jurisdiction, such that community design review in JP may be more codified and given legitimate authority. In the future, the community might explore with the city the possibility of establishment of an ‘architectural commission’, given real authority by law, and integrated with city agencies (similar to the Back Bay or Beacon Hill Architectural Commissions). We believe that this is now an urgent need and would welcome to hear from those out there with an interest in advocating for and participating in such a forum. We have included our emails below.

In the meantime, and as for 701 Centre Street/ Chase Bank – the property is in a design overlay district. Consequently, and as we understand it, design review (by the BPDA) is required before permitting, notwithstanding the (small) size of the project. As far as we know, the BPDA did not review the project, and therefore it was never referred back to the community, so Main Streets or other community groups did not have an opportunity to see the proposal. Moreover, we understand the project may also be subject to historic review by the Boston Landmarks Commission, even if the building is not formally registered.

So how did this happen? Either (1) the application for permit submitted to the city’s Inspectional Services Department was incomplete (the building department was unaware of any proposed exterior alterations), (2) the building department failed to ‘flag’ the project for zoning/ design review, or (3) the project was cited, but the BPDA never conducted a review. Any combination of the above is possible as well – we have asked for further clarification on this from city agencies and are awaiting a response.

If errors indeed were made in the permitting process, it may not be too late for design review to happen. At the very least the BPDA should reach back to the building department to make provisions for design review. This review should be conducted as a prerequisite to close-out of the permit (occupancy). The community should be invited to participate in the process. If Boston Landmarks has jurisdiction, an historic review must happen as well. Now that there are ‘facts on the ground’ some may say what can reasonably be done? The historic storefront of a signature building in a vibrant retail neighborhood business district has been irreversibly altered and removed in its entirety, apparently without full proper permitting or design review, and without neighborhood input.

 Is it enough to ask the applicant to offer funding to youth programs or for other small community donations (something that they may be expected to do anyway) in recompense? Fortunately, in this instance, the abutting business owner has painstakingly and lovingly restored their original storefront so we do not have to rely only on photographs to reconstruct what was once there.

Other questions remain. What responsibilities (or rights) does the building owner have in a situation such as this? Were   there any description or drawings of exterior alterations on their application? Why was the application not ‘flagged’ for design review at ISD? How will those who have followed process now or in the past react? What will the cumulative effect be of poor design and use of the most inexpensive materials on property values in the neighborhood? If the BPDA is to refer a project back to the community for design review in the future, to what group might it be referred?

With any remedy, the community (and the city) must ask itself what precedent it will want to set and the community should be clear on future expectations of city agencies having jurisdiction. Putting in place a clear process for future design review in JP should be central to this discussion.

Edward P. Forte AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

[email protected]

Michael Epp, FAIA, LEED AP

[email protected]

Gert D. Thorn, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

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