Letter to the Editor: 701 Centre St. Project Proves Organized Design Review Process is Needed

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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 Jamaica Plain Centre/South Main Street's 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 permitting processes and architectural design review in our neighborhood.

As volunteers to the former JPCSMS 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 versus "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 JPCSMS 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 a more comprehensive design review process including adequate community input and participation, projects not meeting the threshold of "small project" design review (<20,000 sf.), 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 St./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 JPCSMS, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Corporation (JPNC), Jamaica Pond Association (JPA), Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association (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, in 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 St./Chase Bank -- the property is in a design overlay district. This means that 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 or full details of 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 responses.

If errors indeed were made in the permitting process, it may not be too late for design review to happen. The building department should acknowledge its oversight and initiate a review, and at the earliest time. The BPDA additionally may have authority to 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, and given the historical significance of the building, the Boston Landmarks Commission should review 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. 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.

Many questions remain. What responsibilities (or rights) does the building owner have in a situation such as this? Did the applicant knowingly omit any description or details of proposed exterior alterations on their application? Why was the application not flagged for design review at ISD? 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? What obligation should the city have to find a suitable solution? How will those who have followed process now or in the past react? How does poor design and use of the most inexpensive materials affect property values in our 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

Michael Epp, FAIA, LEED AP

Gert D. Thorn, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Editor's note: The BPDA told Jamaica Plain News that the project did not meet the requirements stated in Article 80, Section E-2 for a BPDA Design Review of the project.