Let me start by saying I’m not a lawyer, an architect, or a builder.
I live in Upper Falls and one of the many things that delight me about our neighborhood is the largely 19th century layout of the neighborhood and its houses. Much of the credit for Upper Falls still looking like Upper Falls and its history not being demolished goes to the Upper Falls Historic Commission. Any significant changes to the exterior of houses anywhere within the Historic District have to be approved by the 7 member volunteers of the Upper Falls Historic Commission.
In practice this means that at a minimum, most major renovation projects have some additional steps that introduce additional time and expense. Worse case, the commission approval process can involve substantial delays and major additional expense, or nix a project all together.
Despite the fact that the whole process rests on the largely subjective judgements of a small number of volunteers the process largely works and the neighborhood is the better for it.
At the moment though I’m looking out my window at the photo above. The house across the street has looked pretty much like that for the 11 years we’ve been living in Newton. For the last couple of years after its owner died, the house has been uninhabited. The property has been on the market for a while, potential buyers stop by regularly to have a look, and the price has been coming down.
While I don’t look forward to an endless construction project I do look forward to one day having a beautiful house that fits right in to the neighborhood. What worries me though is that nearly every project like this in Upper Falls since I moved here turns into years long fiascos.
This empty shell of a house a few blocks was not allowed to be demolished and rebuilt. Instead it was gutted, sat empty for a year. Work began again a few weeks ago and while they attempted to replace the sill, the house toppled over.
The shell of this house, a block away in the other direction, sat in this condition for months and months and months while construction was halted.
All three of these house attempted to get demolition permits and were denied by the Upper Falls Historic Commission. The result was that all three of these projects became much bigger, took way longer, and no doubt cost far more than demolishing the house and rebuilding a historically appropriate replacement.
What’s important to note is that when these projects are completed virtually every thing you see, the entire exterior of the house, have been replaced. The only physical thing that has been preserved is the interior framing of the house.
In general, the Commission sees to it that the new replaced exterior is either a replica of, or fits nicely in with what it replaced.
There are two problems with the Commission’s approach to these kind of projects.
- By insisting that the original frame of the house be preserved. Each of these projects become much more complicated, much more expensive, takes far longer, and there are more wild cards for whoever is doing the work. The Commission can and should determine what the new house looks like but there is no public benefit in preserving the 200 year old internal frame and replacing everything else.
- The second problem is it appears to me (a non-lawyer) that they don’t have the legal authority to put that requirement on the property owner. Section 22-40 of the city ordinances gives the Historic Commissions their legal authorities. 22-40-g-3 reads “A commission shall not consider interior arrangements or architectural features not subject to public view.”
The Commission has the authority to approve any plans, specify the footprint, the massing, the architectural details and myriad other details that they already weigh in on. If the property owner decides it’s simpler/faster/cheaper to build that house from the ground up, rather than build that house around a 200 year old, possibly rotting frame, then the commission shouldn’t be standing in the way … and this non-lawyer doesn’t believe they have the legal authority do so