Hearing Scheduled for First Architectural Conservation District in Charlestown

A hearing has been set to start the wheels in motion for creating the Town’s first Architectural Conservation District – an historic preservation tool used in several historic areas of the city, but one that despite the history in Charlestown, has not been utilized to date.

It is a small start, as the District would only encompass two homes – 30 Union and 8 Lawrence – but the purpose for neighbors and the Charlestown Preservation Society (CPS) would be to establish this first district to avoid the demolition of 8 Lawrence St. That modest start, perhaps, could eventually expand to slow the incoming tide of developers that have taken down older homes in the Town to build more modern structures on valuable land.

For right now, though, the focus is preserving two properties.

“The significance of this area and really these houses is important to Charlestown because this is the area first built up after the burning of Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill,” said Amanda Zettel, president of the CPS. “It’s doubly significant because that area was a big target of Urban Renewal and so the early buildings were mostly removed. We’ve lost so many in that area and these are the last few and we need to save them. In Charlestown, we all get really excited about the large projects, but when you drill down to the lowest level, it’s the individual properties that affect the public realm incrementally. You look up and all the sudden the neighborhood has changed.”

The hearing will be on Aug. 10 before the Boston Landmarks Commission, and will only be the first step in a long process. That first step will mean potentially commissioning a study to look at the historical and preservation significance of the district. That study would follow a rather contentious demolition delay process between several neighbors and a developer that wishes to tear down the home and build a new building there at 8 Lawrence St.

Districts are designated by federal law, and come in a variety of flavors. Landmarks Districts, such as are on Beacon Hill or the South End, are districts that are significant nationally, while conservation districts are significant only state-wide, city-wide or for the neighborhood.

Zettel said such districts have made people nervous in the past, and the purpose here is not to dictate property rights or severely restrict what people can do with their homes.

“This is us being reactive to development in the area,” she said. “When neighbors there were faced with demolition of 8 Lawrence, they turned out and wanted to find a way to stop it. This is the only way we know how to preserve that home…Things like this have been pretty tricky in the past. People are concerned about property rights and how it will affect their property. In Charlestown, we already have an overlay district that tells us how tall we can go and how much we can change our roofline or our doors and windows.

“The only thing this changes is it allows the Boston Landmarks Commission to deny demolition of historic buildings,” she continued. “For the first time, they can say ‘no’ to demolishing a building in this district because it is historic. That’s the only change we’re interested in. No one here is interested in dictating the color of someone’s door or windows.”

If a district were determined to be fitting for the area, the boundaries cannot be expanded. They can be shrunk, but not expanded, so this district couldn’t grow in the future. However, if the Town and City were to establish a larger conservation district in the contiguous area in the future, that would be able to absorb this potential district.

Once the study is completed, there would be further hearings on the establishment of the district.

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