Newbury Street landlords who want to put in restaurants have to find restaurant operators first, board decides

A landlord's effort to win city approval for a restaurant at his Newbury Street building before he even knows who would rent the space fell as flat as a souffle behind an oven door that's just been slammed.

Chris Talanian, whose family has owned property on the shopping street since the 1930s, told the Board of Appeals today that he was seeking pre-approval of a restaurant so he could save a couple months of valuable time for any prospective tenant of 1,000 square feet of ground-floor space at 167 Newbury St.

Talanian told the Board of Appeals he's troubled by the growing commercial vacancy rate on Newbury and said he is trying to gain a restaurant client because restaurants traditionally help spur commercial districts. He said only about 10% of Newbury St. is rented out to restaurants, compared to 20% on Boylston Street.

But city officials, direct neighbors and the neighborhood association blasted the idea, saying they can't support approving a restaurant when they have no idea who would go in the space or what potential impact it would have on the neighborhood, in particular on Commonwealth Avenue condos that face the rear of the building across an alley.

Vicki Smith, president of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, raised the specter of Harvard Square in insisting neighbors be involved in discussions of specific restaurant proposals.

She said Newbury Street "is our backyard," that residents have as much of an interest in keeping it vibrant as Talanian and that the group would gladly arrange meetings to help speed up any approval process for a specific restaurant.

Talanian's proposal "undermines a large element of the zoning process by basically giving a blank check to whoever takes over the lease," Joseph Gertner, a Comm. Ave. resident, said.

The mayor's office and the office of City Councilor Josh Zakim joined in the opposition.

Under questioning from board Chairwoman Christine Araujo, Talanian acknowledged he had no idea how many seats a proposed restaurant would have, saying he's a landlord, not a restaurant operator.

Talanian responded to residents saying that any restaurant would still have to go before local residents for any architectural changes, or to offer takeout; that he was just trying to save a prospective tenant the two or three months it would take to schedule a required hearing before the board.

The board rejected Talanian's request without prejudice, which means he can come back for the required approval when he has a specific tenant - and after meeting with residents.

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