The Zoning Board of Appeal today rejected a proposed new roof deck as part of an overall rehab of a Beacon Street frat house after a neighbor worried about noise and the neighborhood association groused about the dangerous precedent the deck could set.
The board rejected the deck - and other changes proposed for the interior - without prejudice, which means the Delta Tau Delta house at 416 Beacon St. can come back with new plans after consulting with residents to figure out how to ensure the deck doesn't get crammed with partying frat boys after dark, even with rules that limit its use to just four "brothers" after dark and with the gas for a proposed deck grill shut off at 9 p.m.
The fraternity already has a roof deck atop the Beacon Street side of the four-story building; the frat was seeking to ditch that and build a new one atop a rear garage, which would make it handicap accessible after the frat also installs a planned elevator. Because the deck would be a new addition to the exterior of the building, the fraternity needed a zoning variance because the whole frat is now a "nonconforming use" under the area's current zoning .
Delta Tau Delta officials told the board they decided to embark on an expensive renovation of the building after discovering a large crack on one wall and figured it would be a good time to renovate the building to make it compliant with federal disability laws and more energy efficient. With the renovations, the frat could house 39 members.
Delta alumni who control the building, known as the Beta Nu chapter, and their architect, Edrick Van Beuzekom of Somerville, tried to convince the board that, in addition to making the fraternity ADA compliant, the work would benefit nearby residents by moving the deck from the front of the building to the rear, which faces Back Street and the Charles River. This would be done in addition to other neighborhood-friendly action: Moving the current "social room" to the basement, installing sound-deadening insulation and re-pointing a wall next to one neighboring building.
MIT said it would also ensure compliance with new rules to keep the brothers as quiet as possible after dark, including limiting them to no more than four people at a time after dark on the deck - which would have a legal capacity of 49 for those daytime barbecues and other events.
But a resident of that neighboring building, Jason Post, wasn't buying it. While allowing that "all the fraternity members are all pretty nice," he said he or his wife still have to call them once a month or so to ask them to turn the music down. He showed the board photos of a hot tub the brothers once installed in front of the frat and said that despite the four-person after-dark deck limit, he worries about deck parties running until 1 a.m., especially since the deck would be even with his living room.
Elliott Laffer and Susan Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay voiced their group's opposition to any proposal for a new deck, even a handicap-accessible one, for the precedent it would set.
"The brothers generally have been very good neighbors from what I've heard, and they're good people," Laffer allowed. And a deck sounds very nice, "but there are thousands of us who live in the Back Bay who don't have decks," he said, counting himself among them. He said none of the other fraternities in the Back Bay have roof decks, so being deckless hardly seems a detriment to frat life across the river from MIT.
Prindle, co-chair of the NABB architecture committee, got more specific about the zoning implications of allowing a deck: There are 50 "grandfathered" educational buildings in the Back Bay and all of them would follow the board's decision "with interest" because if the board allowed a deck, they'd be tempted to seek their own variances for who knows what. "It's really the camel's nose under the tent and something that will come back to bite us later," she said.
She pointed specifically to the New England School of Optometry, which is a neighbor of the fraternity, as an example of one of those buildings.
In fact, Howard Purcell, president of that school, spoke to support the deck, saying the fraternity has always been a good neighbor.
He was seconded by Janet Bobit, who lives in the same building as Post and who said she has never had a problem with the fraternity in the nearly 35 years she has lived there. She said she has always found frat members to be "very amenable to resolving any issues."
Douglas Reeves, who lives at 100 Beacon St., also supported the proposal, both because it preserved the "architectural integrity" of the building and because it would not only help any disabled people who live or visit there, but would set a good example for other building owners in the area.
Patricia Mendez of the city's Commission for Persons with Disabilities applauded the fraternities ADA efforts. The mayor's office also supported the proposal.
Before voting, board members raised questions about security - a frat official said a third-party security firm now checks IDs at the door during events. Chairwoman Christine Araujo wondered if the fraternity could make a "good faith" effort by dropping the deck from its overall proposal, finish that work, then, after consulting with neighbors again and proving they would continue to be good neighbors, come before the board a second time with a modified deck proposal.
But the fraternity requested a vote today, which it then lost, which means they will have to come before the board again if they want to proceed with all the proposed changes.