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MIT frat in the Back Bay loses bid for new deck - and handicap accessibility - for now

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.

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Comments

Only yuppies can have roof decks?

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The Nasty Assholes Bullies and Bitches would complain about accessibility being a dangerous precedent.

Same group of whiny boomer jackasses (formerly known as Yuppies) who complained that "student residences devalue condo property" while ignoring that the student residences had by and large been there for most of a century by 1980.

The other neighbor sounded pretty reasonable about the situation, and named specific issues.

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Having the honor of being one of your nasty, asshole, bullying boomer bitches, I sat in some of the meetings with the frat representatives, trying to figure out how this deck might work without torturing the family next door. There's a toddler's bedroom with a window right next to the deck, and the parents are already dealing with frat noise on a regular basis. Their need for peace and quiet at night was a major concern of ours because, as you say, we're assholes. And, of course, there are other ways to make the building accessible; this plan was merely the quick, cheap, lazy way. We bullying bitches are all about accessibility and finding the best solutions, and this wasn't one of them.

NABB has accomplished a great deal over the past 65 years. When the organization was formed in 1955, Back Bay was in a decades-long downward spiral. NABB made it an enviable place to live and still has to work hard to keep it that way. They wouldn't have succeeded so well if they were anything like the way you've characterized them.

You sound awfully cranky, by the way. Why is that? Being an asshole bitch, I can't help worrying if you are okay. Your comments are usually more reasonable and not so . . . Trumpian tweet-ish. I hope all is well with you, and that you have all the wild frat and dorm parties and brouhaha you so clearly desire in your own neighborhood. Merry Christmas!

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You're not going to take any kind of swipe at people who elected to house a toddler next door to a fraternity house?

And since when is Back Bay enviable? There's no place to park and it's grossly overpriced. I can't wait to live comfortably when I'm old because I didn't overspend on shelter that I don't own in my 30's.

And even if Back Bay is "enviable", you credit that to your organization? It's got nothing to do with jobs, sports, hobbies, arts, and good people?

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I take it your definition of "overpriced" is, approximately, "the market values it more highly that I personally do."

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It's an incredibly broad definition in 2019 northeastern United States.

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I think residential use of the properties in this neighborhood came before fraternity use.

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It’s hilarious to me how every single neighborhood association in America happily takes credit for the gentrification of their own neighborhood. As if preventing roof decks and insufficiently historic looking facades and light posts were somehow key to the prosperity of the neighborhood and not, say, it’s extreme proximity to downtown and the river...

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But NABB is almost singlehandedly responsible for preventing the Back Bay from becoming the west end. And Sue and Elliott have been at this for over 40 years. You'd be surprised that most proposals sail through all kinds of hurdles, usually with NABB support ( though for technical legal reasons it has to be phrased "not opposed"). It's the 3-4 times a year that they oppose something that makes the news.

Full disclosure, I'm a former officer and director and proud member. Sue and Elliott are good friends who put an enormous amount of time into preserving our neighborhood. More importantly, they make it a community and there's a close network of old timers and friends like us that will work to continue to balance historic preservation of our 19th century neighborhood with 21st century progress and technology. You in the peanut gallery out here ought to try it some day. It's not easy. It's time consuming. And you have to do professional grade work without getting paid.

Thank you Sue, Elliott and all who chip in on this stuff.

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But I work 55 hour weeks and I'm starting to have my eye on living elsewhere where costs aren't insane. There's no point in trying to better a neighborhood that wants me gone on market forces alone.

Neighborhood associations are a hobby for wealthy old boomers who have the time. That's why nothing gets built in Newton, even though light rail goes there.

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Good luck, Will. I hope you land that promotion.

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enough to live in the Back Bay and fight to keep it for rich folks only? Sounds nice, but I'm too busy being middle class out here in a less fancy neighborhood, wasting your tax dollars with my children and all.

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People have this idea that only "rich" people live in Back Bay. It's true that more and more wealthy people are moving here all the time but there are still plenty of the rest of us, and we're staying put . . . until we need boats to get to the BPL and Trader Joe's.

I moved to Back Bay in 1981, right after college. I got my first post-college job as a secretary at Hill Holliday. I made $12,000. My partner and I rented a 600sf one-bedroom condo on our starter salaries. My neighbors included teachers, nurses, secretaries, a writer, a lawyer, and a psychiatrist who dumped all of boyfriends with great drama, often in the hallway.

After several years of renting, our landlady offered to sell us the condo for $65,000.

Sometimes a homeless guy slept in our foyer between the two sets of doors, and we let him. My partners' series of ancient VW Bugs and elderly Honda Civics were routinely broken into or stolen. We all used police locks on our doors because robbery was common in Back Bay, including in our building. My boss got mugged in the Public Garden.

Plenty of "middle-class" people still live here in small apartments and condos, having moved here years (or decades) ago, when Back Bay was more affordable and rougher around the edges. Just about everything has improved here over the years, and the neighborhood association deserves much, if not most, of the credit. Back Bay is "fancy" because a large group of residents worked hard for decades to make it a livable, desirable place, with a real, dedicated community. And a remarkable degree of historic preservation. And a playground. And cleaner, safer streets and alleys. They didn't just worry about roof decks and lamp posts, they worked with the police to reduce crime and rodents.

I saw it all happen, from the sidelines; I didn't get involved until recently. I missed out on getting to know a lot of terrific neighbors and working alongside them.

If anything, NABB is dealing these days with what I call "billionaire gentrification." For example, investors were buying multi-unit apartment buildings to convert them into Air BnBs or renting out multiple units in residential buildings. NABB was a strong voice in the discussion about Boston's new Air BnB regulations. We were fighting against the loss of scores of smaller housing units once occupied by people like me, who lived and worked here and had a stake in the community.

Back Bay looks "rich" from the outside and real-estate prices and rents reflect that. But many of us have been living in the same unit for decades. Don't assume that people living in some grand Victorian townhouse have equally spectacular apartments. Lots of us still have crappy kitchens, testy steam radiators, and so on. You can still find an affordable, ratty, tiny apartment here, maybe next-door to a frat, and enjoy all the fun of urban life. You will also be excoriated for being a rich snob on Universal Hub.

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You can still find an affordable, ratty, tiny apartment here

Show me the listing for such an apartment and we'll talk. Last I checked even the ratty, tiny apartments in downtown Boston are renting for a small fortune.

I'm not saying that everyone living in the Back Bay (or Beacon Hill, or the South End, or any other Boston neighborhood) is rich. But I absolutely take issue with the fact that crime declined in all of these neighborhoods, and indeed in similar neighborhoods all across the country at the same time, because of the dedication of neighborhood associations. There's just a lot more money all around the urban core these days, and this means fewer squatters, fewer vacant buildings, and fewer of the kinds of seedy businesses and tenants that are only allowed to exist when their neighbors are absentee landlords or up to something no-good themselves.

On top of that, for every middle-class homeowner that still lives there with barely enough money to maintain their property, there are 2-3 new owners who can afford to do things like meticulously restoring old brownstones and townhouses with ultra-high-end finishes. Historic preservation happens now because there is the money to do it with, not because we suddenly developed the will to do it. Georgetown in Washington DC, the Old City district in Philadelphia, Greenwhich Village in NYC, and even City Square in Charlestown right across the river, all went through the exact same transition. I'm sure it was because they all just happened to have similarly dedicated neighborhood associations.

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Yes, yes. I live in JP and I attend the neighborhood council meetings occasionally, so I get to hear quite regularly from the boomers who "single handedly" stopped the Southwest Expressway (I'm sure it was just a coincidence that the project was stopped just in time to avoid bulldozing its first mostly white neighborhood). Frankly I'm getting a little tired of listening to baby boomers try to use the social credibility they earned by blocking a highway project to blocking apartment construction, as if they are in any way equivalent.

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This is not that. Blocking a roof deck has nothing to do with blocking construction of apartment buildings. In fact, I believe the last time the neighborhood association was successful at blocking a development was around 2002 (and lots of good reasons for that one). Mostly they work WITH the developer to modify the proposal for lots of different reasons.

8-ball says "Try again later".

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boomer

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Child

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The quickest way to put an end to the "OK boomer" thing is for people over 50 to start using it.

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I believe the last time the neighborhood association was successful at blocking a development was around 2002 (and lots of good reasons for that one).

Developers don't bother because they know they will not be granted approval. Do you think it's just a weird quirk of local economics that one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country has had virtually zero infill development in the last 10 years? And to be clear I am specifically talking about the rectangle created by Beacon St, Mass Ave, Comm Ave, and Arlington St here.

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Developers get approval all the time for all kinds of buildings in the Back Bay - and almost none of them are denied nor in fact even significantly modified other than design issues.

The area you are talking about has been specifically set aside as a historic district - there are very specific rules about any changes in that small area (actually it runs to the north side of Boylston Street). Absolutely zero to do with the neighborhood association and 100% to do with the law.

Any more well informed comments you'd like to make?

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Here's a few examples of projects that have been "significantly modified" as a result of NABB involvement:

- Neighborhood Association of Back Bay (NABB), established in 1950s, successfully opposed high-rise along Commonwealth Avenue; University of Massachusetts' development proposals (late 1960s); scaling back Park Plaza (1970s); changing tower heights for New England Life Building (1983); and high-rise project over the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension (1996-2000)
- NABB works with city to establish 70- to 90-foot residential district height limits (1970); reduce heights (to 65 feet) and floor area ratios (3:1) on Newbury Street (1980); reduce heights along Boylston Street (mid-1980s)

They have also played a key role in undermining attempts at utilizing the air rights space over the Mass Pike at Boylston and Mass Ave by opposing anything that would actually be tall enough to cover the enormous cost of decking over the highway. I can think of at least three specific proposals that have been scuttled as a direct result of their opposition. Thanks to NABB's concern about "shadows" over their beloved townhouses, the rest of us still have to put up with the noise of the highway and lack of street activation on that end of Boylston Street (not to mention the effects of the supply shortage on the local real estate market).

Also it's worth noting that members of the NABB were instrumental to the establishment of that historic district designation in the first place.

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You don't know that the Back Bay Association is a completely different organization from NABB

You have no appreciation for the history of why certain things happened Pre 1990 (and try to apply today's real estate standards to a time when people were fleeing the city.

Ignore the fact that some (many?) of the things you call a problem have retrospectively been deemed great successes in urban planning.

Ignore the comment about the one building I mention NABB successfully opposed - you say 1996-2000, I thought it was around 2002 - so sue me.

Don't have any understanding of the financing behind air rights (which is the real cause of those projects failing) and are ignorant of the fact that NABB worked hand in hand with many of the developers who got what they asked for re. height (air rights just doesn't work without state subsidies for the deck and the state isn't giving subsidies).

And more - but I'm busy...

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Ignore the fact that some (many?) of the things you call a problem have retrospectively been deemed great successes in urban planning.

Such as?

Don't have any understanding of the financing behind air rights (which is the real cause of those projects failing) and are ignorant of the fact that NABB worked hand in hand with many of the developers who got what they asked for re. height (air rights just doesn't work without state subsidies for the deck and the state isn't giving subsidies).

Neighborhood associations and financing are a tightly coupled problem because financing abhors risk and neighborhood associations, especially here in Boston, are a primary source of risk. If being granted your building permit is a sure thing, it makes a LOT easier to finance a project. This makes air-rights projects especially vulnerable to even a very small number of NIMBY objections.

You don't know that the Back Bay Association is a completely different organization from NABB

The mention of the BBA was included in that by mistake (copy/paste error) and quite obviously has nothing to do with this discussion.

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1) the establishment of the historic district prevented the "West Endification" of the Back Bay (see your UMASS building.

2) The Park Plaza project I'm guessing refers to limiting heights on the south side of the Boston Public Garden - even the retired BRA director who promoted more development in hindsight says limiting the height and shadows was a long term big win for the Public Garden and the public good.

3) Keep in mind, the Back Bay was literally the first planned residential community in the country. It's historically significant - and a fact not lost on the residents which is why we willingly comply with a complex set of rules governing exterior changes to our buildings. We came very close to losing this, but those of us that live here want it that way and as an added benefit for the city, the neighborhood has become an enormous tourist draw. You can argue the pros/cons til the cows come home - but at worse, it's probably a wash. I personally think the city would be a sadder, colder place without our unique neighborhoods and to beat a dead horse - imagine Back Bay looking like the West end (and there are a handful of buildings that remind you it almost happened).

4) You are totally clueless to the financing of air rights projects. Period. The problem is ALWAYS the cost and logistics of building the decking. without exception.

5) Mistake - that's a pretty big mistake - but we'll chalk it up to the ol' cut and paste error.

Bottom line - the preservation of the Back Bay from the river to Boylston Street has been a huge win for the city. Kept the downtown residential (ever been to Charlotte after dark?), generates enormous tax revenue for the city with minimal draw on resources and is effectively a playground for both residents and tourists alike (along with other neighborhoods with "low" buildings - Beacon Hill, Charlestown, North End, South End, Southie and parts of Fenway. We are not Manhattan - and have no desire to ever be that. If you can't recognize that, I can't help you.

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There are people in literally every neighborhood in Boston who think their neighborhood is special and unique and deserving of preservation. Why should the Back Bay get special treatment?

To put it another way, if the North End, Charlestown, the South End, Southie, Beacon Hill, and "parts of the Fenway" are all deserving of protection from anything but "low" buildings, where exactly is it acceptable to build more housing?

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Good place to start.

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Plenty of Roslindale residents who moved here in the 90s will happily take credit for the way the square is today, as if that's not just the natural result of proximity to the city and housing prices. Go to any meeting about development and they're there, puffing out their chests. Or at least they used to be, I don't waste time with neighborhood meetings anymore here.

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When the organization was formed in 1955, Back Bay was in a decades-long downward spiral

Most urban neighborhoods in the country were in the middle of a downward spiral in the 1950s.

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the Dow Jones was at 3,000. Yesterday it closed over 28,000. Coincidence? I think not!

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Baltimore?

Buffalo?

New Orleans?

any number of other decaying American cities?

Coincidence?

I think not.

Without the Back Bay and Beacon hill (and others) pushing back - who knows where Boston would be - or the city for that matter.

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Yes, because Baltimore, Buffalo, and New Orleans are currently being overrun by unfettered development and economic growth.

...Oh wait.

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For a number of reasons - one of which is the residents aren't working together to turn the tide. It's the opposite of what happened in the Back Bay 50 years ago - and without that effort - we might just be Baltimore or Buffalo.

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If so, I have to imagine it was there before the toddler was...

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It was on the top of the building vs. a new lower deck that would be level with other residences' living areas.

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Adam, can I request the rhetoric be toned down a bit please? Thank you

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