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South Boston building owner sues after board denies it chance to outfit the space for life sciences

An educational concern that replaced an old rivet factory on A Street in South Boston with what it hoped would be its new five-story headquarters has sued the Zoning Board of Appeal over its rejection of plans to retrofit the new building with "boutique" biotech lab space now that the pandemic means it no longer needs the space itself.

The Council on International Educational Exchange went before the zoning board on Aug. 31 for variances for what it considered "minor" changes to the building to allow life-sciences work at 69-71 A St.: Some HVAC equipment on the roof.

But the zoning board unanimously rejected the request, noting the area is now zoned for residential only and that research and manufacturing uses were specifically forbidden.

In a suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court yesterday, CIEE said it had presented sufficient evidence of a hardship at the hearing to prove that it deserved a variance to override the zoning code, specifically the way it had let 45% of its staff go and can no longer justify occupying the building - and that it has been unable to find anybody to rent the space:

The building on the Premises was built to house CIEE headquarters, but remains unfinished and unoccupied due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the unexpected and drastic changes the pandemic has had on the way people work, CIEE has been unable to lease the building for the previously approved retail/office use. The building as constructed is not fit for residential use. Without a variance the Premises will continue to have an unfinished and unoccupied building.

There is practical difficulty and demonstrable and substantial hardship that make the granting of the variance necessary for the reasonable use of the Premises. ... If the variance is not granted the building will continue to be vacant and CIEE will continue to bear the burden of a building it cannot occupy or complete.

The variance sought is the minimum needed to allow for the reasonable use of the Premises. Granting the variance to allow the Premises to be used for life sciences research operating at the low bio-safety level II would not be a major change from the pre-approved retail/office use. The Proposed Project would result in no changes to the structure aside from the area footprint the mechanical closure on the roof. Allowing these minor changes so the Plaintiff can complete and find an occupant for a currently vacant building is the minimal variance required for the reasonable use of the Premises.

Also:

The building at 69-71 A Street is located in a longtime industrial section. No residential uses will be threatened by the proposed change in use because the Premises was never residential. A life sciences laboratory would bring high-skilled jobs to the South Boston community and provide much needed STEM partnerships with local schools.

At the hearing, however, nearby residents, in particular people living in a new West 3rd St. condo building next to the A Street property, disputed that the requested changes were minor. They said the new HVAC system would require a wall along the side of the building that is just 21 feet from some of their condos, blocking some of their sun and meaning they would have to listen to the drone of the HVAC system.

Araujo, urging her fellow board members to reject the proposal, said:

Every one of us who lives in a residential district has to think: What would you do, what would you say if a research lab, a manufacturing lab, popped up next to you?

Watch the hearing:

Complete CIEE complaint (19.9M PDF).

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Comments

There's nothing in their complaint that suggests any actual effort that they've made to lease it for an approved retail/office use -- just "Hey, COVID!" For all the businesses we've lost, there's also not a shortage of new places opening. We're not a desolate market. Renting lab space might be the most profitable use of the property, but that doesn't mean they should be entitled to do it. There's no real hardship that justifies a variance.

Hell, they could just sell the building and be done with it.