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Zoning board draws line in sand: No life-sciences labs right in residential areas

The Zoning Board of Appeal today unanimously rejected a proposal to convert an unoccupied office building at 69-71 A St. into a "boutique" life-sciences building, because it sits in an area now zoned specifically for residential use - like the condo building next door on West 3rd Street.

The building's owner, the Council on International Educational Exchange, originally added floors to the former Standard Rivet Co. factory to create office space for itself, but with the pandemic forcing major staff reductions, it no longer needed the space and was seeking permission to change the use from offices to biotech. Although that section of South Boston was once an industrial zone, several years ago, the city changed the zoning to encourage residential development. Research and manufacturing buildings were specifically forbidden under the new zoning.

Board Chairwoman Christine Araujo framed the issue to her fellow board members: "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?"

CIEE attorney Joseph Hanley said the proposal would be limited to a "Level 2" potential hazard, no more dangerous than a high-school chemistry lab, really, and that CIEE was looking for a small "boutique" operation to move in, not some large biotech concern. The small size of the building, he said, would preclude that.

However, he acknowledged the new use would require a beefier HVAC system on the roof, although he said it would rise no higher than the existing system. He added that CIEE had committed to a STEM program for a local Catholic high school, to help kids growing up in South Boston get local jobs in the area's exploding life-sciences industry.

Residents of Port 45, at 45 West 3rd St., pointed specifically to the HVAC system, as well as more generally to the zoning issue, in opposing the change of use.

They said that the larger HVAC system would come right up to the building's roof line, just 21 feet from their homes, creating noise and blocking some of their sun and views.

They also pointed to the revision of South Boston zoning, known as Article 68, that changed A Street from industrial to residential.

"Some of us have relied on Article 68 and zoning maps in making housing choices," one building resident said, adding he specifically did not want to live right next to a live-sciences lab building. James Gallagher, an attorney for some of the residents there, added there was no hardship for the particular site, calling it "a perfectly good building, adequate for its intended use," as an office building.

69-71 A St. documents.

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