Editorial: Reviewing historic reviews

March 7, 2014
By

The vanishing of a charming 1926 tavern building from Huntington Avenue is yet another case study of why Boston’s historic review processes need reform and better support.

Whether the building merited saving is beside the point. This was a well-liked building on a prominent street, its fate a matter of general neighborhood and city interest. Yet it was knocked down to the surprise even of elected officials and preservation activists, and the Gazette was unable to get even the simplest of answers from the City about what is going on.

The Boston Landmarks Commission reviews proposed demolitions of historic structures—supposedly including this one. The BLC is a talent-rich agency that offers superb preservation advice. However, even in the best of times, it suffers from short-staffing, underfunding and sometimes ineffective process.

The BLC’s “demolition delay” process that may or may not have been applied to the tavern requires at least one public meeting to explain a project and consider alternatives to demolition. It’s a good idea. But in practice, it can mean a living room meeting with a few abutters, with no notice to the general public. Under former Mayor Menino, the Mayor’s Office frequently enabled this shortsighted and short-shrifted version of public process.

In recent months, the BLC has run into repeated controversies over the demolition of historic buildings. In Jamaica Plain last year, for example, it was not even aware that the former home of Dimock Health Center’s founder was coming down because City inspectors deemed it not a demolition because a few boards were left standing. In the LMA, the BLC played along with the absurd ritual of giving real-life approval to a hypothetical demolition of a Boston Children’s Hospital building and garden, despite whatever may have changed when and if the hospital decides to move forward.

At least we know about those cases. To have an 87-year-old building simply go away without general public awareness and discussion is not the way to do things in a city so rich in historic treasures.

This is about broken communication and a fundamental disregard for the general public’s right to know about potential loss of its cultural heritage. Boston can do better. That’s why it founded the BLC in the first place.

We look forward to hearing a clear explanation of what happened to the former Ed Burke’s Tavern. And we hope Mayor Walsh’s administration will take action to reform both historic preservation and communication before Mission Hill loses more irreplaceable history without its fair say.

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