^ 119 Leyden Street : a beautiful, 1880s gem, to be torn down, according to a proposal that should never be allowed.

—- —- —-

Last night I attended a monthly meting of the Orient Heights Civic Association — my first since January. What I saw surprised and concerned me.

The 75 or more locals who saw and listened to two development proposals expressed the usual — and correct — objections to a development process in which the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals approves proposals that aggressively alter, rather than support, the character of the Orient Heights neighborhood. These normal objections should be honored by the Zoning Board, but they are not. I have written before this about the duty given by State law to Zoning Boards of Appeal : that any variance they may give from an area’s zoning designation must enhance and carry out the purposes of that designation. In Boston these past several years, the opposite is the rule, and people are right to dislike that.

Yet what I saw at the Orient Heights meeting went beyond the usual Zoning variance case. In both the proposals offered, 119 Leyden Street and 192 Gladstone Street, two perfectly good, well maintained homes, one an 1880s gem, are to be torn down and replaced with, respectively, a nine unit and six unit condo building. I headed this column with the photo of that 1880s gem to illustrate the audacity of what was being asked. By what whim has development in Boston now reached a point where dwellings that enhance the character of a neighborhood are to be torn down and done away with ?

To put it another way : Are we now at the point where houses — normal houses that establish a neighborhood’s personality — are to be eliminated entirely, purchased by a developer who can afford to pay more than any ordinary, resident home buyer because he or she can turn the parcel into 6 to 9 units each selling for almost the price of a single home ? Well, yes, we ARE at that point, if developers know that the Zoning Board of Appeals will grant them the variances they need to make such an outcome work. And if we are at that point, then neighborhoods like Orient Heights, where normal homes sit on lots large enough for developers to build 6 to 9 condominium units, have no defense. Might as well cash out and say goodbye to a neighborhood that has worked well for a century.

Fortunately for the rest of East Boston, the same strategy cant work. Homes in Jeffries Point and most of Eagle Hill sit on much smaller lots. There’s no room to do what the 119 Leyden and 192 Gladstone developer is trying. Not that downtown East Boston hasn’t its own weaknesses against the moves of grand-design developers; but at least they aren’t naked to this one.

It’s also an easy tactic to counter. The tear-down proposal can’t work if the City won’t approve the necessary variances. That’s all it takes to safeguard the character of Orient Heights, as the State’s zoning laws were adopted to do. Why won’t the City administration put a stop to it ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



  1. Your comments are spot on and one comment absent, albeit not intentionally, is that the appeals court almost always sides with the appellant because these variances are not hardships at all, they are outside the normalcy of the zoning codes which once might have had the premise of granting them. No hardships exist… just the evil greed!


  2. There’s a great need for more housing all over Metro Boston, Orient Heights included. Building new homes becomes very difficult when nothing can be demolished or changed and every proposal is challenged. the house in the photograph is nice looking, and I can understand your wanting it to be preseved. But, is there anywhere else in the neighborhood where new construction would be acceptable to you? Perhaps a plot closer to an MBTA station or bus route?


  3. Just my $.02…. I no longer live in EB, but i spent 39 years there and in the area often enough to see the changes. Your point is solid, but I offer that the EB community is better served if residents ban together as one voice to combat the developments that don’t make sense for the area. They have torn down those smaller homes on Everett street, Maverick street, etc. and built units that do not compliment the area. Segregating the neighborhoods/resident groups could make it easier for the developers to gain the upper hand. Quality of life does not appear to be on the agenda for the zoning board, i.e. traffic???


  4. Counterpoint to this is Boston has a severe housing crisis, primarily brought on by way more demand to live here than supply. So, replacing single-family homes on large lots with multi-family homes is definitely one way to create more needed housing. I would not advocate just knocking down homes left and right, but just because a building is old does not mean it has any historical value. The Landmarks Commission can figure that out. And you say yourself these are very large lots that are not the norm for the neighborhood, so these are likely isolated cases as is.


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