Boylston Street Redux

Back in April, I suggested that Ron Druker would have an easier time demolishing the old Shreve’s building than Apple, which had a hellish experience putting its new flagship store on top of an old copy shop. Must’ve forgotten that this is Boston. When it comes to development—especially in the Back Bay—nothing’s ever easy.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s now throwing the brakes on Druker’s Cesar Pelli-designed office building. It’s no International Finance Centre, but the BRA believes that the building, which fits neighborhood zoning for height and density, is “not sympathetic with the existing historic environment.”

This, despite previous support from Mayor Menino, who initially said the project, “certainly looks like something that will meet the muster of the neighborhoods.”

In the Back Bay, the words “existing historic environment” are loaded. Buildings between the north side of Boylston St. and the Charles are protected by the Back Bay historic district, and, as Apple learned, all but untouchable.

The south side of the street, where the Shreve’s building sits, is different. Preservationists tried to lump that side of Boylston into the historic district, but the city ultimately decided that it wasn’t historic or cohesive enough. The Pru was brand new, the BPL and Copley Square were already covered by existing preservation safeguards, and the rest of the buildings, including Shreve’s, just weren’t good enough for the blanket protections that their neighbors to the north enjoy.

In fact, the south side of Boylston was where developers were supposed to be building. It was a compromise that preserved what really needed to be preserved without stifling growth. This block was left exposed for a reason.

Back in February, William Young, the Back Bay Architectural Commission’s senior preservation planner, explained why:

“Although no one would say that, socially or culturally, those blocks aren’t part of the Back Bay, they don’t have the architectural and visual cohesion that exists north of the central line. Outside the district, there are individual buildings that people have thought of as significant, but their significance has not yet been established. With two notable exceptions, the Berkeley Building and the Public Library, the individual designs on the south side are generally not of the same degree—so it’s difficult to recognize them. People feel strong affection towards Shreve’s as an institution. But does that familiarity and affection extended beyond the institution’s history? Does it rise to an intrinsic architectural level?”

Young suggested it didn’t. That’s why the Landmarks Commission passed on the chance to save it from the wrecking ball.

So why does a city government that’s repeatedly passed on the chance to save Shreve’s suddenly decide to take a fifth look at the block? Is it because a neighborhood that opposes everything has suddenly started making sense with its opposition? Or is there some other reason for the mayor to be throwing candy at neighborhood activists?

Illustration by Tim Bower for Boston magazine