Boston Officials Want to Know if You Think This Dilapidated Shack Is Historically Significant

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Boston is one of America’s oldest cities. As such, it is brimming with buildings that served as the setting for some of the country’s most formative events.

One of those buildings might just be a dilapidated shack in the neighborhood of West Roxbury. Earlier this month, the Boston Landmarks Commission tweeted out a request for public comment on the potential historical significance of this single-story wood structure, which is slated for demolition.

Any members of the public with information on whether John Hancock stored his potting soil here has until the end of the week to submit their comments to the commission, which will then decide whether to let the shed’s owner go ahead and tear the thing down (if a slight breeze doesn’t do the job first).

This is hardly the first time the city’s landmarks commission—which is responsible for identifying and preserving historic buildings in the Massachusetts city—has asked Twitter for input on buildings that have seen better days.

Earlier in October, they also solicited feedback on an application to tear down this detached garage in the city’s Brighton neighborhood.

It also sought the community’s take on the significance of this two-story parking garage in Fenway-Kenmore. Maybe Sam Adams parked his car there once?

Indeed, Bostonians have been asked to weigh in on the demolition of everything from empty shopfronts to boarded-up single-family homes.

These requests for comments might come across as silly. But they’re an integral part of Boston’s historic preservation process.

Back in 1995, the city amended its zoning code to add Article 85—a program intended to give both the public and historic preservation officials a chance to vet applications for the demolition of older buildings.

Article 85 requires that any application to demolish a building in the city’s Downtown and Harborpark neighborhoods, or that’s at least 50 years old, first be reviewed by the landmarks commission. The commission will then have 10 days to collect public feedback on the proposed demolition and to decide if the building in question is “significant.”

There’s a long list of criteria for what could possibly make a building significant.

That includes whether the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, or if it’s the subject of a pending application to make it a Boston landmark. There are also some more subjective criteria that could get a building labeled significant, including a determination by city staff that it has an important association with historic persons or events, or that it has a historically significant style or method of building construction.

Activists in other parts of the country have leaned on those fuzzier determinates of historic significance to try to prevent the redevelopment of a goofy-looking diner (which was slated to become an apartment building) or a supposedly historic laundromat (also slated to become an apartment building).

Fortunately for people trying to remove their unwanted shed, Boston’s Article 85 process is not as generous to would-be NIMBYs and preservationists as other cities’ laws are.

If the landmark commission does determine that a building is significant, it then has to hold a public hearing within 40 days to discuss alternatives to development. It can then delay the demolition of the structure in question for another 90 days beyond that hearing. After all that, however, property owners can go get their demolition permits.

This can certainly result in wasted time, but a Bostonian’s right to knock down a shed on his property doesn’t appear to be ultimately frustrated by the Article 85 process.

That’s good news, but it also raises the question of what the point of all that public input is. At a minimum, it reinforces the notion that what happens on someone else’s property is the business of the city and the neighbors.

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