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Whoever buys a gut-rehabbed South End house won't be able to use the basement because the builder installed it without getting zoning approval first

The Zoning Board of Appeal this week rejected plans for a new basement at a West Canton Street manse now on sale for $6.9 million because the developer basically dug it out and finished it even though he didn't have approval.

The board and the mayor's office both said they're willing to overlook such things with new property owners and consider a back-dated approval, especially given the chaotic situation this summer with construction and the pandemic, but they said Peter McLoughlin is an experienced Boston developer and should have known better than to build something he didn't have permission for as part of a gut rehab of the 1890 structure.

At a hearing on Tuesday, McLoughlin's attorney, pleaded extenuating circumstances: He said McLoughlin had approval to install a new groundwater-recharge system - to ensure rainwater would be pumped into the ground to protect nearby foundations - but stopped work on that when Mayor Walsh ordered a halt to construction work in March due to Covid-19.

During a July inspection, an ISD inspector said McLoughlin needed to do some emergency work to shore up the building and the developer decided it made sense to simply finish the planned basement work - meant for a home office and gym - as part of that work.

The problem is that a completed basement would make the building denser than allowed under the street's zoning, which would require board approval, which McLoughlin did not have. LaCasse said McLoughlin has since filled in the basement so it can't be used at present.

Faisa Sharif of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, however, urged the board to reject the request because of the way the basement was built. She said McLoughlin is hardly some homeowner new to Boston who may have inherited a situation that he was unaware of.

"In this case, it's very clear that this was an experienced developer that had gone before ISD to seek something they knew required zoning relief and decided to build already," she said.

The board then voted to reject the required "relief" the basement would need. The board did, however, approve McLoughlin's request to add a hatch to the roof to allow access to the new roof deck he's put on top of the house. The roof deck itself is allowed under the street's zoning, but the hatch needed board approval.

Free tagging: 



Why does this rule even exist? Why do we need to prohibit density that does not increase a building's height or footprint?

It's stuff like this that drives up housing prices, and encourages suburban sprawl. Yes, I know a $6.9 million house is not exactly affordable. But in general, the more obstacles you throw in the way of expanding the housing supply, the more you tip things towards super high-end projects built by developers who have the money to wade through the bureaucracy.

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Allowing this guy to build his illegal basement in no way expands the housing supply

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realistically make a neighborhood more dense.

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Well, the law they violated was creating more living space. It’s a separate issue if that living space is just another room for a super-rich person, or an extra unit. But if we ban the extra space, both situations couldn’t happen.

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do you keep someone out of their own basement?

Short of filling it in, I can only think maybe they would make you wall it off and don't approve a stairwell.

But then you move in. And get to work on a secret laboratory with a hidden hatch in the floor activated by a book or candlestick or something like that.

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Sorry if I didn't include that in the original post, but I was thinking it :-). But I imagine unfilling it wouldn't be nearly as much work as excavating the space to begin with.

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And got caught. Tough luck.

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Denizens of the VFW and Neponset Drive In would know better. The 70's were so much more fun.


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So now what, the developer rips it out, or does the developer pay a fine and reapply for a variance?

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This is a single family home. The intent of the code needs to be looked at here. I understand if it’s an additional studio apartment or something, but, again, not quite sure how building within an existing envelope increases neighborhood density. And yes, I understand he needed a variance first.

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More specifically, the extra space would increase the building's floor area ratio above that allowed under the lot's zoning, i.e., make the building denser than allowed), which is what triggered the need for a variance. My apologies if my attempt to come up with an alternative for "floor area ratio" made things less clear.

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Right out of a Kafka novel.

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You get the zoning rules you deserve.

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Most of the South End is not legal by current zoning. I guarantee that by making the basement occupiable space, the building is no more dense than most of its neighbors.

I have no problem asking people to get permits for work to be done, but the zoning code as a whole needs an overhaul, if not simply to make what's currently built legal, and to make building more of the same legal as well.

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