Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Gossip from decades past

We're starting to worry about what will happen if we don't get the variance to build the rooftop conservatory. It takes 4-6 months to find out if the city will grant the variance and we want to move forward with construction in the meantime, since the cost of carrying the empty building and paying rent to live in our current digs isn't exactly cheap.

The plan was to just build out the whole roof as a garden if permission for the conservatory is denied. We put our contractor and our structural engineer to the task of figuring out how much the garden will weigh and designing and pricing the supporting structure. And it's looking expensive. Which got us thinking about how much we really want to sink a huge chunk of money into changes to the roof. (It's currently a flat rubber roof, about 8 years old, in great shape.) Definitely, if we could get the variance for the conservatory, it would be worth doing. But to do all this in order just to have a garden for the 4 months or so of nice Boston weather? Could we be happy with a roof deck and planters?

Looking at our street and the surrounding ones, we can see a couple of very basic decks, but nothing more than rudimentary head-houses capping staircases on the neighboring buildings. (We have one too.) The existing buildings in the neighborhood were mostly built as tenements and are now small mostly rental apartment buildings containing between 3 and 5 apartments each. We can't tell if no one's interested in sinking money into elaborate rooftop structures or whether people have wanted to but been blocked by the city's rules.

Last night my boyfriend set me the task of figuring out if permission for a similar roof structure has been denied to anyone else in the immediate area. I spent the day digging deep into the building permit archives, and uncovering lots of gossip - er, historical information - in the process. The feuds over long-delayed repairs to a neighbor's crumbling retaining wall; the tenant who steadfastly denied entry for a fire escape to be installed; the mysterious eyesore of a building that was given building permission (and coveted underground parking!) because it was designed as apartments for elderly, low-income, long-time residents of neighborhood. Little things, but revealing of the story of the RBB and his colleagues.

The RBB was owned by at least three generations of one family for nearly 100 years, up until it changed hands a couple of years ago, was gutted, and had some framing put in. We know how much (or how little) the guy we bought it from planned to spend in the renovation, and that the bathrooms and kitchens were destined for cheap linoleum floors and basic 4 x 4 white tile. We know when the fire escapes were added '53, and that the previous owner was concerned about what would become of the vacant lot next door in '48. (It had been a bakery, which was abandoned and torn down by the city, then it became a parking lot, and finally, in '71 the hideous building next door was built.)

But back to the conservatory. From what I can gather, the request would be treated as a request for permission to add a story to the building. Only one nearby neighbor has made a request to build upwards and that was 20 years ago. Her request was denied on three grounds - exceeding Floor Area Ratio of allowable living space, being in a restricted roof structure district, and having an insufficient rear yard.

We already need to request a variance for the F.A.R. in order to use the RBB's basement as living space. We're told that that shouldn't be a problem in the basement, but I'm not sure if it would be on the roof. Since we're planning to use about a third of the basement for utilities anyway, I wonder whether we can apply the basement square footage (if granted) to the roof structure. I'm not sure what it means to be in a restricted roof structure district, but wonder if it has to do with a regulation I was told of a while back wherein our building can't be taller than about 55 feet. The conservatory wouldn't put us over that limit. As for the rear yard being insufficient, I have no idea what that means - no one's got a yard in the whole neighborhood. Will look into it.

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