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BSA Space and Chapter 91

Given how the slow economic recovery has affected building and design industry professionals, it is easy to wonder how the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) managed to move to stylish new digs on the Fort Point Channel waterfront. In fact, it was a law dating back to the colonial era that made it possible for the association to move to its high-profile new home at a critical time for the building profession.

At a recent meeting of the Architectural Photography Network (APN), Daniel Perruzzi AIA of Margulies Perruzzi Architects explained how Massachusetts General Law Chapter 91 enabled the BSA to occupy prominent public space at Atlantic Wharf for well below market value. Chapter 91 codifies what the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) calls the “public trust doctrine”—the ancient idea that the air, sea and shoreline belong to the entire public. The Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act, as Chapter 91 is known, ensures that private development along the seashore and inland waterways serves a public purpose.

“It covers literally everything from a little boat dock to something like this,” Perruzzi said of Chapter 91 and the new BSA Space.

When Boston Properties was looking to develop the 1897 Graphic Arts Building along Congress Street into a new mixed-use tower, the DEP required that it set aside a certain portion of the overall project for cultural or artistic space that would be open to the public.

At the same time, the BSA was outgrowing its offices in the handsome but cramped building on Broad Street and looking for a new space that would engage the BSA and its members with the public. Architectural centers in other cities were helping to increase local membership and expose more people to architecture. The Architects Building, though, was fairly isolated in the Financial District and offered no ability to “engage the public in what we think of as good design,” as Perruzzi put it.

Serving on the BSA’s search committee and aware of Boston Properties’ need to satisfy Chapter 91, Perruzzi suggested that Atlantic Wharf might be an option.

Without the public-access requirements and community leverage required by Chapter 91, it is likely that public space at Atlantic Wharf would have been limited to retail space on the ground floor. Those requirements, though, gave Boston Properties the incentive to work with the BSA to ensure that a significant amount of space was devoted to public use—much of it at well below market value and some at no cost whatsoever. The BSA, in turn, had to devote at least 5,000 square feet of its overall 16,000 square feet to exhibit space, a program it was eager to add and unable to offer at The Architects Building.

Originally, the BSA was planning to occupy almost double that area, including the ground-floor waterfront-facing space that now houses Smith & Wollensky. When the high-end steakhouse chain outbid the BSA for the prominent retail space and the full rental cost became clear, the BSA was forced to scale back its plans. In place of ground-floor visibility, Höweler + Yoon Architecture conceived of BSA Space’s signature green stair to serve as both a billboard for the organization and a beacon for the second-floor exhibit space.

Located in the up-and-coming Fort Port Channel neighborhood and a short walk away from institutions such as the Boston Children’s Museum, the ICA and the soon-to-open Boston Tea Party Museum, BSA Space is set in a burgeoning cultural district. This bustling setting is a far cry from the nine-to-five feeling of Broad Street, and the BSA hopes its newfound visibility will give the organization the public face it has long been missing.

“If we have interesting exhibits, that’s a way for people to get to know who we are and what architects do,” Perruzzi said.

The new BSA Space is about more than garnering visibility for the profession, though—it also allows the association to display the importance of something it has long advocated: the role of public policy in shaping the built environment. Compared with some of its cloistered neighbors—such as the Federal Reserve Bank and Post Office, which, as federal institutions, do not have to comply with local zoning regulations—the impact of the public space at the BSA is especially potent. The buzz of activity along Fort Point Channel would likely not have become a reality without the sort of policy exemplified in Chapter 91, and the BSA is clearly happy to be able to be part of that.

Asked by Perruzzi what had interested the photography committee in Chapter 91, APN co-chair Chris Gervais Assoc. AIA explained that, as a photographer, “if you walk into a building alone with a camera, you probably get asked a lot of questions.” At the new BSA Space, that was not the case.

It is exactly that sort of public access that Chapter 91 seeks to ensure and precisely that sort of openness and visibility that the BSA hopes will draw in more members and the public.

Michael Bellefeuille is a graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology and an intern architect at Adolfo Perez Architect in Newton. A native of New Hampshire, he also maintains LivableMHT, a website dedicated to promoting and envisioning urban development in Manchester, New Hampshire. He currently lives in Cambridge.

Above photo by Christoph Gervais.