With Boston building boom, some lose view
The view of Southie from Bob Doran’s kitchen window was never spectacular. But the sky looked pretty when the sun set over Dorchester Avenue, and he and his widowed mother, who lives upstairs, liked watching people, and even cars, go by.
“It was a nice feeling, the hustle and bustle,” said Doran, 66, a retired union painter. “You were part of life.”
But a 33-condo development is rising right behind his yard, and now when Doran looks out he sees not the human parade but a four-story building.
“It is what it is,” he said on a recent weekday, as construction workers drew a curtain on his vista. “But it killed us.”
The scenario is being repeated around town as Boston undergoes a historic building boom, and some uncounted number of city dwellers — used to seeing the skyline, a snatch of harbor, or merely the open air over a decrepit one-story garage — feel as if they’re being robbed.
“They took my sky,” said Anita Greenberg as she stood in her seventh-floor living room on Peterborough Street in the Fenway and glared accusingly at The Viridian apartment tower on nearby Boylston Street.
Twenty stories tall, the new Viridian is as unapologetic as a front-row theatergoer who keeps his hat on during the show. Even as the building intrudes on its neighbors, it advertises its own good fortune: “Stunning, expansive views,” the promotional literature reads.
“If you stand on one foot and tilt your head, you can still see [part of] Fenway Park,” said Greenberg, who teaches literacy classes at the Boston Public Library. She pressed her face against the window for emphasis.
Greenberg doesn’t miss the one-story McDonald’s the Viridian replaced, but she does miss looking out on the universe. “You want to be in the midst of something bigger than yourself.”
The Boston Redevelopment Authority doesn’t keep statistics on view-related complaints — and open skies have been shrinking in Boston since 1713, when the three-story Old State House was built, a head taller than its neighbors then but now a jewel encased in an office tower corridor. Such shifts in the streetscape are the inevitable side effect of something generally coveted in city life — growth and prosperity. Coveted, that is, unless the bold new horizon foreshortens yours.
Today, with about $7 billion of construction underway — roughly 14 million square feet of new development — such pain feels particularly acute. That’s especially true in neighborhoods like the Fenway, where seven sizable projects have been completed since 2004, and three more are rising; and in South Boston, where 13 big developments are being built, and that’s not even including the Seaport District.
Linda Woodrich, 70, of Southie, spoke for many as she watched condos rise where trees once grew across from her apartment, and said no one cares if regular folks lose their view of nature.
“There are a lot of people in South Boston who are depressed,” she said.
BRA spokesman Nick Martin acknowledges that personal views are not protected, but, he added, “we do seriously consider a project’s impact on views as they relate to the public realm.”
“As part of the design review process, you’ll often hear our architects and urban designers discussing the need for appropriate ‘view corridors’ for large projects and as a matter of general planning.”
What is a view worth, anyway? There are different ways to answer that question. Price-per-square-foot is one.
At Twenty Two Liberty in the Seaport District, condos with a water view are selling for much more than those without one, said David Bates, publisher of the Bates Real Estate Report.
Homes with a rear view topped out at just under $1,400 per square foot, according to his review of the first 54 sales, compared with $2,486 per square foot for those with harbor or city views.
But money is just one measure of a view’s value, said comedian Steve Sweeney, who as a child looked out on the Bunker Hill housing projects.
“Usually when people talk about views they talk about looking out at the mountains or the ocean or a large vista,” he said, “but in the city, maybe it’s a little bit of air, or the unending hope of Fenway Park — a little vision of something better.”
And when that’s taken away, what’s a person to do?
In South Boston, Alyssa Monaco has developed a sad, if practical, plan for dealing with the condo development rising mere yards from her second-floor apartment windows. “I try not to look out,” she said as she hustled off to work on a recent morning.
In a city where housing is both hard to find and expensive, even a merely decent view can feel like a luxury. But people who’ve landed a home with a great view — particularly if it didn’t cost a fortune — feel as if they’ve won one of life’s lotteries.
“We were lucky and we knew it,” said Max Berkowitz, 25, who could once see much of Fenway Park and the Prudential from his second-floor deck, but now looks out at the side of a new Target on Bolyston Street.
“We’d have shrimp and cheese, and my grandmother would come over, and we’d play Frank Sinatra and we’d dance,” he said. “Everyone always wanted to come over.”
“The view was the reason we took the place,” added Max’s father, Marc Berkowitz.
But in the future, the family will recall even this limited view with nostalgia. Yet another building is poised to rise — at 1350 Boylston — and it will box them in even further, block even more sun.
As he stood on his deck, Target as present as a hand in the face, Marc Berkowitz tried to remain positive. “We won’t have to worry about skin damage,” he quipped.
Sometimes it’s not just the loss of the view out that’s the problem, but the newly created view into a condo or apartment.
“Now they can see us peeing,” said Zeynep Koller, a managing director at Accenture, as she stood in her bathroom and pointed to the building rising across A Street, in South Boston.
Meanwhile, out on the street, a construction worker took the long view.
“The city is 400 years old,” said the worker, who gave only his first name, Steve. “It’s always evolving.”