Baker wants to sell part of State House lawn
John Hancock, the state’s first governor, used to walk the rolling hillside pasture that hosts the golden-domed State House.
And now Governor Charlie Baker is seeking to turn over a sliver of this storied land to another noble cause: au pair suites for multimillion-dollar condominiums.
Baker is seeking authorization to offer a permanent easement to the developers of a condominium complex that neighbors the State House. The proposed easement — part of the State House lawn on which Hancock’s 18th century house once stood — was tacked onto a supplementary budget the governor filed with the Legislature late last week.
The exact size of the easement is unclear, but some state officials say it could be as large as 300 square feet. Others, including aides in the governor’s office, say the land in question is much smaller than that.
If it’s granted, the developers would be able to meet state building codes in order to construct what they call three “au pair” suites and a superintendent's living quarters in the basement of 25 Beacon St., a six-story, 28,494-square-foot mansion of limestone and brick. The easement, according to the developer, is for enlarged window wells in the basement units.
The au pair units are being marketed as amenities to lure deep-pocketed buyers for the six condos, which are priced between $9 million and $11 million.
The governor’s use of an outside section of a budget plan allows the legislation to circumvent any State House public hearing or debate on it.
Baker declined to comment directly on the easement. His director of communications, Lizzy Guyton, said the administration had “worked hand in hand with legislative leaders on a proposal.’’
She said the legislation would “allow a developer to pay the state full, fair market value for a tiny construction project, which was approved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and community historical groups, to simply enlarge four existing 5-foot windows on a building that abuts the State House and will not damage or change the appearance of our State Capitol grounds in any way.”
But Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who as the head of the commission is the state’s chief overseer of historic preservation, said he was blindsided by the budget amendment and only learned of it from a Globe inquiry. He expressed strong reservations over the proposed encroachment on historic property.
“You don’t give away a permanent easement, no matter how small, to public land that has such historic significance as John Hancock’s pasture land, to a private developer,’’ Galvin said.
“Why should we the public give up historic public land just to make more money for a developer?” he asked.
He suggested that the developers redraw their plans in order to exclude the need for rights over the old Hancock land.
Galvin disputed the administration’s claim that the state historic commission was informed of the proposal to give an easement on the State House lawn to accommodate the window enlargements.
“The commission never saw or approved an easement,’’ he said.
The developers, through a public relations firm, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, provided the Globe a copy of a May 2015 letter from the commission approving the renovation project at 25 Beacon St. The letter mentioned the addition of window wells as part of the rehabilitation, but did not mention an easement on the State House grounds.
Baker’s legislation says the easement price will be determined by the governor “in consultation with the commissioner of capital asset management and maintenance based upon 1 or more independent professional appraisal.”
Baker’s budget, along with its amendment for the easement, is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means. It is expected to make its way through the House and Senate and onto the governor’s desk by the end of the current legislative session on July 31.
The historic building at 25 Beacon had served as the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Church since 1927.
Records show the developers, SDC-DLJ Beacon Hill LLC, bought the mansion from the church, as well as three other buildings behind it, for $23.6 million in early 2014.
The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, abuts the State House lawn. But the developers, in order to meet state building codes, need to build special window wells in four basements units that would be located on what is now the edge of the State House lawn.
Charles V. Reed and his business partners, including Jean Abouhamad, president of Sea-Dar Construction, have been negotiating with the state since they began their project two years ago.
Reed said they quickly came to understand the sensitivity of what they are asking for.
“The State House grounds are sacred grounds; we have heard that from everyone we have talked to,” he said.
Reed said he and his partner only want the easement in order to build the windows for the au pair basement apartments. The windows must meet state codes that require a minimum amount of natural daylight.
He said the easement would also allow temporary scaffolding for any work or maintenance that needs to be done to the facade of the building.
“I think the size of these window wells are so small they are hidden by the shrubbery,’’ he said. “There is absolutely no impact.”
While the basic structure of the historic building could not be changed, its interior can be. The developers have gutted the building and created a main foyer that will have marble mosaic floors, a round wood concierge desk, and custom chandeliers
“Not your mother’s Boston Brahmin,’’ says the headline in the promotional material. The next page features a photo of a woman in a low-cut black dress, her hands on a wrought iron balcony railing, looking at a full view of the State House in the near distance.
According to the promotional literature, each condo comes with a bathroom decked out with steam showers, soaking tubs, and custom dual white marble vanities. The livings rooms have herringbone oak floors and “classic moldings that create an ambience of distinction.” The kitchens have “superior Gaggenau appliances’’ and a “wealth of glass front-cabinets.”
It also lists the amenities: a live-in concierge; on-site underground garage for two cars per unit; and “independent au pair suites.”