Guv Wisely Eases Himself Away from High-Income Housing Easement

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Charlie Baker stepped away this week from the case of the State House lawn easement for real estate developers.  To do otherwise would have been foolish.  Our governor is no fool.

As Baker stepped away, with Secretary of State Bill Galvin nipping at his heels, he seemed a little perturbed at having been drawn innocently into the matter. 
The easement, he noted for the benefit of The Boston Globe, “has been approved by so many entities that are supposed to worry about those things,” meaning, “How the hell did I wind up worrying about this?”

Here was an instance where a small matter causes a big problem for someone in high office, illustrating how vulnerable to harm and blame the mighty ones of our political system are.  Every day when you’re governor, something you don’t see coming can blow up in your face.
Let’s recap the situation…

Late last week, Baker filed a supplemental budget with the legislature that included an authorization to sell an easement to a piece of the State House lawn to the developers of an adjacent building at 25 Beacon Street.  We’re talking about a sliver of land obscured by bushes and shrubs.
The 25 Beacon Street property, which was the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association for 89 years, is being turned into six luxury condominiums, each to be sold for between $9 million and $11 million.  In 2014, the developers, SDC-DLJ Beacon Hill, acquired 25 Beacon and three buildings behind it for $23.6 million. The easement was needed to create window wells on the ground floor for three apartments for au pairs, live-in child care employees.  Without the window wells, the reconstruction work would not meet code.

A price for the easement had not yet been determined but it was supposed to be at market rate, and the money from the sale was supposed to go into an account for maintaining the (quite-beautiful) grounds of the State House.  
Among the agencies that have already approved the easement are the Boston Board of Appeals, the Boston Inspectional Services Department, the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, and the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission.  In other words, SDC-DLJ Beacon Hill, has run the gauntlet.

Baker and Galvin disagree on whether the easement has also been approved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.   Baker says it has; Galvin says no, not hardly. 
An approval letter from the commission to the developers reportedly covers only the interior renovations and changes to the building and is silent on the easement.  The Globe reviewed a copy of the letter and reported that it “mentioned the addition of window wells as part of the rehabilitation but did not mention the easement on the State House grounds.”

This past Monday, Baker announced that he was dropping the easement authorization from the supplemental budget because the Massachusetts Historical Commission “no longer supports” it.  That really set off Galvin, who chairs the commission. 
“He (Baker) has repeatedly misstated the facts on this issue,” Galvin told The Globe’s Frank Phillips.  “At some point, a misstatement becomes a misrepresentation.  The governor should be capable of understanding the difference.”  Ouch.

One may infer that Baker withdrew the easement to keep the tiff with Galvin from turning into a brawl.  It’s a lot of trouble to fight with Galvin, one of the smartest and toughest persons in the annals of Massachusetts politics, and it never pays.
I think Baker’s reasons for withdrawing are more fundamental.  I think they relate to general concerns in our society about income inequality and the particular concerns in Massachusetts about a housing market that’s gone crazy, killing so many dreams of home ownership and sending so many young men and women out of state to more affordable venues.

The web site for 25 Beacon unabashedly proclaims: 
“Welcome to Boston’s most prestigious new address, offering a fortunate few a life of unsurpassed luxury in an exclusive residence that marries Beacon Hill’s charm and history with a stunning luxury condo that epitomizes modern elegance.  In an age of sleek towers, 25 Beacon is a boutique building, impeccably finished, offering wonderful views, on-site garage parking and a coveted Beacon Hill address adjacent to the State House and across from Boston Common.”

Where is the politician today who would say, “A life of unsurpassed luxury for the fortunate few?  You bet ya!”
Not on the third floor at the State House, that’s for sure.


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