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Hotel Commonwealth Developers Acknowledge
Substituting Cheaper Materials; City Requires
$1.9 million Makeover of Exterior
By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., The Boston Globe
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Feb. 25, 2003 - The new Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, reviled as an eyesore even before it has opened, is about to get a $1.9 million makeover. 

The developer, Great Bays Holdings, and Boston University, its limited partner, have decided that paint alone won't end the controversy. Following a month of negotiations with city officials, neighbors, and BU, Great Bays has decided surgery is required on the $70 million project. 

The 150-room hotel had been promised as the centerpiece for the renewal of a run-down Kenmore Square. But when the construction curtain came down in the fall, the neighborhood erupted in criticism -- echoed at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. 

Critics demanded that the yellowish plastic-like panels that make up much of the facade be replaced with material that would fit in better with the building's Commonwealth Avenue neighbors. 

Also criticized were the color, thought by some to be almost glowing, and details said to look more like a Hollywood set than a hotel, such as cutouts that pose as dormers but are not even connected to the mansard roof. 

"We've all come to the conclusion we should be replacing all the fiberglass on the building and moving toward cast stone," said Richard Towle, senior vice president at Boston University. 

That will make the hotel "belong in a family of buildings that are part of the square," said Prataap Patrose, who heads the Boston Redevelopment Authority's urban design department. 

"We're reexamining some of the design details, the shape of the bays, the dormers on top -- all of those things are being looked at as part of the new direction," Patrose said. 

The new panels are expected in about three months, with installation by the fall. 

In his 18 years at the BRA, Patrose said, he has never seen so many changes required to make a new building acceptable. 

Added Towle, "BU has developed about a billion dollars' worth of buildings, and we've never run into this kind of problem, either. But when we run into a problem we fix it." 

Robert A. Brown, a partner in CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc. who is former president of the Boston Society of Architects, said Boston is a city that requires developers to clear many hurdles to prevent this sort of problem. 

"Because of our rigorous approval process," he said, "this type of thing shouldn't happen. There's supposed to be a full-size mockup. You can see that on any major project around." 

After the building was unveiled, the developers quickly acknowledged it had not come out as expected -- after they trimmed costs by substituting cheaper materials for those that were originally approved. 

Another participant in the project, developer Frank Keefe, pledged to work with the community to tone down specific elements. At the time, he predicted that paint, in a more pleasing tone, would do the trick. He was unavailable for comment yesterday, but has said that all the city's requirements were complied with. 

BRA as well as BU officials said they viewed small samples of the material that is to be replaced, but did not see the actual panels, as is customary, before they were installed. 

"The BRA never got to see what was required as part of the approval, which is a mockup panel, was never informed of it," Patrose said. 

"I've seen it, and it's beautiful," Pam Beale, owner of Cornwall's pub and restaurant, said yesterday of the new design. "It's really what we had hoped for all along. Instead of painting it or fooling around, they've taken the extra steps and brought it back to where it was before." 

Facades will be redone on the front, facing Commonwealth Avenue, and on the east side, on Kenmore Street, across from the Kenmore Abbey, a historic hotel on Commonwealth built in the French Second Empire style. 

"If you look at the Kenmore Abbey, it's a cousin to this one," Towle said. "We want this building to be much more comfortable beside it and look like a relative to it." 

Specifically, on the front and east sides: 

--The fiberglass facades on the base of the building and the fiberglass bay window panels will be replaced with precast concrete panels designed to resemble limestone. 

"It will look like stone, as opposed to that yellowish tinge," Towle said. 

--The pointed window frames and parapets at the top will become the fronts of actual dormer-like structures, connected to the mansard roof, rather than just ornaments. 

--The composite material below the dormers will be repainted, consistent with the new stonelike materials used to replace the plastic panels. 

The back of the hotel, facing the Massachusetts Turnpike, will be muted with a paint job consistent with a color consistent with what's on the front. But because it is adjacent to a development parcel on Newbury Street and would probably be hidden in the future, this facade will not undergo expensive renovation. 

In addition to the architectural dispute, two other matters related to the hotel have been settled: 

First is a broad agreement that satisifies the city's concerns about the planned upgrade of the Kenmore Square MBTA station, which serves the Green Line and buses. 

The pact includes an immediate $3 million Boston University investment in a new entrance to the T station. By next year this time, pedestrian entrances will have been moved inside the new hotel building, and the sidewalks will be cleared of the existing MBTA structures. That work was not scheduled to have taken place for two years or more, but the university will loan the money to the MBTA to do it sooner. 

Also resolved was a yearlong disagreement with the hotel workers union. 

Janice Loux, president of the Hotel, Restaurant, Institutional Employees, and Bartenders Union, Local 26, confirmed that her dispute with the hotel's developers over plans to unionize the work force has been resolved. 

Local 26 wanted to be recognized as a bargaining unit simply if 51 percent of the workers sign union cards -- rather than have to hold a formal election. Great Bays has agreed to that process, she said. 

The agreement covers hotel employees, but not those in the two restaurants that will occupy space in the hotel building. 

-----To see more of The Boston Globe, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2003, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. 


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