This guide from the Charlestown Preservation Society is intended to help you navigate the often confusing process of preservation and development in Charlestown. We hope it will help if you’re planning to build or rehabilitate a house here, or if you’re concerned about a development or rehabilitation project going on in our neighborhood.
Here’s what the guide covers:
Who’s in charge of preservation and development in Charlestown?
Development in our neighborhood is controlled by a complex web of regulations that include the state building codes and Boston zoning codes.
Preservation in Charlestown is also complicated. Unlike Back Bay, Beacon Hill and the South End, building exteriors here are not protected from change by local historic district regulations. But there are codes and organizations that encourage preservation and influence development. Here they are in brief:
- The Massachusetts State Building Code sets construction and occupant safety standards that you must meet if you develop or renovate property.
- The City of Boston Zoning Code sets standards for use, building and property dimensions, parking, and open space that you must meet if you develop or renovate property. If these regulations allow community input, local groups like the Charlestown Preservation Society (CPS), its Design Review Committee (DRC), and the Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) can influence the outcome by expressing concerns and offering recommendations.
- The Boston Landmark Commission (BLC) is Boston’s preservation planning agency. The BLC and the City Archaeology Program are part of the City of Boston’s Environment Department. The BLC provides a level of protection for buildings in Boston with individual or district landmark, as well as potential landmarks. The BLC administers Article 85 of the City’s Zoning Code that establishes a process for reviewing the demolition of buildings in Boston. Before demolishing a building in Boston 50 or more years old you must submit an Article 85 application.
- The Charlestown Preservation Society (CPS) and the CPS Design Review Committee (DRC) give advice, make recommendations, and advocate for development and renovation that’s appropriate for the neighborhood. These recommendations are advisory only; CPS and DRC have no control or authority over what’s built, restored or developed here. But, if they’re informed early enough, they can encourage development that’s compatible with their views of the ways an historic community should look and function.
- The Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) also considers design and construction issues in Charlestown. But like CPS and DRC, its input is advisory only. CPS and DRC focus more on design issues, while CNC focuses on traffic, parking, occupancy, and environmental matters. As an elected body, the CNC generally has more influence over the direction of development.
- If a building is located in a National Register District, CPS and CNC persuasion can be more effective. This is a federal designation that recognizes areas that are important in American history, architecture and culture. Designation as a National Register District doesn’t by itself limit development; there are no restrictions on what private property owners can do as long as they use private funds.
Local Historic Districts are the strongest types of protection; Beacon Hill is an example. In local historic districts, changes to exterior architectural features that are visible from the street must be approved by a Historic District Commission. There have been efforts to establish local historic districts in Charlestown, but they have not succeeded.
Architectural Conservation Districts and Protection Areas are determined by the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), the city’s historic preservation agency. These districts regulate change to massing and scale of buildings, but typically does not regulate the materials or finishes that the local historic districts do.
National Register Districts are an honorary designation and less protective. This federal designation recognizes the historic importance of an area and offers limited tax incentives for some rehabilitation projects. But there are no restrictions on what private property owners can do to their buildings as long as they use private funds.
There are five National Register Districts and several individual listings in Charlestown, as well as pending applications for listing. These are the Bunker Hill Monument, Monument Square, Town Hill, Boston Naval Shipyard, Charlestown Heights, Middlesex Canal, and Terminal Storage Warehouse Districts. Follow this link to view information on these listings: https://maps.mhc-macris.net/
Building Permits: Any project other than ordinary repairs requires a building permit before you begin work. To get a permit, your project must meet city zoning codes and the Massachusetts State Building Code.
Zoning Code: The City of Boston Zoning Code details the requirements for land use, building types and sizes, heights and densities, parking, and open space for every neighborhood in Boston. It also establishes Neighborhood Design Overlay Districts (NDODs) with guidelines to protect the character of neighborhoods. Most of central Charlestown is included in a Design Overlay District. Town Hill, Monument Square, Breed’s Hill, Union Street, Salem Hill/Bunker Hill East, and Bunker Hill West/Middlesex Canal NDODs are additionally established within the larger District.
Design Review: Some parcels in Charlestown may require “design review” by additional city agencies, such as the BPDA, Parks and Recreation, and the Boston Landmarks Commission. Demolition of significant historic structures is strongly discouraged.
Start planning your development or renovation project by reviewing the zoning and NDOD regulations for your property. Visit the following website and enter the property address in the search box at the top. Information about subdistricts, NDODs, and any Design Review regulations will appear as clickable links. http://maps.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/zoningviewer/
Follow this link to view a zoning map of Charlestown. This map graphically displays each NDOD, type of “use” (residential, i.e., 2-, 3- or multi-family; local convenience; open space; or neighborhood shopping district) allowed: http://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/3bab2e31-6a74-4eea-aba6-8c0205cbc803/
You can find most of the regulations that apply to Charlestown’s central residential district in the Boston Zoning Code’s Article 62, Charlestown Neighborhood District. Informative materials, codes, and maps can be downloaded here from the BPDA website:
Specific requirements are in these Charlestown Neighborhood District Sections:
Article 62 – Charlestown Neighborhood District:
Article 62 – Tables: https://library.municode.com/ma/boston/codes/redevelopment_authority?nodeId=ART62TA
Map 2E Charlestown:
Demolition Delay Review is covered in Article 85:
You can apply for a building permit online or in person at the City of Boston Inspectional Services Division (ISD) offices at 1010 Massachusetts Avenue in Roxbury.
Building permits are required for pretty much everything beyond simple repairs. If you’re a novice, here are some useful pointers for applying for a permit:
Online: Go to http://www.cityofboston.gov/isd/ to apply. To find out what type of permit you need, go to www.cityofboston.gov/isd/building/boa/bldgdefault.asp. You can use the building permit search function to find out what permits have been awarded or rejected for your property, a neighbor’s property, or any other property in the city.
In person: Go to the Inspectional Services Department, 1010 Mass Ave, 5th floor, Counter 2, Plans and Zoning Division, and speak with the plans examiner on duty.
There are two basic types of building permits:
- Short form permits are required for minor repairs with no structural work.
- Long form permits are required for new buildings, additions, changes in occupancy, certificates of occupancy, and structural work.
Short form permits are relatively simple to obtain.
If this is your first experience, the best strategy is to apply in person at ISD. You can fill out an application on their computers, there’ll be someone to walk you through the process, and you may be able to walk out with your permit. But be aware that the process will take at least an hour and probably longer.
The process is easier if you’re prepared for your visit: write down all your questions and bring along a plot plan of your lot if possible. There’s probably a plot plan in your closing documents, or in the Master Deed if you own a condo.
The long form permit is more time-consuming.
The process is similar to the short-form permit, but you may need a plot plan of your lot and plans stamped by a registered architect or professional engineer, and you won’t receive a permit immediately.
About a week after you apply, your permit will be assigned to a plan reviewer. About three weeks after you apply, the reviewer will contact you, probably by letter and probably with a request for more information. Once you have a plan reviewer assigned, you can contact that person by phone at (617) 635-5300.
Although you can call ISD at (617) 635-5300, be aware that the department doesn’t answer questions over the phone and won’t schedule an appointment unless you’ve already submitted a permit application.
The Inspectional Services Department (ISD) will check your compliance with applicable zoning codes when you apply. If ISD finds a violation, you have two options:
- Correct the violation by making design changes or
- Appeal for a variance to the zoning code from the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA)
Appealing for a Variance: If you appeal, you’ll need an attorney to write the appeal. Because you must satisfy the community as well as the city, the Zoning Board of Appeal will schedule a public hearing on your appeal. Depending on the size of the project, the ZBA will notify property owners abutting the project and the Office of Neighborhood Services will hold a public meeting at the project site.
If your appeal is granted, you’ll probably be referred to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) for a Small Project Design Review under Article 80 of the Boston Zoning Code.
You can find out more about zoning code violations, variances and the zoning appeal process in the BPDA website:
A Word to the Wise: If you’re planning to build or renovate property in Charlestown, it’s wise to consult with your neighbors and city officials early in the process. Clear and open communication is one of the most important (and often neglected) parts of a successful project. CPS’s Design Review Committee is happy to review plans prior to submission to the ISD. This free review could save you both time and money in the process.
If you plan to develop or renovate property in Charlestown, you can bring your
plans to the CPS Design Review Committee (DRC) and get expert feedback at no charge from DRC members, who include experienced architects, lawyers and preservationists.
The DRC reviews projects of all sizes, from residential alterations to new commercial buildings. It looks at the project as a whole and its relation to neighboring buildings, as well as in terms of both preservation and regulatory concerns, including zoning and building codes.
While the DRC isn’t a legal authority, it advocates and supports good contextual design and appropriate rehabilitation. It routinely sends design evaluations and opinions about projects to the City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA), the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), and the Office of Neighborhood Services.
The DRC typically meets monthly on the fourth Monday of the month from January through April and the third Monday of the month thereafter. The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. and is located in the basement meeting room of the Mary Colbert Apartments at 20 Devens Street in Charlestown. The room is only accessible from the adjacent sidewalk and is open to the public.
Note: CPS has written and published Charlestown History and Architecture,
an illustrated history of our town and the buildings constructed since its founding in 1629. Here you will also find advice on how to recognize the architectural styles that contribute so much to Charlestown’s character and how to care for them. The book can be found on this website at:
We’re fortunate in Charlestown because our neighborhood is remarkably consistent in character and scale, thanks to a consistent set of building rules that governed residential construction from 1780 through the early 1900s when most of Charlestown was developed. To preserve this unique character, CPS and the CPS Design Review Committee believe that new buildings or changes to existing ones should respect the predominant characteristics of the town’s existing buildings, including forms, proportional relationships, and materials.
Here are some suggestions for building and renovating in ways that honor the architectural integrity of our unique neighborhood:
- Maintain and repair historic features and materials instead of replacing them.
- If you replace missing architectural features, base the replacements on the original features, substantiated by physical and pictorial evidence.
- Make sure any new work is appropriate to the original building in terms of size, shape, materials, design, color and texture.
- Preserve as much of the building’s original greenspace as possible.
- Make sure the new building harmonizes with the predominant characteristics of the neighborhood in terms of height, mass, setback, rhythm, scale, proportions and materials.
- Make sure the new building’s height reflects the dominant heights of surrounding buildings.
- Observe historic front and rear yard setbacks.
- Observe the predominant pattern of building width to property frontage in the immediate neighborhood.
If you’re concerned that a project is proceeding without a building permit:
Call the Inspectional Services Department at (617) 635-5300 and ask whether a building permit has been issued for the site. If it hasn’t, you can file a complaint on the spot. The complaint will be entered in “HANSEN,” an ISD computer database, and will be referred to the Charlestown building inspector for investigation.
You can also call the Mayor’s 24-Hour Constituent Service line at (617) 635-4500 or enter a complaint at firstname.lastname@example.org by making a Service Request. Complaints may take a week to investigate; you can call or check online to find out how the complaint was resolved.
If you’re concerned that a project is proceeding without notification of neighbors:
If the project meets the Boston Zoning Code, the owner isn’t required to notify neighbors. If the project doesn’t meet the Boston Zoning Code and the owner appeals to the Zoning Board of Appeal for a variance, abutter notifications are required and are sent out by the ZBA. To find out whether an appeal has been scheduled, call ZBA at (617) 635-4775.
If you’re concerned that a building is about to be demolished:
Complete demolition of a historic structure requires the owner to apply for Article 85 Review with the Boston Landmarks Commission, the city’s historic preservation agency. If a building is determined to be “significant,” a public hearing will be held to allow comments on the proposal. You can find out more at www.boston.gov/departments/landmarks-commission.
If you’re concerned that a project is encroaching on your property or will limit access to your property:
Talk to the builder or owner, or call the ISD building inspector assigned to Charlestown at (617) 635-5300. Building inspectors are usually available between 8 and 9 am and 3 and 4 pm.
If you’re concerned that a project will affect your views:
The zoning code doesn’t usually protect views directly, focusing instead on access to light and air. However, there are dimensional regulations that control how large a building can be and where additions can be located. If the building owner appeals for a zoning variance, a public hearing will be scheduled where you can provide input..
If you’re concerned that work on a project is noisy or dusty:
Call the Charlestown building inspector at (617) 635-5300 between 8 and 9 am or 3 and 4 pm. Or contact the Boston Air Pollution Control Commission at (617) 635-3850.
If you’re concerned that a proposed project is historically or architecturally inappropriate:
Contact the Charlestown Preservation Society at https://cps-ris.org/ or the Charlestown Neighborhood Council at www.charlestownneighborhoodcouncil.org/.
Are there different requirements for commercial, multi-family, and single, two- and three-family houses?
Yes. The Boston Zoning Code allows different uses and building dimensions in each zoning sub-district in Charlestown. You can find more information about the sub-districts at:
Are there different requirements for homeowners and developers?
No. A homeowner and a developer are the same to the city as far as building permits are concerned. A condominium and rental unit are also the same in the eyes of the City of Boston; both are dwelling units.
What role do elected officials play in the development process?
Elected officials are always interested in their constituents’ opinions about development proposals. They can be helpful in resolving problems and a valuable resource for both developers and concerned citizens.
Boston Planning and Development Agency
Ted Schwartzberg, Neighborhood Planner
Charlestown Neighborhood Council www.charlestownneighborhoodcouncil.org
Charlestown Preservation Society/CPS Design Review Committee
District 1 City Councilor
Inspectional Services Department
Inspectional Services Department Building Inspector
(Ask to speak with the Charlestown Building Inspector)
Mayor’s Neighborhood Coordinator for Charlestown
Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services
(617) 635-4500, or 311
Zoning Board of Appeal
The disclaimer: Building regulations and procedures are many, complex, and subject to interpretation by the appropriate agencies. This document is intended as a short guide to a community process and doesn’t presume to be complete. You may want to seek professional advice if you’re about to begin a development or renovation project.