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Still fighting for the Gaiety’s life

As the wrecking ball literally approaches the 96-year-old Gaiety Theatre on Washington Street — an adjacent building is being knocked down first — the historic structure’s supporters are trying yet again to prevent its destruction, which will soon take place to clear the way for the 30-story Kensington Place condominiums (see "Curtain Call," News and Features, October 15, 2004). After trying to win over the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Inspectional Services Division, Land Court, and the Supreme Judicial Court, the Save-the-Gaiety activists, led by several city councilors, secured a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on Tuesday. Close to 50 people showed up. Though the odds of the ZBA rescuing the theater appeared slim at best, at least the seven board members would hear the argument.

Which is why the supporters caused a fine ruckus in City Hall when ZBA chair Robert Shortsleeve abruptly announced, "I’m dismissing it," before anyone got to speak. The ZBA’s lawyer in these matters, the city’s corporation counsel, had advised him that the issue had no standing in this venue, he said. So go home.

As Shortsleeve tried to move on to the next agenda item, the stunned supporters refused to let it drop. "Shame on you!" one called. "You’re the servants of the BRA, aren’t you?" another heckled, to great applause. Security was called. Eventually word got to the councilors, who had returned to their offices, and they made their way back to the eighth-floor hearing room. Chuck Turner arrived first, followed by Maura Hennigan, Felix Arroyo, and Charles Yancey. They demanded an explanation of the jurisdiction question. Shortsleeve refused to give it. So they decided to get it directly from the city’s corporation counsel, Merita Hopkins. The councilors led a parade of citizens to her office (once they figured out where it was), including members of the Back Bay Neighborhood Association, the Chinese Progressive Association, and residents of the Ritz-Carlton condominiums that abut the future Kensington. They were met there by a locked door, with security guards on both sides. Turner, true to form, was ready to start a sit-in.

Hopkins herself was not actually inside, and when she did arrive, she denied having advised the ZBA at all. "You are the corporate counsel," Yancey said. "Presumably someone in the corporate counsel’s office has been advising them," Hopkins replied. She went to confer with Shortsleeve, who was minutes away from ending the board’s business for the day and getting off clean. After a 10-minute closed-door discussion, he agreed to allow testimony, and decide on jurisdiction later.

So Gaiety Friends leader Lee Eiseman, Ching-In Chen of the Asian American Resource Workshop, and the four city councilors got to make their pitch. In a nutshell, they claim that Boston’s zoning laws expressly forbid destruction of a theater — which the Gaiety clearly is — in the designated Midtown Cultural District. So, the ZBA should revoke the demolition permit.

Incurring the wrath of the crowd, Councilor Jim Kelly spoke against that idea, as did Matthew Kiefer, a legal representative of Kensington. Not that it matters much — even die-hards among the Gaiety supporters don’t expect the ZBA to step in. But at least they got heard on Tuesday.

Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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