Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Changes to Filene's will face hurdle

Boston likely to confer landmark protection on the entire block

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Boston Globe Staff

BOSTON - With a sale of the historic Filene's building at Downtown Crossing in the works, redevelopment of the block will be complicated by its probable designation as a Boston landmark.

In light of the planned closing of Filene's department store, a 1986 petition to the Boston Landmarks Commission to declare the entire block between Summer and Franklin streets as a protected area has been dusted off and is on a fast track, the commission's executive director, Ellen J. Lipsey, said yesterday.

''We tend to do things when there's some urgency," Lipsey said. A historical analysis of the four buildings on the Filene's block, a public hearing on recommended protections, and formal designation as a Boston landmark could come in early spring.

City officials want at least part of the block protected. ''We think that there are two historically significant buildings on the site," said Susan Elsbree, a Boston Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman. She said she was referring to the oldest of the four structures that today are part of Filene's.

Possible landmark status and other uncertainties are holding up an agreement between a prospective buyer, C&A Capital LLC of New York, and the building's owner, Federated Department Stores Inc., said an executive involved in negotiations, who asked not to be identified because the deal is not completed.

An agreement to purchase could come as early as this week, he said, following months of negotiations.

Federated, the Cincinnati-based owner of Macy's department stores, last year merged with the parent company of Filene's and is closing that and other regional stores. Filene's in Boston is one of dozens of buildings that Federated put on the market last year.

Filene's Basement, owned by a separate company, has a long lease for the floors below street level, adding further difficulties to any plans for building, demolition, or remodeling.

The portion of Filene's considered most valuable is a 1912 main building at Washington and Summer streets that Boston residents who petitioned for landmark status called ''one of the best examples of early 20th century Monumental Beaux Arts commercial architecture in Boston."

At eight floors, it was the last commercial building designed by the nationally known Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham. It is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

''The more significant something is, the less alterations would be looked at for that part of the property," Lipsey said.

Other buildings on the block opened in 1905, 1951, and 1973.

If the entire block, also bounded by Franklin and Hawley streets, is given landmark status, the new owners would need permission to make changes to the exterior or to demolish and undertake new construction.

But Lipsey said that doesn't mean major changes, such as a hotel or residential or office tower, are ruled out.

''There might be different guidelines for different parts," she said. ''It doesn't mean there cannot be new construction on top of what exists, or from the ground up."

Uncertainties such as restrictions based on historic status or the conditions of the buildings make it difficult to put a value on the real estate. Some bidders, including the two New York investors negotiating with Federated, offered a range of purchase prices, depending on what development is allowed.

Alex Adjmi, a partner in the team trying to buy the building, could not be reached for comment yesterday. It is not known how much the New York group has offered for the building, but one local real estate executive last week estimated it is worth about $130 million. Any complicating factors, such as historic status, which could draw out the development period and cause further expense for the new owners, would probably reduce its sale value.

Eighty buildings in Boston are designated as landmarks.

In addition, certain districts, such as Beacon Hill, are considered landmarks. Collectively, those eight historic districts contain about 7,700 buildings.

The Legislature created the Boston Landmarks Commission in 1975, after an outcry raised when a Victorian building housing the Jordan Marsh department store, a Filene's rival, was torn down. A modern building on the site houses Macy's.

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