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History Behind the 55′ Height Limit in Boston’s North End

by Peter Petrigno

I was recently referenced in a comment stream as the one “who conceived and forcefully pursued the 55-foot height limit initiative.” The article was NEWRA Response to NEWNC Proposal: “Reality Trumps Nostalgia.” It pleased me to see that after all these years some in the North End remember how I secured both the 55 foot height restriction and rooftop overlay zoning.

The 1980s was a time of rapid change for the North End. Sky rocketing rents and condo conversions began displacing many low and moderate income families. Structures were being built on top of existing buildings and taller buildings were being constructed. Plans for the Big Dig were being finalized and the future of the North End was uncertain. One candidate for state representative warned that unchecked development would lead to the “Manhattanization” of the neighborhood.

Initially community members responded to individual development projects like trying to put out many separate fires. We won some battles and lost others. As the number of projects increased it only seemed logical for the matter to be addressed with a comprehensive plan. I organized a small committee of volunteers and mapped out a plan to wage a three pronged campaign – to establish a 55 foot height limit, rooftop overlay district, and historic district. I then set out to join a number of well-established North End organizations in an effort to solicit their support. The idea was to unite the community in one loud voice in saying “no” to intrusive development. Soon I was working closely with members of the Boston Landmarks Commission and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Our work was well underway when the NEWNC was formed by then mayor Raymond Flynn and I was appointed one of its first members. It was BRA zoning director Linda Bourque, who was a North End resident at the time, and I who drew up the documents in her City Hall office for the 55 foot height restriction and rooftop overlay district. On June 19, 1985 the Zoning Commission unanimously adopted the measures. Later that evening I delivered the news of our victory to over 400 residents gathered at the Knights of Columbus hall. It was an historic and most joyous event. With the adoption of the 55 foot height limit and rooftop overlay zoning, support for the historic district component of our plan began to fade and was no longer pursued.

Our success would not have been realized if it wasn’t for the hard work and dedication of many good neighborhood people. Bobby LaBella invested untold amounts in personal resources while Frank Borelli and Emily Pulgiano incessantly pestered city and state officials. A small army of volunteers completed the daunting task of filling out architectural surveys and photographing every North End building. Throngs of residents came out for numerous and sometimes raucous neighborhood meetings. The local newspaper Regional Review was most instrumental in fanning the flames of civic pride and activism. Week after week the Regional Review printed articles, letters to the editors, full-page ads, and gave full editorial support to the cause.

Today the 55 foot height restriction and rooftop overlay district are an important part of the community’s continued development. I am very proud of what was accomplished.

The forces of change in the North End at that time ultimately led me to New Hampshire; however, my parents and many relatives still call the North End home. As for me, to paraphrase an old saying, you can take the boy out of the North End but you can’t take the North End out of the boy. I extend best wishes to today’s civic leaders who continue to work in the interest of the North End-Waterfront community.

Peter Petrigno
Milford, New Hampshire welcomes commentaries on community issues via email to  Opinions are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of or other writers on this site.  Comments or responses to this commentary can be posted below in the comment section.

4 Replies to “History Behind the 55′ Height Limit in Boston’s North End

  1. Peter did a great job and did not receive universal neighborhood support. I was sorry he moved to New Hampshire because he had a wonderful family.
    There was some talk back then about making the North End an historic district but real estate developers and landlords deep sixed that idea. Maybe it’s time to revive it?
    If you visit the Lower East Side in New York, I’ve heard it called Little Chitaly because Chinatown has pretty much engulfed it, it would break your heart. A once vibrant Italian American community is gone and all that’s left are hokey restaurants and Saint Gennaro’s feast. High rise condos are going up all over the place. It could happen here.

  2. The North End of Boston is the oldest and most historic evolving neighborhood in America. Desecrating it with high-rise monstrosities would be an atrocity and insult to it’s unique character. My father and I were at that “historic event” at the Knights’ Hall. The announcement induced thunderous applause and renewed neighborhood pride.
    Thank you Again, Peter–nice to hear from you.

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