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City backs designer's proposal

Starck's team would turn old police station into high-end condos

The Boston Redevelopment Authority yesterday endorsed a plan that could have design impresario Philippe Starck recreating the interior of the old Area D4 police station in the South End, bringing some high-style condos to a neighborhood otherwise known for its staid brick.

With eight proposals to choose from, including several from preservationists with more traditional ideas for the vacant space, the BRA staff recommended that its board take the first step in designating Yoo D4 Urbanica as the police station's redeveloper, virtually locking in the team as the winner.

The Yoo D4 Urbanica team includes Starck and local developers Kamran Zahedi and Panos Demeter.

Starck, known for his product line at Target and for his work designing hip hotels such as the Delano in Miami and the Hudson in New York, is breaking into residential work. The South End development would be among his first in North America.

"It's always nice to see a world renowned interior designer take a look at Boston, which has a dowdy reputation." said John Neale, a partner at Sprogis & Neale Real Estate and a board member of the South End Historical Society. "We often end up with polite red-brick buildings. They're pleasant, but they don't stand out. It's not bad to look outside Boston once in a while."

In recent years, it has sometimes seemed that Boston has been eclipsed by Cambridge in terms of world-class design. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, is in line for a building from internationally famous architect Frank Gehry.

"I hope this sends a signal that Boston is focused on world class and cutting-edge projects," BRA director Mark Maloney said of his staff's decision to recommend Yoo D4 Urbanica's proposal. That project would preserve the facade of a four-story police station built in 1932 at 7 Warren Ave. near Berkeley and Gray streets. In the proposed makeover, the police station's interior would feature an enclosed courtyard with orange trees and a roof partly sodded with grass to hold rainwater. The roof would reduce the runoff into the South End's already overtaxed drainage system during big storms, Zahedi said. The roof was a big selling point for the project, he said.

There would also be 24 condos, ranging from about 800 to 1,300 square feet -- three designated as affordable under federal income guidelines. Market-rate condos would likely sell for $500,000 to $1 million. Once approved, the renovation is estimated to be completed by the end of 2005.

By combining the green roof, Starck's interior design, and the refurbishing of the exterior by the architectural firm of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, "we have a nice balance between preservation and the modern," said Demeter, who added that having its financing in place also helped give Yoo D4 Urbanica an edge.

Starck's interior design has not been fully sketched out, but Demeter promised one thing: "It will be an experience."

Not everyone is delighted by the prospect of Starck's influence infiltrating the South End. During a public comment period, neighborhood resident Mary H. Hull (who is married to a rival developer) said Starck's ideas are wildly out of character with the South End.

"If I or my neighbors wanted that sort of messy modernist stuff, we would live in Miami or Frankfurt or Bilbao or God knows where, not in a protected Victorian district," Hull wrote. "We chose to live here for a reason!"

At MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, former dean William J. Mitchell said it would be wrong to conclude that Cambridge has a planning and zoning process that's superior to Boston's in terms of welcoming international designers and architects.

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.

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