On other side of pond, BU rankles neighbors

Its air conditioners in London called a nuisance

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / January 2, 2010

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Town-gown friction has roiled every Boston neighborhood abutting a college campus: drunk students parading through Beacon Hill, loud parties in the Fenway, construction in Allston.

But the complaints don’t stop at the city limits. An ocean away in South Kensington - an exclusive London enclave dotted with tranquil communal gardens that offer a haven from the bustle of city life - residents are fighting their own battle against Boston University.

The source of their ire is that most American of conveniences: air conditioning.

Neighbors are angry that BU’s London outpost installed five condenser cooling units behind its Victorian town house in the summer of 2008. They say the bulky equipment is an eyesore and a noise nuisance, and have stepped up their protests in recent months after it became clear that the units were not going away easily.

“BU has deeply upset the neighbors and caused us a lot of time and effort to undo what they’ve done without permis sion,’’ said Holly Smith, a Wetherby Gardens resident. “BU is a foreign university. They are guests in this country, and they haven’t behaved in a neighborly way. I am ashamed of them.’’

A Wetherby Gardens committee has hired a lawyer and a sound expert to test noise levels from the air conditioners. Residents want BU to relocate the Mitsubishi units to a less visible location, one that can’t be seen or heard by BU’s neighbors. Committee members say they recently appealed to college officials in Boston, including the president’s office and the board of trustees, to no avail.

Residents have flooded the planning department in the British capital with complaints. The constant humming of the units, which are supposed to operate year-round, deter them from spending time outside and from sleeping with their windows open, they say. Air conditioning is a rare amenity in London.

In Wetherby Gardens, a communal 2-acre rectangular patch of grass, London plane trees and rose bushes are tucked into the quiet residential pocket. Stately homes, subdivided into flats worth more than a million British pounds, back up to the garden. The five-star Bentley Hotel sits at the corner.

“These large and ugly units, together with a jungle of cables and sockets serving them, are an eyesore,’’ Dorothy Napierala, whose small courtyard lies just a few steps from BU’s air conditioners, wrote in a letter to the planning department. “I think their installation is an act of arrogance and disregard for the law and for the community.’’

BU officials in London did not return calls or e-mails for comment this week. A university spokesman in Boston said the air conditioners were installed to cool computers and classrooms in the historic building, where for more than two decades BU has educated students studying abroad.

“At this point, the plan is to meet with city planning officials and neighbors in January and fashion a solution that works for everyone,’’ said BU spokesman Stephen Burgay.

BU has agreed to shut off the units until the dispute is resolved, neighbors said. The university also has offered proposals to ease neighbors’ concerns.

Under one plan, BU would raise a dividing wall to make the units less visible. But residents say that would block precious sunlight from some adjacent homes. It would also prevent one resident’s cats from access to the garden. The university also submitted plans to erect a decorative metal casing around the air conditioners to screen them off and muffle the sounds. But residents say that would merely add bulk to the unattractive equipment.

“We don’t think BU’s proposed modifications are sufficient to take away the obnoxiousness of the air conditioners,’’ Smith said. “Because this is a protected historic building, it’s even more of a faux pas that they put the air conditioners where they did.’’

The four-story BU building, faced in red brick and featuring a steeply pitched roof, is listed as part of a historic group of buildings for its architectural importance, designed in the late 1800s by renowned Victorian architects Ernest George and Harold Peto.

Smith said the garden committee, which sets the bylaws for the square, has repeatedly implored the university to remove or reposition the units to the front of the building in vaults beneath the street.

It is her understanding that BU intended to install the air conditioners at the front of the building, where the noise would be more easily mingled with street sounds, but city planners did not want the below-ground vaults to be disturbed, she said. The builders then took a chance and put the units out back, facing the garden, retroactively seeking permission from the planning department, Smith said.

“This came to a head right before Christmas, when we wanted to be out shopping and writing Christmas cards,’’ she said. “But instead, we had to be reading background reports and trying to understand the sound expert’s report. It has been extremely annoying and expensive to cope with this.’’

At a planning department hearing in December, an elected councilor questioned the university’s actions, Smith said. The department held off on making a decision until it receives more information from BU about why the air conditioning is necessary and why it cannot be installed in the front, she said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at