Battle of semantics rears head in Four Corners: Neighbors oppose auto repair shop on Bowdoin St.

A question of 1940s terminology has become the focal point this month of a battle against an auto repair shop in Four Corners that some neighbors say is illegal.

The ruckus began as neighbor Jamal Leek, head of the United Neighborhood Association, was investigating a different zoning violation—a party in a “club” that was actually zoned as a residence. He noticed on a walk by that party that the auto repair shop Boricua at 13 Bowdoin St. was open and active, at 1 a.m. The shop had appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals to change its occupancy from “service station and lubritorium” to “auto repair shop” in 2007, and Leek was at the hearing to testify against the change. He witnessed the ZBA turn that request down.

Calling the Inspectional Services Department the next day, he expected to trigger an inspection of the garage, and maybe a violation for its owner, but instead he got a shock.

ISD inspector Luis Santana had independently approved a request for the very same occupancy change earlier this month—from “service station” to “repair shop garage.”

“It’s kind of like you get kicked in the stomach and all the wind gets knocked out of you,” said Leek. “It almost makes it seem like the zoning is open to interpretation… like the city and businesses are controlling things as opposed to the resident.”

Leek and others in the neighborhood, including Four Corners Main Street director Shelly Goehring, said they are after a wider diversity of services in the neighborhood. Several auto repair shops exist in the area.

ISD, on the other hand, is arguing that because the station was issued an occupancy for “service station and lubritorium” back in 1941, the location is “grandfathered in.” At the time, their argument goes, the meaning of the term ‘service station’ included auto repair.

“At this time, the city of Boston and the Inspectional Services Department stands behind the permit that has been issued,” said ISD spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake. “The commissioner has actually asked us to investigate what happened and then we can move forward.”

A quick look at ISD documents for the site turns up a long chain of applications for the same change of use that date back to 1982, many of them from the original 1941 owner of the station: The Texas Company, a.k.a. Texaco. All of them are stamped “abandoned” or “not approved,” but they do indicate that even the original 1941 permit holder recognized a need to apply for a change of use in order to host a repair shop.

A condition on Texaco’s August 26, 1941 permit reads: “2-car lubritorium,” which would indicate that the shop’s two-car garage was to be used for oil changes. Lubritorium, according to Collins Dictionary, has no meaning that includes auto repair, and there is no mention of auto repair on the permit.

The thinking at ISD is that a separate definition for auto repair didn’t exist in 1941. A call to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and one to the City’s Archives department to get the definitive answer on this point has yet to bear fruit.