Hess gets Gas with a Smile

Hess gas won its spot in Porter Square at a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Thursday, with four members voting in favor and chairman Tom Sieniewicz abstaining. The owner of Gas With a Smile, Christous Poutahidis, won also, because now he can sell his station and retire. The neighbors won, too, in that Hess answered their demands for design changes — and made space for a Zipcar or two.

But in all of this, especially Sieniewicz’ abstention, lie hints of a slightly broken system.

He fought valiantly for delaying the Hess vote to await an opinion from the city’s Planning Board, arguing that it had to weigh in on how its Massachusetts Avenue Overlay District, which limits car-focused business, applied to the Hess gas station and minimart plan. But his fellow board members were having none of it. And the company’s legal representative, James Rafferty, jumped in with an impatient rebuke.

“This was filed nearly two months ago. The Planning Board staff was aware of it,” Rafferty said.

Quite right. Yet the board’s sole action had been to inform the BZA via note that it hadn’t addressed the issue, leaving unclear why that was so, whether the failure was on purpose or whether it intended to address Hess’ plans in the future. The way the system works, the BZA had to vote without answers. (Similarly, there seems to have been no traffic study, which opponents wanted keenly and the city shrugged off, relying instead on Hess’ word on how drivers would respond to the station’s presence. The opponents were worrying, and the city acting, without solid data.)

Also in that time were meetings of two neighborhood groups. One saw a Hess presentation and suggested changes, but would not meet again until after the BZA, making it difficult to see if the changes were made or made well. The other met just before the BZA, but without Hess and Rafferty, who couldn’t attend. This second group relied on spotty and in some cases incorrect information passed on from the first group. Members of both sent e-mail and letters to let the BZA know how they felt, and much of it also contained spotty or incorrect information — making it easier to come across as ignorant Nimbies to a board composed of architects and lawyers.

“It’s a little frustrating,” said Michael Brandon, acknowledging his North Cambridge Stabilization Committee demands lagged concessions Hess had already made. “because we’re addressing a moving target.”

The BZA paid attention anyway, at least Sieniewicz did, but its members also obviously gave weight to Poutahidis, who stood to plead for a sale with a classic tale of the American Dream, including 18-hour days that started with the business in 1971 when he “didn’t speak 10 words of English.”

“I’m 64 years old. I have a father that lives with me, he’s 100 years old. I know neighbors like my smile, but until when?” he said. “You want me to die there?”

“So you’re in favor of the special permit,” Sieniewicz said dryly.

After the laughs, Poutahidis summed up: “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired.”

In the end, Hess will have: only one curb cut onto Massachusetts Avenue, not two; a brick building with dark green shingles, not its typical “garish” structure; hours running from 5 a.m. to midnight, not all day; bike racks; and, legally, one dedicated space for a Zipcar. But Rafferty hinted that the company values its public relations with the neighborhood more than it needs an even dozen parking spaces at its convenience store. After neighbors spoke in favor of keeping two Zipcars, including Susan Hunzicker claiming the option “keeps my marriage together,” a Hess executive quietly decided to ensure a second spot.

The system works. It may be working slightly better for Hess than for the neighbors. But it works.

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