Builder raises tensions by pushing boundaries
Irate residents have declared war on local developer Husam “Sam” Azzam, saying he is ruining neighborhoods by putting up “big, ugly” buildings that push the limits of local zoning regulations.
But what really galls them is that what Azzam does is, as he said in a recent interview, “legal.” Azzam — a former building inspector who left City Hall under circumstances no Cambridge officials will discuss — has been getting his way with the city for years, fighting it out at the Zoning Board of Appeals but usually coming out on top, gaining city blessings to build the biggest projects with as much living space as he can squeeze out of whatever site he acquires.
His Porter Square project, in which he’s replacing the 130-year-old Long Funeral Home with a 55-foot monolith holding 15 condominiums and an office, solidifies his reputation as “the poster boy for development gone wild,” said Karen Klinger, one of several neighbors suing Azzam — and the city — for allowing him to tear down Long and put up his tower.
Lester Barber, the city’s director of land use and zoning, said Azzam’s techniques as a developer are “fairly common,” cold comfort to neighbors who feel Azzam gets away with his projects because city government is pro-development.
If anything, Azzam says, he’s watched more closely than other developers because he once worked for the city. That hasn’t stopped him from engaging in some controversial development techniques:
— Leaving out information about projects, including when his plans change and grow.
— Building as big as he can, even on parcels of land city laws say are too small, and building modern, boxy structures that clash with their surroundings.
He was in a prior “common ownership” at 220 and 222 Hurley St., where he had two townhouses built next to another parcel he owned at 224 and 226 Hurley St., which held four townhouses already. The two lots should have been considered one under zoning laws — and, combined, been too small for the construction. Azzam left out the part about his common ownership, though, and got his permit to build. It was later revoked when an angry neighbor blitzed the Building Department with letters about Azzam’s common ownership. Now the buildings stand vacant, their paint peeling, as Azzam sues the city to have the lots considered separate again.
In Porter Square, he told neighbors he was going to build an office building, then changed his mind and put up a giant condo. He met at least three times with the local neighbors association without ever telling its members his plans had changed, Klinger said. Neighbors say city oversight didn’t grow when the project did.
He also managed to avoid getting a variance to tear down the historically significant funeral home because he convinced the Building Department he was not demolishing, but renovating. The court battles rage on, but the funeral home is gone, replaced by Azzam’s monolith.
— Doing virtually anything to keep his projects going,
When his building permit at 290 River St. was about to expire and the city would not grant him an extension, Azzam dug a trench, poured concrete and dressed it up to look like foundation footings — as if work on the project had begun. The city ruled that what he had done was not the start of real work. That 42-unit project was halted.
Lawyers suing Azzam have filed convoluted legal briefs that read like dueling tape-measure reports. The Porter Square and Hurley Street cases will be decided on such minutiae as square footage, prior use and whether a regulation, since changed, should have required more parking.
But there is a bigger issue:
Azzam is certainly not the only developer in town to buy up contiguous properties and try to get the most out of the investment, pushing the envelope on regulations and taking heat from neighbors.
So why are they so mad at him?
Even people from other parts of town, such as resident John Raulinaitis, said it bothers him to see the project at Porter Square, across from the elegant St. James’s Episcopal Church.
“I spit at it every time I go by for the ugly monstrosity that it is,” he said.
“It sucks,” said one passer-by, Ralph Hergert, of Somerville, who is not involved in the case. “The funeral home that was there had an interesting style that fit the corner, across from this magnificent church.”
Aesthetics aside, Azzam is a “master at manipulating the zoning regulations to fit whatever project he is working on,” said one builder who knows him but did not want to be identified.
Building inspector Joe DeVito, who has known “Sam” for years, defended him.
DeVito said he admires Azzam’s tenacity in fighting for his projects and trying to get away with as much as he can.
“I take my hat off to him,” DeVito said. “He started out with zip and he is a go-getter … What the hell … this is America. ”
John Moot, president of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, said the Azzam situation is indicative of a bigger problem: city development gone wild. He said city officials are too pro-development, pointing to the Building Department, Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board, City Council and city manager Robert Healy.
“He’s never seen a project he didn’t like,” Moot said.
Healy responded by saying, “John Moot: God love him.”
Moot argues that because Healy is so pro-development, and because he appoints the people who interpret and enforce regulations, the end result is an environment in which developers flourish at the expense of residents’ “quality of life” with regard to such things as parking, aesthetics and preservation of historic buildings.
Healy said it’s true he appoints those overseeing developers such as Azzam. But he vehemently denied ever trying to influence their decisions.
“They have never gotten a call from me trying to influence a vote on a development project,” Healy said, adding that he is not involved in the decisions of the building inspection services department.
He called the current commissioner “a good, honest guy,” and his predecessor a “straight arrow.”
“Cambridge is a straight place to do business with,” Healy said.
Healy acknowledged that Azzam’s Porter Square project blocks the view of the Episcopal church. But he said something good came out of all the controversy.
It was obvious Azzam was able to exploit a loophole (Healy used the word “opportunity”) that allowed him to change a funeral home chapel into a large housing project without having to provide additional parking. Other developable properties were vulnerable to this, such as the Blessed Sacrament Rectory site on Pearl Street.
“As a result of the recognition of this opportunity,” the City Council got an ordinance drafted to close the loophole, Healy said. “It happened too late to impact the [Porter Square project].”
The battle between neighbors rages on, next to be heard Nov. 16 in Middlesex Superior Court.
Azzam, who has moved to his Porter Square project from 226 Hurley St., laments that it has come to this. He said he really tried hard to “appease” his new neighbors.
“I’m trying to be a good developer and I am trying to be a good neighbor,” Azzam said, pointing to offers to provide his Porter Square tenants “free Zipcar membership, free MBTA passes, bicycle racks and advertisement in Craigslist for parking.”
He would rent parking spaces around the square, at his expense, if any were available, he said. None were.
But he said the neighbors would have none of it, that they would rather sue him.
Plaintiff Klinger scoffed at Azzam’s display of benevolence.
“It’s hard to believe he could have built a building that was more offensive,” she said. “But presumably he could have put up an uglier one.”Azzam confirmed this, pointing to a digital rendering of an even bigger, cubical project that, under the regulations, he could have put at that corner.
“This is what I could have built,” he said.