Condo project by church finds Historical Commission hurdles
Development of condominiums around a historic Porter Square church was hampered at a Thursday meeting of the Cambridge Historical Commission, with commission members seeming to suggest ways for the project to be slowed and the revelation of an ancient deed that could be used in an attempt to block construction.
In the end, the panel voted 6-0 to schedule a public hearing Dec. 3 to consider opponents’ petition to give landmark status for all property of St. James’s Episcopal Church, at 1991 Massachusetts Ave., rather than just a sanctuary already spared by the plan.
It could stall the project for a year, and the commission members were clearly considering making it 18 months with a six-month demolition delay. They abandoned the idea because the planning process would proceed through other branches of city government while the demolition delay was in effect, returning to them when it was, in the words of executive director Charles Sullivan, “pretty well baked.”
More than a dozen residents gathered for the meeting, some with electronic presentations and prepared comments, and commissioners had to remind them they were at a meeting, not a hearing, and to save it for next month.
They were primed perhaps because of their experience four years ago, when boxy condominiums rose into the sky across from the elegant St. James’s, a 120-year-old Richardson Romanesque structure with stained-glass windows and, according to church history, a bell re-cast by Paul Revere.
The new proposal is to replace a closed car wash on the church’s other side, at 2013 Massachusetts Ave., and wrap 46 more condominiums around in an L to Beech Street, where a driveway would allow access to a 64-car garage for residents of the four-story condo building.
“This is worse,” said Beech Street resident Lydia Gralla. “Because it has so much impact on people, on families.”
This time, the development is proceeding with the cooperation of — in fact, partnership with — the church, which began a redevelopment process last year with Cambridge-based Oaktree Development that would provide $3 million the church can use to pursue its missions, including a food pantry and prison ministry. “We also know how difficult it is to mend our beautiful old buildings against the ravages of time, and I believe this bold step of yours ensures the future of St. James,” the Right Rev. Thomas M. Shaw, bishop of Massachusetts for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, wrote to parishioners after they joined with Oaktree.
Preston Gralla, Lydia’s husband, complains that there could be other ways to accomplish those goals.
“The church, instead of coming to the neighborhood and saying, ‘We have a problem, can you help us,’ and everyone would have helped, you hear rumors and all of a sudden they come to you with what amounts to ‘Let us tell you what we’re doing,’” he said.
In part that happened because Rector Holly Lynn Antolini arrived only April 24, 2008, knowing of the church’s severe financial problems, and Oaktree’s Gwendolen G. Noyes stopped by only three days later seeking only a few feet of the church’s garden for a condominium project that, at the time, hewed to the footprint of the car wash. “It was pure coincidence,” Antolini said, but Noyes’ visit meant “the fulfillment of an essential component: We needed a partner.” The project grew from there.
Antolini knows the church had two “blue-ribbon commissions” over the past decade to find solutions to its money troubles. She admitted that, being new to St. James’s, she didn’t know if those commissions had tried to include neighbors in its solutions.
Neighbors would prefer that the building not be four stories tall, for the driveway to stay on Massachusetts Avenue — Lydia Gralla said traffic on Beech is already dangerous and will only be worsened by the garage ramp — and for the design to be compatible with the church and, on the site’s other side, the square’s historical brick firehouse.
Oaktree feels its design is compatible and hews to conservation restrictions put in place with state and city funding in 1987 and 2005 — that the proposed four-story building doesn’t interfere with sight lines, preserves 85 percent of the courtyard and is designed to be compatible aesthetically. There was a three-hour discussion at Oaktree that very morning on what materials to use on the building’s exterior, said Noyes, director of marketing for the company. And while steps are being taken to scale back the feel of the project, four stories is permitted by the city, and Oaktree wants to keep them. “We gave up on 17,000 square feet of buildable space,” she said. “We didn’t put that in the plans, but it could have been there.”
(Prices have not been set for the condominiums, Noyes said. Five will be set aside as affordable housing and the rest will reflect rates elsewhere in the area and could not be considered “luxury.”)
Lydia Gralla and other neighbors say Oaktree gives the appearance of listening but reconsiders little based on what they hear, and Historical Commission chairman William B. King was well-versed enough in the case to describe the situation over the past year as “a fair amount of discussion, if not agreement.”
But he and other commissioners, as well as members of the audience, were surprised by member Jo M. Solet’s reading from a neighbor’s e-mail pointing out that the parish house parcel on Beech Street “was a gift to the church by Samuel Woodbridge in 1892 and stipulated in the deed to be used only for traditional church uses.”
The e-mail, from Orchard Street resident John Armstrong, was something of a bombshell.
But Antolini and Noyes doubted it would amount to much. Antolini noted the parish house use would remain, with condos overhead. Noyes said she would have to talk to a lawyer, “but it’s probably not enforceable. Old deed restrictions often don’t hold to current law.”