Tuesday, April 23, 2024
An early rendering from Oaktree Development shows a U-shaped design for ground-floor church uses at St. James’s Episcopal in Porter Square.

An early rendering from Oaktree Development shows a U-shaped design for ground-floor church use at St. James’s Episcopal in Porter Square.

Sympathies flow first one way, then the other in the case of condominiums proposed to wrap around St. James’s Episcopal Church in Porter Square, mainly depending on the last people who speak on the matter.

It’s hard to reject the pleas of the church community, which needs money for its missions as well as caring for a beautiful, historic but badly aging structure; the project in question would update the facilities and provide a $3 million endowment, and it’s unlikely the church can or will ever get again such a lifeline. But the facts also bear out complaints neighbors were ignored in the early stages of design.

There have been times during the debate that a single speaker can create sympathies for and against the project simultaneously. That was the feeling when Oaktree Development principal Arthur Klipfel warned the Cambridge Historical Commission that delay on the project would cause his backers to pull financing, forcing a smaller project that wouldn’t help the ailing church. No one wants the church to lose this unique opportunity, but it is impossible to shake the feeling Oaktree’s early behavior forced a crisis.

And Klipfel’s comments, even if wholly true and heartfelt, reek of extortion. They put commissioners in an awkward position of complying and showing other developers what seems a path to fast-track approval: concessions and good deeds that will disappear without compliance. Commissioners resisted, choosing to walk a wise if possibly risky middle path.

It is also true St. James’s can benefit from a design that puts its signature garden central to a U-shaped church structure, but that the garden design shown last month (said to be incomplete and evolving) is paltry and pathetic compared with what is there now, poorly maintained as it may be. Church complaints that the current courtyard is underused seem disingenuous, since how the green space is used has always been in parish control.

But commissioners are effusive in praise of the project itself — the concept, its implementation and materials — and it is easy to see it as the best all-around solution for the church and community.

It will be handsomer than the car wash at 2013 Massachusetts Ave. ever was, while still providing a bit of ground-floor retail space. It will benefit the church greatly, and certainly is the last help a private developer will extend there for decades at the least. And it is still, thanks to a vote by the commission that will be expanded upon Thursday, open to negotiation and revision between the church, Oaktree and neighbors. There may yet be a way to ease neighbors’ privacy concerns. And it is the fact Oaktree is incorporating and enveloping historic aspects of the church that gives neighbors and commissioners input; remove the church from Oaktree’s plans and the company is far more free to build what and how it wants, and there have been complaints about how and what Oaktree builds. The City Council heard some and responded Dec. 22.

All of this makes it easier to determine an ultimate flow of sympathies.

This project — with safeguards firmly in place to ensure Oaktree keeps its promises — should go forward.