Last gov’t barrier to TD Bank falls in Central Square
The last municipal impediment to a TD Bank in Central Square fell Thursday with a unanimous vote by the Board of Zoning Appeal.
If a lease is signed, the 1,000-branch bank will take over 4,670 square feet of the space abandoned by The Gap at 613 Massachusetts Ave. and around the corner onto Essex Street — geography that formed the strongest basis for opposition among the five-member board. There was concern people living down Essex Street would be bothered by the kind of sign proposed: four black awnings, each with backlit logos in white and green.
Although willing to eliminate up to three of those awnings down Essex Street, the company ultimately got to keep them all, just with no backlit lettering. And it got to keep what attorney James J. Rafferty, of Adams & Rafferty on Bishop Richard Allen Drive, expressed was most important: the TD Bank “shield,” or logo, at a size slightly larger than is allowed by zoning.
In making the company’s case, he noted several positives, including the introduction of large, plate-glass windows (considered ideal in the city’s Central Square design guidelines) in place of The Gap’s mason walls and glass block, and that the total amount of TD Bank signs were only 60 percent of what was allowed — 89 feet out an allowed 152 feet.
But city ordinances say a variance from zoning laws can be given only when there is a “hardship.” Two letter writers expressed doubt the bank, which boasts of being one of the 15 largest commercial banks in the United States and having $142 billion in assets, would experience hardship if their logo were to be smaller on Massachusetts Avenue.
“It’s hard to argue one the nation’s largest banks is in a position to need such specific relief,” wrote city councillor Craig Kelley, who feared revolving or flashing lights would be next to come to the avenue.
“To suggest TD Bank could properly market their business without a variance is absurd,” wrote Gerald Bergman, of Elm Street.
The board’s Timothy Hughes noted votes could speak only to the size of the sign, not to the size of the bank’s assets.
Rafferty did have economic concerns, though. “This is a rather discreet request,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re dealing with a deteriorating business landscape and a store that has been empty for more than a year.”
His client’s bid was supported by Daniel Goldstein, owner of the Clear Conscience Café in the heart of Central Square, who has been honored by the City Council as fighting to maintain and improve the area. But most people weighing in on developments there oppose more banks coming in, just as people opposed and continue to dislike the number of bank branches in Harvard Square.
Board approvals are almost sought before a lease is signed, in case the approvals take a long time, said Tony Ciccolo of Atlantic Rental Properties, broker for the potential TD Bank space.
If the deal goes through, TD Bank will join at least eight other automated tellers and bank branches in the square, or about one per block along Massachusetts Avenue between Inman and Windsor streets.
“We are still working on the final terms of the lease,” said Lauren S. McClintock, a public relations specialist for TD Bank.
The board also unanimously agreed to subdivide an Ash Street lot with two houses. One has some fame of its own as the Philip Johnson House, the first home built by the famed architect and his thesis project while attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1941. The homes are owned by Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard law professor and frequent litigator before the Supreme Court, and Carolyn K. Tribe, who are divorcing.
There were several factors making the decision easy for the board, including the lack of opposition from neighbors; a letter of support from Charles Sullivan of the city’s Historical Commission (who observed the land was treated as two properties from 1924 to at least 1985); and the fact the homes had stayed separate. An attorney standing in for the Tribes said one house was used mostly for parties or as a guesthouse, and that the two lots merged only as a result of the title being held in the same ownership.
The Tribes have been married since 1964.
This story has been updated. The original incorrectly indicated TD Bank had already leased its branch space.