Monday, June 24, 2024

An audience member at Thursday’s meeting of the Cambridge Historical Commission watches a presentation of condominiums proposed to wrap around a church in Porter Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A 46-condominium building proposed to wrap around Porter Square’s elegant St. James’s Episcopal Church was essentially approved unanimously Thursday by the Cambridge Historical Commission, with only minor modifications or delays expected.

“It looks like a done deal,” said a glum Michael Brandon, an opponent of the plan, after some two hours of presentations, questions and comments by commission and audience members. He had little hope the state’s historical commission would halt the project.

Conditional approval was granted in January by the city, making even this meeting largely focused on details of the project rather than about the project itself. There was discussion over the kinds of trees to be planted or replanted, and a look at the colors and kinds of materials for the four-story, 78,000-square-foot modern structure to be built around a garden and provide an L-shaped backdrop for a 120-year-old Richardson Romanesque church. Parking would be underground.

The commission’s vote was amended a couple of times to ensure the central Knights Garden, designed in 1915 by groundbreaking city planner John Nolen, stays open to the public “subject to temporary closures for maintenance” and to satisfy a legal requirement — satisfied by as little as closing for one day — to keep it church property, not city property; to review landscaping and materials at an advertised, on-site public meeting; and if there aren’t changes significant enough that it no longer seems like what was approved.

“An abomination”

The overall plan, and the commission’s acceptance of it, angered some in the audience.

A scale model of the church and condominium project sat in the center of the Cambridge Senior Center hall where the commission met. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“How do you justify such an abomination? What you’ve proposed to build looks like a tenement. You have this magnificent piece of architecture in the church, and if you take a look at what you are proposing to construct — the line, the shape, the design — it looks enormously like the white structure on Beech and Mass. Ave., which I think it is generally conceded everyone hates,” said Elaine Callahan, of Blake Street, referring to the tower that replaced the Long Funeral Service building in 2005. “Giving it a slight tint or having it look more like clapboards doesn’t mask the fact that basically what you have is flat design — you have nothing that looks like or hints at the heritage of the church itself.”

The commission was betraying its mandate from the people by allowing the project and any shrinking of the garden, Callahan said.

Commission chairman William B. King later explained, as had been mentioned at earlier meetings, that the design ideal was not to mimic the church, but to ensure the church is distinct from its surroundings — the flip side of Callahan’s assertion that modern architecture was meant to be “disharmonious.”

The garden was shrinking, but less so than in previous designs, said Ricardo Dumont, a congregant who works on the condominium-church project as a designer with Watertown-based Sasaki Associates. During his presentation he showed that a chapel jutting out from the church by a small contemplative garden had been eliminated from plans, allowing the garden to grow and join the central lawn. A more heavily forested front section remained, closer to Massachusetts Avenue, including benches where people could sit and a path leading through it. A path also encircled the lawn area, but more greenery had been added to the outside of the grounds, following the sidewalks on Beech Street and the avenue.

By removing some older trees — a couple of magnolias were to be replanted by the Jehovah’s Witness hall on Beech Street, but some would be replaced by newer trees — the developer incurs an obligation to pay into the city’s tree fund up to $60,000. Brandon disliked “the defoliation of mature greenery,” but the developer’s renderings showed so many trees going in that commission members worried there would be too many.

The building is otherwise intended to be “green,” and should earn the highest or second-highest environmental rating available, Dumont said. The units were to be built to use between 30 percent and 40 percent less power of nearby houses, and the water retention system — mainly under the central lawn and garden — should be able to handle a 100-year storm before dumping runoff into the city’s system.

Money remains in place

The project, resulting from the closing of a car wash at 2013 Massachusetts Ave., is a partnership between Cambridge-based Oaktree Development and the 325-member church, which would retain the ground floor of the condominium structure (except for a small retail space) and get an endowment described as being as high as  $3 million.

Rector Holly Lynn Antolini has said the church is in “desperate need, not just urgent need” for money with which it can operate and maintain its historic facilities.

Oaktree Development principal Arthur Klipfel said Thursday that all the European investors for the project were still on board, despite fears he raised in December that city delays could scare them off, abandoning the church to its fate and limiting development to the car wash site his company bought in 2008. He would not, however, estimate what the “all-in” costs were for the project.

The commission and audience members delved into the issue to urge that money came flowing to the church sooner rather than later — meaning not after all the condominiums were sold. Money from the developer was to be split into thirds, flowing equally into an endowment, immediate needs and operating expenses, according to a church letter received by the commission.