Church condos’ ‘last approval’ draws neighbor opposition
Continued worries over the condominiums planned to go up around Porter Square’s elegant St. James’s Episcopal Church has residents preparing to attend Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning Board, said Patricia Armstrong, a neighbor of the project.
“Oaktree has repeatedly stated from the start they needed no special permits,” Armstrong said, referring to the developer of the four-story, 78,000-square-foot modern structure that would go around the 122-year-old Richardson Romanesque church. “Now they are applying for additional special permits.”
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 — and vital to the maintenance of the church building and its programs.
The appearance before the Planning Board is for “the last approval we need to prepare for demolition,” according to the church website. “The permit is required because the zoning changes just a few feet within our property line, requiring the city to sign off on the square footage of development planned for our fourth floor at the Beech Street end of the project.”
“They have approved everything else already and have even approved the square footage in principle,” the site says of the city. “This is just the last ‘jot and tittle’ to put in place.”
That’s not so clear to neighbors, Armstrong said.
“We asked the proponents — who made no effort to communicate with the neighbors on this issue — to reschedule to give us time to understand what is going on with their new requests for ‘relief’ from the city’s rules,” she said. “They have refused. So we will bring our concerns to this meeting and be heard.”
The plans’ shrinking of the open-to-the-public central garden, size and very design upsets neighbors. In November, the church was recommended for historical landmark status Nov. 4 by the city’s Historical Commission, although the status has to be approved by the City Council. The commission approved the project in general in July.
The meeting, to be held at the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, begins at 7 p.m.
It’s not true that the church will get a $3 million endowment to maintain the building. In fact, the church may end up with no endowment at all from the project, which is one of the main reason so many people oppose it.
The value of the entire project to the church is potentially as high as $3 million, but most of that value is not in cash or an endowment — it’s the value of the new offices that the church gets on the bottom floor of the development. The developer values that office space at $2 million. So the church doesn’t get even a penny of cash from that $2 million value — it just gets the offices. So not a penny of that value is put into an endowment to preserve the church.
In addition, the church doesn’t get any endowment until a certain number of condominiums sell, and it only gets the money as a percentage of condo sales. And that money doesn’t come in all at once; it trickles in as the condos sell. So if the condos don’t sell, the church gets no endowment at all to maintain the church.
In essence, the church is gambling the future of the building on the health of the real estate market. And we’ve all seen the results of gambling on the real estate market — the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.
The neighborhood has spent hundreds of hours fighting for reduction of the size of this building and the location of the entrance to be on Mass Ave, not the already over burdened Beech Street.
We have spent countless hours being told by Oak Tree and St. James, “too bad, this is the way it is and we can do what we want – the zoning laws allow this”
Well, actually there are zoning laws that protect the resident and community from this project. Here are just a few:
“Principal building entrances shall face Massachusetts Avenue where a lot abuts the Avenue”
– Article 20.107.1 On Overlay Districts
Ordinance 10.47.2 (2) “New buildings should be related sensitively to the existing built environment. The location, orientation and massing of structures in the development should avoid overwhelming the existing buildings in the vicinity of the development. Visual and functional disruptions should be avoided.”
Zoning Ordinance 6.43 Access for Off Street Parking Facilities. Off street parking facilities shall have maneuvering areas and appropriate means of vehicle access to a street and shall be so designed as not to constitute a nuisance, hazard, or unreasonable impediment to traffic.
However, thus far the Cambridge Planning Board has been unwilling to enforce them, interpreting them to the developer’s advantage. In doing so we are eroding the very laws designed to protect us.
While we all make mistakes, OakTree’s negligence in reporting that a significant part of this project (the location of the ramp!) is actually in Residential B Zoning, which is why they are back looking for more special permits!
Perhaps the Zoning Board will enforce these laws that others will not. In doing so they prevent the developer from exploiting a failing and frightened church and a shocked and upset residential community .
The model says it all! The manor house, the church, the peasants cottages–back to medieval England!