A fence is up Wednesday around the Knights Garden in anticipation of condominium construction at the St. James’s Episcopal Church in Porter Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Opponents of the condominiums planned for around Porter Square’s St. James’s Episcopal Church suffered something of a setback Tuesday when the Planning Board voted 5-1 against keeping a special permit hearing open for oral public comment — a minor enough thing on its own, but bad for neighbors for whom every loss is a step toward construction.

“We’re not talking about changing the project,” said board member Charles Studen, leading the motion that would cut off neighbors’ voices but allow written dissent to go on against the church’s project with Cambridge’s Oaktree Development. “We’re just trying to clarify from a legal point of view so they can get the zoning they need — actually the building permit that they need in order to go forward with this project.”

A vote on the special permit should come at the next board meeting, March 1.

“I feel especially sorry in some ways for the applicant,” Studen said of Oaktree and its plans for 48 condominiums at Massachusetts Avenue and Beech Street. “Whether it was an error on the part of [the Inspectional Services Department] or the Community Development Department staff or whatever, because of that the issues that are before us tonight didn’t get incorporated into the decision we made more than a year ago.”

A pattern of special permits

The 35-foot portion of the project, on a lot with split zoning, requires a special permit to be built so close to homes on Beech Street — a permit debated and approved a year ago without being officially added to the developer’s list of city documents. From the perspective of the board and city development officials, the special permit’s absence from the formal list is a blameless oversight.

But neighbors and development watchdogs suspect it’s part of a pattern by Oaktree, which is cited as having similar problems at 7 Cameron Ave., once the home of Rounder Records, where Oaktree is developing a building with 37 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

“I’m struck by a pattern by this particular developer,” said Charlie Teague, a North Cambridge resident who keeps track of area projects, during public comment Tuesday.

Despite complaints by residents near the Rounder site that the project was too big, Oaktree got approval from the Planning Board, Teague said. City inspectors found that the square footage of the building was larger than Oaktree had said, as well as other problems, and on Thursday the developers asked the Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance from city zoning resulting from another violation: building too close to Linear Park.

In pleading for the variance, which is essentially another kind of permission to be free of zoning law, Oaktree representatives cited the hardship that would result — oddly shaped bedrooms — if  they had to shear off their building at an angle to conform to zoning.

“There were a whole series of errors,” Teague said to the board. “There was a series of accidents, and it’s a pattern of accidents, you see it up there and you see it here. If you in your hearts don’t believe these were accidents — that experienced Cambridge developers over and over again are making all these errors — then you can’t grant this.”

Angry neighbors

Resident after resident got up to speak during the board’s public comment period  to testify to the lack of dialogue and negotiation with the church and Oaktree over the years they’ve been designing and proposing the 78,000-square-foot structure, which incorporates the former car wash lot at 2013 Massachusetts Ave.

St. James’s allowed Oaktree to expand its design onto church land in anticipation of revenue it could use as an endowment to maintain its charitable missions and 122-year-old Richardson Romanesque structure — although it’s not so clear cut that the $3 million endowment they’ve touted in a best-case scenario will come through. Two-thirds of it would be in property and the remaining million would come when at least 75 percent of the condos are sold, say observers of the deal. The church newsletter for January anticipates $96,000 in redevelopment revenue this year and no rental income, and only $48,000 in redevelopment money next year, supplemented by $15,000 in rental income.

Still, with the expectation the endowment will come, the congregation is backing development that has put it at odds with the neighborhood. Residents complain that the church has taken away a children’s play area, suddenly citing liability after decades, and that amid dozens of meetings there has been no good-faith talks about the size or design of the condominiums.

“The only reason they’ve met with us is so they can tell you they met with us,” Beech Street resident Preston Gralla told the board.

Richard Clarey, an attorney and chairman of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, told board members that the developers “came before our committee and they used a gambit developers very frequently use. They said, ‘You’d better swallow this 46,48 condos, or I’ll do 67.’ They hammered the neighborhood over the head with that threat at every meeting I attended — ‘If you don’t go for this, we’ll do much worse.’”

“This is one of the rare times in life you get a second chance to mitigate this monstrosity by denying the special permit,” Clarey said.

One congregant was on hand to defend the church during public comment. “We have made every effort to be good neighbors,” Norris Street resident John Hixson said.

But neither Hixson nor Oaktree representatives spoke to the other allegation made repeatedly by neighbors: that the developers and church said consistently that the design of the building was “by right,” meaning without need for special review — but suddenly there was a need for special permitting to allow the building height and driveway on Beech Street.

“All the problems with this project are focused on Beech Street, on the placement of the driveway, on the placement of the principal entrance … Article 20 says the principal entrance should be on Massachusetts Avenue,” said John Armstrong, citing city zoning law.

“All the big problems are here,” Armstrong said, referring again to residential Beech Street. “Our group has negotiated with the church and Oaktree for two years now to mitigate the negative impacts, all focused on this one part of the project. We were always told, ‘We’re building as of right, we have no reason to make any concessions.’ Why are there now four special permits all concentrated on this one area?”

This post was updated Feb. 17, 2011, to clarify development details in Porter Square and at the Rounder Records site and to note that Clarey is chairman of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, not merely a member.