Faces, Norris and Lesley projects get Planning Board approvals
Apartments to replace the former Faces nightclub on Route 2, more time for plans to replace a former school on Norris Street and an elaborate Lesley University arts building were all approved Tuesday by the Planning Board.
Faces, which has been closed since 1990, is to become 227 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments in a massive complex surrounding three rear courtyards. Developer Rich McKinnon said construction should start this summer, resulting in a summer 2013 opening.
The market-rate apartments in the complex, called the Residences at Alewife, will cost between $1,500 and $3,000, with another 34 units set aside to be affordable housing. Residents of those below-market units should be getting quite a deal: Renderings for the project show yards, a pool, gym, community room, billiards room and screening room with a flat-screen television and cushy individual seats. There will even be a concierge, said McKinnon and other employees of his McKinnon Co., and residents can rest easy knowing the builders are seeking LEED and Energy Star environmental certification — even using solar power to heat the pool.
“This is the best presentation I’ve ever seen on the Planning Board,” said board member Steven Winter, noting the McKinnon team’s extensive efforts to answer points made at a Jan. 18 critique of the project.
Board member Ahmed Nur agreed. “You worked really hard,” Nur told McKinnon. “Beyond what we asked.”
There were still mild complaints about the project.
Several board members urged McKinnon to apply to the Conservation Commission immediately for permission to put up a playscape rather than wait for children to move in or visit. Earlier, chairman Hugh Russell had only partially joked that the playscape should start going up “the day the first grandparent moves into the building.”
Traffic patterns on Route 2, a mostly four-lane highway providing the most direct access west, has traffic of up to 45 mph but tends to clog during rush hours, causing board members to worry about backups as residents or visitors pull into the complex’s parking area and about people walking along the narrow, unfenced sidewalk to the neighboring Cambridge Gateway Inn and Games & Lanes bowling alley.
Nur, though, said he remembered the traffic that went into, out of and past Faces in its heyday. “Saturday night you’d get about 75 people leaving a little tipsy,” he said. “I didn’t see any accidents at all coming in and out of there.”
The board members also hesitated over a tower — a nonoccupied architectural element intended to provide an entry point for the city — that some remarked as being among the most difficult aspect of the complex to pull off successfully.
“I don’t think the tower is there yet,” vice chairman Tom Anninger said. “I know you worked hard, and I know you did a lot of things to it. And here is where I sort of get stuck: I don’t know what I would suggest. I would just say to you that my test is, is it satisfying as I look at it? And to me it looks somewhat dis-integrated from the rest of the architecture.”
McKinnon agreed to keep working on the tower, saying he was “confident we can get there if we have enough direction.”
The building has some built-in downsides design tweaks won’t cure. For people who want to pay $3,000 a month to live in a building with a stately name and luxury touches, it may be disconcerting to be so near the Inn, which became essentially a homeless shelter for families when the recession struck, and the downscale entertainment of the bowling alley; the paths to go west on Route 2 instead of east are long and winding; and McKinnon said the first-floor garage has only one space per apartment.
Asked by Russell what he’d say if a tenant wanted a second space, McKinnon replied: “That they’re not available.”
But the Alewife T stop’s parking garage is nearby — only a few blocks’ walk — and there is already an agreement with The Bulfinch Cos.’ garage at Discovery Park, which McKinnon Co. also built, to take cars in the case of a problem at the Residences’ own garage.
McKinnon and Criterion Development Partners, of Waltham, proposed the same project years ago, but it was waylaid by the spiraling economy, contributing to the two-decade paralysis at the 24,994-square-foot property owned by the Martignetti family, owners of Boston’s Martignetti Liquors as well as the Gateway Inn and bowling alley.
The Tuesday hearing was technically for special permits, including one needed because the construction is taking place on a flood plain (the reason the garage is the first floor and the apartments will be built above). The six members of the board who were present voted unanimously to grant the special permits.
Extension granted Norris Street plan
A six-month extension was granted on a special permit that keeps alive a Somerville developer’s proposal to turn the 112-year-old former Ellis School and North Cambridge Catholic High School at 40 Norris St. into up to 38 high-end apartments.
All five members hearing the case voted to grant the extension, which was based on the project’s reliance on a zoning law still being debated by city boards.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if six months is not long enough to take care of this,” Anninger said.
The project itself has faced significant opposition from neighbors, city inspectors and the Planning Board, although developer Mouhab Rizkallah has said he is willing to change his plans.
Lesley University’s Art Institute applauded
Like the Residences at Alewife, Lesley University’s plan to move its Art Institute of Boston to Porter Square got a warm welcome from board members.
“We’re all very excited about this use and feel it’s going to be an asset to the community,” Russell said.
The university will brings its Kenmore Square students to Cambridge and the rest of its campus, which is spread along Massachusetts Avenue and the Agassiz neighborhood with a base in Porter Square. This project literally moves the 165-year-old former North Prospect Church, which the university bought in 2006, away from the corner of Roseland Street at 1801 Massachusetts Ave., where it would be replaced by a four-story building that would include offices, classrooms, studios and galleries.
Last year neighbors were opposed to its proximity and the loss of lawn and open space that would result from the church being moved, but Tuesday the protesters were gone. Only the board spoke, and they gave the project a unanimous five votes in favor of the needed special permits — and eloquent compliments.
Bruner/Cott Architects and Planners came in for congratulations for the quality of the project, but Russell pointed out that “without a client who supports and pushes you, you can’t achieve this kind of a project.”