Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A condominium project started at the former car wash at 2013 Massachusetts Ave., but expanded onto the lot of the St. James’s Episcopal Church where the avenue intersects Beech Street. (Photo: Alex Cameron)

There was another surprise change for the condominium project going in around St. James’s Episcopal Church in Porter Square, developers said Tuesday during a presentation to the Planning Board.

While only relocating a garage ramp, not a big change in the context of the project — 46 units, a retail spot on Massachusetts Avenue and a floor of church space in a four-story, 78,000-square-foot L around a 122-year-old Richardson Romanesque stone structure — it comes after three years of work on the project and only two months after another surprise need to approve several special permits to allow work to go forward on designs shown a year earlier.

A community development official called only two weeks ago to alert Oaktree Development that its long-standing plans for a ramp wasn’t allowed by city zoning, Oaktree’s Gwendolen G. Noyes said. Company designers spent the next week sketching plans that moved the ramp slightly toward Massachusetts Avenue and away from the homes and Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall on Beech Street, showing neighbors its work at a meeting of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee. The city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department didn’t see the plans until Tuesday morning, only hours before the Planning Board was to vote on the change.

It was so rushed, Noyes said, that Oaktree hadn’t even told the development’s immediate neighbors at the Kingdom Hall that the ramp for the 64-car parking garage was to be moved away from them to use an existing curb cut.

“I’m very troubled and uncomfortable one abutter that has been a participant in this since day one has not officially been notified about the proposed change,” board member H. Theodore Cohen said. “I would be much more comfortable if we had some communication with them.”

Another way

That point, along with the concerns of the traffic department director, Susan Clippinger, led to the issue being tabled until a meeting in early May — even though it was agreed the neighbors at the Kingdom Hall would have little reason to object to the change and that, in the words of board member Charles Studen, this was “the only solution. Unless there’s something I don’t understand. I don’t see how else you could do it.”

Neighbors do, though, which is one reason they’re frustrated by how the city and Oaktree have handled the project.

The condominiums were once to be confined to the narrow lot at at 2013 Massachusetts Ave., the site of a former car wash where cars drove in and out all day. But Cambridge-based Oaktree offered the church an endowment for upkeep of its building and missions in exchange for adding a wing behind it that extends toward — and puts the building’s entryway and garage ramp on — Beech Street, which is residential but a victim of heavy traffic between Somerville’s Davis Square and Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Oaktree hasn’t presented a version of the condominium project with an entryway or ramp anywhere but on Beech Street, despite the car wash curb cuts.

“What really strikes us is that after the proponents have been telling us for two years that it’s too late to make any changes that the neighbors wanted,” resident John Armstrong said after Oaktree’s presentation. “They just redesigned the building in a week.”

“When the special permits were required, we said we believed the use was illegal and required a variance. We just gave so much input, and they just glossed over everything,” Armstrong said, referring to city zoning and development officials. “Why didn’t they know? How did approval of a building that was essentially illegal get so far? The process just failed so badly.”

Officials explain

The issues of the special permits and garage ramp were too different to be lumped together, said a city planning official, Stuart Dash.

While what was wrong was a technical issue of where along Beech Street a ramp was allowed, “the neighbors had been complaining, ‘We don’t like traffic coming on Beech Street, we think it should be on Mass. Ave.’ And so we were all looking at that as ‘is that good or bad’ instead of as a technical ‘yes or no’ kind of a thing,” Dash explained. He and others suggested the departure of Lester Barber, a skilled and highly regarded assistant city manager for community development, also meant less opportunity for the problem to be caught, although Barber left only recently and still consults for the city.

The problem is that the construction site is split between two kinds of zoning, and Oaktree isn’t allowed to cross over residential zoning to get cars to and from multifamily housing in a business district; by moving the ramp several feet to the south to an existing curb cut in business zoning, the problem is avoided. This was apparently caught by the Inspectional Services Department, which gets plans only late in the process and is facing a similar situation at the Fawcett Oil site around Tyler Court, also in North Cambridge, which is on track to be razed and turned into 104 rental units.

The principle that you can’t cross over less dense areas to get to more dense areas has been in place along Massachusetts Avenue for decades, board chairman Hugh Russell noted.

Member Thomas Anninger was dismayed the problem was discovered so late.

“It’s not as if someone couldn’t have asked that question at the outset,” Anninger said.

“We did,” Noyes said.