Friday, February 23, 2024

Wyman Street, where a curb cut to a driveway has been proposed, is not quite opposite a nursery school on Hillside Place. (Image: Google Maps)

Considering the rhetoric like they get to hear on a proposed driveway up on ritzy Avon Hill — about the meaning of democracy, the future of a historic neighborhood and thinking of the children — it’s little surprise city councillors are thinking of delegating responsibility for them.

But councillors will still have to decide whether to grant a second one to the owner of a gigantic home and in-law unit going up at 79 Raymond St., a lot so large in straddles the block to 9 Wyman St., which has drawn more than the usual level of anti-curb cut bombast over the course of several council meetings. Indeed, it was Avon Hill resident Margot Welch who told councillors Monday that the curb cut plans were not just about “the long-term retention of the character of the neighborhood,” but compelled the question, “Now and in the future, what do you want democracy to be, and not just look like?”

There have been some dodgy assertions made before about the curb cut request, which would add a fourth driveway to a short, dead-end street that some say is like “a little pocket park … where children play,” and Monday brought some fresh concerns from Avon Hill residents that deserve a bit of fact checking:

“The benefit of the curb cut to [owner Eric Griffith] is far and away [greater] than to Mrs. Judith Parker and other neighbors, including the children attending the Cambridge Nursery School and their parents. Cambridge Nursery School is right opposite — the entrance is pretty much opposite to Wyman Street,” said John Cobb, of Avon Hill Street.

As is clear from an overhead view from Google Maps or a similar service, Wyman Street is not “right opposite” the 6 Hillside Place nursery school but might be considered “pretty much opposite.” They are on opposite sides of Avon Hill Street, separated by the width of a house with a generous amount of yard. Not that it much matters. As neighbors and a former president of the school describe it, 26 families drop off and pick up their kids from the school every day and use Wyman Street as parking. In all the testimony before the council no one has explained why those couple of dozen cars are not a threat to “the children and their parents,” but any car using a fourth Wyman Street curb cut is.

“What might be afoot? A commonly expressed concern is that this 24,932-square-foot structure, to be called home by a couple and a child, may not always be so. Sooner or later, neighbors fear, it will be called corporate headquarters or retreat center or academy or something like that. So what? Unlike single-family homes, corporate headquarters have a lot of … services that demand many heavy vehicles for maintenance, landscaping and catering to users’ creature comforts,” said Joan Friebely, another Avon Hill Street resident.

In November, Friebely said the council should think of the proposed driveway as serving nine single-family homes because the 53,665-square-foot lot could have squeezed nine in if Griffith hadn’t decided to instead build one big house and an in-law unit. (Similarly, she worries about landscaping trucks serving a 53,665-square-foot lot that she fears would change use, but it’s not clear why more landscaping trucks would be needed for what would still be a 53,665-square-foot lot.) Now her argument is that the curb cut should be rejected because at some indeterminate point in the future it could serve more than a couple and their child.

Either way, the lot she worries about is in A-2 zoning, which allows only single-family, detached homes. The lot borders some B zoning, which allows single- and two-family detached homes and, by the granting of a special permit, townhouses. (Both zoning types could also allow, according to the city’s table of use regulations, conversion for “elderly oriented congregate housing.” So the risk is that Griffith is building his home and in-law unit so he can convert them to senior housing.)

If Friebely and others would rather fight a curb cut now than a radical change in zoning in the future, it may say more about their perception of the City Council’s priorities than Griffith’s. Either way, their arguments include some clunkers.

The passionate, outspoken opponents of the curb cut do not include the 13 neighbors living closest to the lot, Griffith told the council, and Jan. 9 heard some of the first testimony from a supporter: Bliss Austin Spooner,  yet another Avon Hill Street resident, who said her home is about 100 yards from the curb cut proposals “riling up my neighborhood.”

“I grew up on that street, so I kind of remember the days they talk about of children playing in those areas. Those days are gone,” Austin Spooner said. “In fact, my children are the only children practically on the whole street. They certainly live the closest to the [proposed] Wyman Street curb cut, and I’m not worried about my kids and I don’t think kids should be the reason it’s approved or not. I’m in complete support of the Wyman curb cut.”

“I know you’ve heard a lot about these curb cuts,” she said. “Honestly? They’re not a big deal.”