Friday, April 12, 2024

The Bailey-Elston House in Porter Square could be replaced by a five-story apartment building, as seen in a rendering below. (Images: Cambridge Assessing Department and Historical Commission)

A developer wants to eliminate a little business in Porter Square and replace it with eight apartments, but the plan trades a small Italianate house for a boxy 9,977-square-foot tower — and might run contrary to a finding of historical significance by the Cambridge Historical Commission.

At its meeting tonight at 6, with the proposal to tear down 18 White St. appearing late on the agenda, commissioners will decide whether they have reason to block owner Ben Rogan and his Medford-based Highland Development from turning the home of Harvard Square Eye Care across from the Porter Square Shopping Plaza into a five-story apartment building with parking below at ground level.

“It’s a great area, a great place to live,” Rogan said Thursday. “I think Porter is coming along.”

Rogan, whose work in Cambridge as a general contractor includes Cambridge Community Television’s new home on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, said he has owned the White Street house since 2006 and always intended to redevelop the site.

“Hopefully it’ll get approved tonight,” he said. “It’s a great location for residential development. When you have a good piece of real estate, you don’t want to sell it” instead of develop it.

Although his plans follow zoning laws, the commission might see some value in keeping the building as it is, which could delay or halt his plan.

The 2,216-square-foot structure, called the Bailey-Elston House, was built in 1872 with a handful of similar, neighboring homes and is described in a commission report by Sarah L. Burks, designated property administrator, as being in “very good” condition and, well, kind of charming:

with intact architectural detailing, such as the paired brackets, cornice end returns, decorative bay windows, and 2-over-2 windows. As one of the original group of three such houses, the Bailey-Elston House contributes positively to the streetscape, anchoring the east end of the once residential street. The house also is also significant in the context of the broad social and economic history of the city for its association with the Elston, White and Farese families.

Development in Cambridge is contentious, with calls for a moratoriums first being heard during the November elections from candidate Gary Mello and now the subject of an “emergent movement” against so-called upzoning approvals from a residents group called the Cambridge Residents Alliance. Central Square has been the flashpoint since the developer Forest City proposed zoning that allows a high-rise apartment tower and commercial building without waiting to see a report by a city consultant.

In light of that, North Cambridge resident Michael Brandon was noting to neighborhood groups that the White Street proposal was of interest to “those concerned about disappearing Porter Square retail options, the impact of redevelopment on the historical and architectural character of the neighborhood and the possible need for zoning and parking reforms.”

The meeting takes place at 6 p.m. at the Central Square Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.

Update: The Cambridge Historical Commission voted unanimously to find the structure at 18 White St. historically and architecturally significant. A 5-1 vote found it “preferably preserved,” which delays the developer’s plans by up to six months but gives him the chance to talk with neighbors and possibly find a compromise that will ease the path to commission approval. “Developers usually find it’s in their interest to meet with neighbors and other stakeholders and try to come up with an alternative plan,” said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the commission. “In some cases a developer will revise his plans and come back and ask us to cut short the delay.” A new public hearing would be held so the commission can see the revised plan, Sullivan said.

This post was updated July 16, 2012, to correct the decade in which the building went up, to add potential square foot and correct current square footage. The July 17, 2012, update from Sullivan specified that the 1872 building was to have eight units.