Chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeal Constantine “Gus” Alexander, left, mulls an affordable housing proposal for 2072 Massachusetts Ave. on Thursday with vice chair Brendan Sullivan.

It was as if nothing had changed in the past six months.

At a four-hour hearing Thursday, the Board of Zoning Appeal declined to approve a comprehensive permit for the 2072 Massachusetts Ave. affordable development five blocks north of Porter Square, but instead allowed the project to be scheduled for another hearing Sept. 9.

When the board last heard the case in December, the proposed project was nine stories high on Massachusetts Avenue and six stories high at the rear, facing down Walden Street. Although most public and neighborhood opposition had focused on the Walden Street side or general concerns about the project (parking, and its impact on the neighboring Leonard J. Russell Apartments, run by the Cambridge Housing Authority), the concern from the board was different – board member Jim Monteverde opposed the Massachusetts Avenue height, and three of the five members echoed him.

Height adjustments

In the intervening months, project developers Jason Korb and Sean Hope first reduced the Massachusetts Avenue height to eight stories, but discovered a rendering error: They had shown the adjacent Russell Apartments at 70 feet tall rather than 59 feet, its actual height. While this set them back a few months, they negotiated with Walden Street neighbors to reduce the rear height to five stories from six, and raised the Massachusetts Avenue height back to nine stories. They came back with support from the condominium across Walden Street that had previously opposed the project.

But for Monteverde, it was the same issue. After hearing two hours of public comment from housing advocates in favor and many nearby neighbors opposed, Constantine “Gus” Alexander, chairman of the board, proposed a series of eight anodyne conditions for the project. Monteverde suggested adding that the building should be no higher than would be allowed under the city’s new Affordable Housing Overlay, a zoning mechanism designed for projects to be approved without discretionary review – that is, without needing to go through the monthslong public process that this project is engaged in.

The board first voted on Alexander’s conditions without Monteverdi’s, and only Laura Wernick, an architect, voted in favor. The remaining members – Brendan Sullivan, Andrea Hickey, Monteverde and Alexander – voted against.

Financial limitations

Hope and Korb explained to the board that although they might be able to comply with the AHO’s height limitations, they had thoroughly investigated complying with all of its other requirements, especially setbacks, and that the project would not be economical if they did so.

Sullivan expressed that he thought the AHO’s constraints should apply.

Hope

“I thought you established the overlay wasn’t a design guideline,” Hope said, referring to an extensive discussion from the December meeting when Hope had strongly put forth that the AHO was just one mechanism to develop affordable housing, but not the exclusive method. “You’re using it now as a glass ceiling.”

Discussion devolved.

After a recess, the project team returned and asked the board if it would support an eight-story building that stepped down to six stories on Walden Street, or a seven story building of uniform height.

“Well, I do think seven could work,” Monteverde said. “You got me between a rock and a hard place.”

“Certainly eight-six is a move on Mass. Ave., it leaves your offer intact on Walden,” he said.

Hickey told the petitioners: “I could support an eight-six; I’m not wild about a seven-story overall.”

Although petitioners suggested they would be ready to return to the board in June, Alexander insisted that they not hear the case in the middle of the summer and scheduled the next hearing for Sept. 9.

But there’s reason to think even then the board will give no quarter. After the meeting adjourned, Alexander was heard on a hot microphone: “I would like to see this building go down another story.”

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