The North Charles clinic won another three years at its North Cambridge location in a Board of Zoning Appeal hearing Thursday. (Photo: Google)

The North Charles counseling center will get at least another three years to treat people with addiction and other health issues at 54 Washburn Ave., in North Cambridge at the Somerville line, despite complaints from many neighbors.

The Board of Zoning Appeal voted 4-1 on Thursday in favor of special permits for North Charles, with some who’d voted against granting zoning relief six years ago expressing regret for that unanimous opposition. Even some now sympathetic to keeping the clinic’s mission in place were leery of granting a longer stay, though, without seeing the nonprofit make more effort to work with neighbors on addressing concerns.

North Charles is in the seventh year of a 10-year lease, with an option to renew for another five, executive director Gary Houle told the board. After the board members had given their reactions to the night’s testimony, it was clear that the only question was how long an approval the clinic would get – as short as two more years in the space or as long as five.

“The facility is offering a much-needed service to … our own fellow citizens. And the board finds that the proposed use will not impair the integrity of the district or the adjoining districts,” chair Brendan Sullivan said in offering the three-year motion. Member Constantine Alexander, who was chair when North Charles first applied for zoning relief in 2015, added a proviso that “the petitioner and the neighborhood would try to get together to demonstrate that what is being done at the address is not a substantial change in established neighborhood character.”

That work would have to show that people’s fears “have proved not to be as severe as they thought,” making an effort to live with the neighbors and “to reach out and try to make the neighbors not as antagonistic as they are now and have been for the past five years,” Alexander said.

Nonresidential uses, residential neighborhood

The nondescript two-story structure is in a residential area near Massachusetts Avenue and has a parking lot to one side – beyond which is the Somerville line, where Washburn becomes Newbury Street. The building has had commercial uses since it went up in 1900, including as a toy manufacturer and refrigeration services company and offices for financial services and telecommunications software firms.

Many residents say that even the refrigeration services company was quieter and less disruptive to the neighborhood than North Charles, though.

“Currently, because of the Covid pandemic, it is quiet. But before that, it was not. Packages were stolen. People were urinating on property regularly, there was lots of profanity up and down the street in a family neighborhood. People selling pills. Tons of coffee cups from Dunkin’ Donuts. Police were called regularly. The fire department was there often,” nearby resident Esther Splaine told the board.

Another neighbor, Ivan Toth, said he hadn’t opposed North Charles seven years ago, but did now. “As someone who’s lost a sister to drug addiction, I’m deeply offended by the idea that we’re all these sorts of backward, bigoted nimbys who don’t support the mission,” Toft said, using a term for people who may approve of a project but not-in-my-backyard. “But we can’t confuse the mission of [North Charles] and the needs of the City of Cambridge, and of the patients that genuinely deserve that care, with the location in which the services are provided.”

Supporting the clinic

There were neighbors who spoke in favor, though, and some signed a 180-person petition accompanied by statements of support from city councillors Marc McGovern, Patty Nolan, Paul Toner and Quinton Zondervan. (A petition opposing North Charles’ special permits had 31 signatures, primarily Washburn residents.)

Recent arrival Collin Fedor said that when he learned of North Charles’ existence, “I actually felt even more proud to live in this neighborhood.” It meant “my neighborhood is doing its part in providing these services” as a behavioral health crisis brought on by the pandemic met a raging opioid crisis.

McGovern, speaking as a social worker rather than as a city councillor, noted that although he lives far from North Charles, he and his family live just yards away from a Central Square drug needle exchange that he has been consistent in supporting – “so I do understand. And I am not asking anyone to support something in their neighborhood that I don’t support in my own.”

A search for alternative sites in 2015 examined some 20 properties, Houle said, but there were few that fit North Charles’ needs, while the Washburn building was the right size and had parking and a friendly landlord. Already-high need is now “through the roof,” he said, and the search for a different site was not renewed. What outreach the clinic tried with neighbors years ago was poorly attended, his team said.

The need for mental health counseling is “through the roof,” North Charles’ executive director Gary Houle said. He is seen in a screen capture from a Thursday meeting.

Turnaround for the board

Given the testimony of neighbors that seemed to bear out board concerns from six years ago – and some introductory board remarks that seemed sharp and skeptical as Houle and the North Charles team presented their case – BZA members’ remarks leading up to a vote were surprisingly sympathetic. Sullivan, at least, signaled some reconsideration by describing his visits to the building over the past six years, including during the pandemic as patient visits were replaced by phone calls and video therapy. Houle said he believes that shift is permanent.

“What I really focused on [six years ago] was the notion that this would cause a substantial change in established neighborhood character,” but the decrease in traffic has undone some of that concern, Alexander said. “The fears that I had then proved to be ill founded.”

Sullivan said that in 2016 the board had taken “a very strict, draconian look at the ordinance and felt it would impair the integrity of the district … and I think mea culpa and shame on me. It could be easy to say I voted that way before and why should I change my vote? And it’d be easy to say yes to the neighbors who live on the street. And I do hear them and I can understand their position,” Sullivan said. “But I can’t say no to the people that North Charles treats.”

“A seven-year battle”

Board vice chair Jim Monteverde and associate member Wendy Leiserson agreed. Only associate member Slater Anderson said his position hadn’t changed, and that “this has been a seven-year battle, and it hasn’t gotten better.

“There doesn’t seem to have been any effort on the part of North Charles to work with the neighbors in any capacity. And that’s unfortunate. So I’m not swayed,” Anderson said.

But most members agreed that North Charles’ “general office use as a nonprofit educational and/or institutional use, health care facility and a social service center” fell within the ordinance, and debate came down to how long to offer the clinic, and what conditions to impose to try to bring peace to the neighborhood.