Saturday, July 20, 2024

A rendering of how 1627 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, might look with a structure behind it holding affordable housing. (Image: Icon Architecture)

A proposed six-story addition to a Massachusetts Avenue mansion that would hold affordable housing drew critiques Tuesday for not fitting in well with the neighborhood, but the project was overall welcomed by residents and Cambridge’s Planning Board.

The details “look institutional, they look out of character with Mellen Street, which I know to be a really beautiful street,” board member Tom Sieniewicz said.

Unlike most developments under review by the board, this site is within Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay and members can issue only recommendations for it. This meeting was the first of two required meetings for a developer working within that zoning to hear feedback.

The site at 1627 Massachusetts Ave., in the Baldwin neighborhood near Harvard Square, will include 29 permanently affordable units. The developer, Homeowners Rehab Inc., bought the property in August from Lesley University at the encouragement of City Council and city staff, according to Eleni Macrakis of HRI. The purchase was funded by the city’s Affordable Housing Trust. The lot’s latest valuation set its price to just under $4.5 million.

Macrakis noted that while the project is officially at 1627 Massachusetts Ave., the address of the building will become 4 Mellen St.

Preserving a structure

The building, a mansion from 1862, previously served as Lesley’s admission office. HRI plans to add a building over the mansion’s parking lot to hold the bulk of the apartments. At its highest point, the building will stand at six stories but step down five stories facing the Baldwin neighborhood.

As the mansion is recognized as historic, the exterior will remain largely the same, preserving aspects such as the large lawn wrapping around the mansion from Massachusetts Avenue to Mellen Street. The inside will preserve aspects such as the fireplace and wood accents.

The same model was used up the avenue at Frost Terrace, an all-affordable 40-unit residential development at 1791 Massachusetts Ave., near Porter Square. It preserved the street presence of the William Frost house, built in the late 1800s, by putting the bulk of 40 affordable units in a new structure behind it.

Blending in better

Macrakis emphasized that 65 percent of the Mellen Street developments would be fit for families, including two or three bedrooms. Fourteen units would be set aside for those earning 60 percent of the area median income in Cambridge, while 15 units would be adjusted to 30 percent of a particular renter’s income.

The building would include permanent basement bike parking and residents would have the opportunity to get a three-month MBTA pass at no cost. A parking study in 2022 found that the area had enough available parking for the development within a 500-foot radius.

How a new structure would look on Mellen Street in Cambridge in renderings reviewed by the Planning Board. (Image: Icon Architecture)

Public comments on the project were generally in favor of creating affordable housing, though some neighbors were concerned about the lack of parking and loading zones provided around Mellen Street and called for a new parking study to be done. Some said the new building – a large, square structure – did not adhere to the character of the neighborhood. 

The board agreed, praising the developer for the outcome on affordable units but noting that the design could be improved by being more conscious of the surrounding neighborhood – and “not only in terms of fitting into that neighborhood, but also in relating to the mansion,” chair Mary Flynn said. Several board members commented on the presence of an electrical transformer in front of the building, asking if it could be put underground.

HRI representatives said they were taking notes and would think about the feedback. Macrakis said the company hopes to secure funding in 2024 and begin construction on the project in 2025.

In other developments:

  • Cambridge’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved a variance on July 13 after a family on Alpine Street, in trying to renovate their home to fit their children and grandparents, accidentally caused the building to collapse. The construction, the BZA chair noted, was as of right; the variance was required only because the accidental demolition fell outside the permit granted by the city. Originally, the family’s project got little support from neighbors, who continued to worry that the new proposed top floor would be too large and fall outside of compliance with the city’s setback codes; but amendments to the project to an as-of-right construction led the board to approve it unanimously.
  • The Planning Board unanimously approved a new day care, the Gardener School, at 109 First St. A special permit was required in this case because the property was originally intended for retail; this school use come after the property owner, TR 107 First LLC, said it was unable to find an appropriate retailer to occupy the space.
  • SGL Development filed plans for a four-story lab building in Porter Square, BldUp reported July 7. The construction would demolish buildings between 30-44 White St. and replace them with a 42,000-square-foot lab building. The new development will include no additional parking spaces, but there will be 17 bike parking spots.