By Karen Klinger
After a lengthy discussion, members of the Cambridge Planning Board delayed a decision November 17 on giving the go-ahead to a controversial luxury condominium complex planned as a joint project between a local developer and St. James’s Episcopal Church in Porter Square.
Board members decided they wanted more information about some of the plans for the 46 units, including details about the materials Oaktree Development intends to use for the structure’s exterior and how they would complement St. James’s, a 120-year-old stone building at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Beech Street.
The board also wanted to wait for the outcome of a meeting December 3 when the Cambridge Historical Commission is slated to discuss the possibility of conferring landmark status on the church property.
As currently proposed, the condo project would be built in an “L” shape adjacent to St. James’s, partly on property owned by Oaktree that formerly was the site of the Cambridge Car Wash at 2013 Massachusetts Ave., and partly on church land. The dilapidated parish hall would be torn down and the church would occupy space on the first floor of the four-story condo building.
The plan has met resistance from some neighborhood residents, including abutters apprehensive about the project’s impact of their properties, including a loss of privacy, and others—especially those living on Beech Street—who think it will exacerbate traffic congestion.
The debate over the project heated up after it seemed to residents that a required traffic study did little more than rubber-stamp a decision by Susan Clippinger, the city’s director of traffic, parking and transportation, that cars entering and exiting the complex’s underground garage should use two-blocks long Beech, rather than Mass Ave.
In a letter to the planning board sent prior to a public hearing held last month, the Porter Square Neighbors Association (PSNA) said nearby residents “adamantly opposed” putting a planned ramp leading into the garage on Beech, especially since the decision was made “without any consultation with neighbors and before even the preliminary draft of the traffic study” was completed.
It said the study could not “be taken seriously and needs to be done again.” (Disclosure: the writer lives on Beech Street.)
Board Members Endorse Beech Street Garage Entrance
However, as they discussed the condo developer’s bid for a required special permit this time, planning board members made it clear they disagreed with that assessment.
Board member Theodore Cohen said, “I’m perfectly prepared to go with what traffic and parking says” while his colleague Hugh Russell concurred, noting, “To me, it’s a no-brainer, with the experts all saying it’s not going to be a measurable, or even a noticeable change.”
Thomas Anninger said he also was “persuaded” by the conclusions of the traffic study, although he added that “I know it was not a ‘no-brainer’ to the community.” Board Chairman William Tibbs said, “I, too, agree with traffic and parking’s recommendations.”
Some board members were a bit more skeptical about other aspects of the developer’s plans, especially Russell, who said he was concerned that the church’s impressive façade as seen from Mass Ave might be too “tucked away” by the adjacent modern design condo complex.
He ticked off some other things he wanted Oaktree and project team member Ricardo Dumont of Sasaki Associates in Watertown to address when they come back before the board, including: types of outdoor lighting; plans for a children’s play area; variety of trees to be used for landscaping; and the breakdown between pavement and greenery in the project’s public spaces, especially the church’s historic “Knights Garden.”
He and other board members said they also wanted more information about issues such as trash disposal, surface parking spots for temporary use and disabled drivers and the degree to which the complex will cast shadows on adjacent properties.
Dumont promised to bring an architectural model of the project with him at his next appearance, complete with detailed information about the “palate” of colors the developers plan to use to best emphasize the notable features of the church.
Under the law, the planning board has until mid-January to make a decision on the special permit request, but they could do so when they meet next month.
Anninger, for one, seemed worried about prolonging the process, observing that any extended delay involving the granting of landmark status for the church property would not be in the interests of St. James’s. But Les Barber of the city’s community development department said a lengthy landmarking procedure “does not mean (the special permit) cannot go forward.”
To see a summary of plans for the condo project by Oaktree Development in pdf form go to: www.oakdev.com/_uploads/projects/StJamesRedevelopment.pdf.