Controversial Porter Square Building in Foreclosure

Controversial Porter Square Building in Foreclosure

It has been called the "plywood palace," among other epithets, and the "most hated building in Porter Square," if not in all of Cambridge.

And now it is in foreclosure.

The unfinished 15-unit residential structure at 1979 Massachusetts Ave. at the corner of Beech Street long has been the subject of a lawsuit brought by neighbors disgruntled by the city's decision to grant a building permit for it to developer Husam Azzam. Now, the nearly five-year-old controversy surrounding the building has been amplified by the decision of Azzam's lender to pull the plug.

A legal notice in the Cambridge Chronicle says an auction on the premises is set for November 16 to sell off the units as condominiums. Alternatively, the mortgage lender could sell the entire building. Or the sale could be postponed. At this point, it's anyone's guess what will happen.

"Right now, we need to wait and find out who the new owners are," says Susan Hunziker, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association (PSNA) and a key figure in the protracted battle by residents against the city's decision to allow construction of the building on the site of the former Long Funeral Home.

Among the complaints of abutters and other neighbors: the complex lacks the required number of on-site parking spaces; it is out of scale with nearby structures, towering over the iconic 19th-Century St. James's Episcopal Church across Beech Street; and the stark, modernist architecture of the building clashes with the area's Victorian houses.

Recently, Hunziker and other PSNA members listened to arguments before the state's highest court that marked the latest chapter in a tangled legal saga that goes back to 2003, when a group of neighbors and abutters appealed to the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal to overturn the city's decision to issue Azzam a building permit.

After the BZA rejected the appeal, the neighbors filed suit, not against Azzam, but the city. Since the fall of 2005, the case has gone to the Middlesex County Superior Court, then to the state court of appeals and now, to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. If the supreme court justices rule in the neighbors' favor, the case will go back to the superior court for the next round in this knock-down-drag-out fight.

Meanwhile, even as residents and city officials have spent thousands of dollars in legal costs battling each other, the fate of the property is more unsettled than ever. Azzam never finished the much-loathed towering penthouse that many residents saw as symbolic of everything that was wrong with the project. He did, however, obtain certificates of occupancy for the other units, which have been rented out as apartments.

It's unclear what will happen to the occupants of those units, given the pending foreclosure proceedings, not to mention the ongoing legal battle. They could be evicted, and their uncertain fate is shared by renters of a triple-decker house at 6 Beech St., next-door to the apartment complex. Azzam also owns that property, and it, too, is being foreclosed, with an auction scheduled for Oct. 26.

What's next? As the philosopher Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over 'til it's over," and many Porter Square residents have begun to doubt the case of the "plywood palace" will ever be over.

Still, there's always a next chapter. So stay tuned.