By Karen Klinger
(First of three parts)
For 120 years, the stately St. James’s Episcopal Church in Porter Square and the neighborhood of mostly Victorian-era homes that grew up around it co-existed amicably, even as the area’s demographics changed and the church’s fortunes waxed and waned.
But a plan to build 46 luxury condominiums at Massachusetts Avenue and Beech Street on property partly owned by the church has ruptured that peaceful coexistence, leaving many neighbors angry at both St. James’s and Cambridge officials and dismaying church members and their leaders.
The process by which the church and a local firm, Oaktree Development, hope to get the city’s green light for the plan faces perhaps its biggest hurdle October 20 when the Cambridge Planning Board is slated to hold a public hearing on their request for a required special permit.
The hearing, which begins at 8 p.m. at the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, could be a lengthy one. In addition to representatives of the developers and the church, the board is likely to hear from a number of neighborhood people, including abutters, some of whom fiercely oppose the plan.
Somewhat caught in the middle of the maelstrom has been the Porter Square Neighbors Association (PSNA) and two of its officers, John Howard and Susan Hunziker, who have spent months in meetings with representatives from all sides, and taking so much verbal fire they might want to invest in flak jackets.
Neighbors Say Project is Too Big, Oppose Beech Street Ramp
After much consultation with PSNA members, Howard and Hunziker put together a letter to the planning board on behalf of the organization spelling out the neighborhood’s concerns, which include a general belief that the planned four-story, 78,000-square-foot complex is too large and will “loom over the residential neighborhood.”
The letter also notes the strong opposition of neighbors to putting an entrance ramp leading to an underground garage with 64 parking spaces on two-blocks long Beech Street, which already is often clogged with traffic at rush hours. (More on that issue in part two of this report. Disclosure: the writer lives on Beech Street).
As currently envisioned, the condo project would have an “L” shape, built partly on a lot formerly occupied by the Cambridge Car Wash at 2013 Massachusetts Ave. and partly on church property. The current parish hall would be demolished and replaced by offices and activity spaces on the first floor of the condo building, wrapping around the church’s much-loved “Knight's Garden."
For the church, the deal will not only allow it to replace its crumbling parish hall, which houses activities ranging from a food pantry serving upwards of 300 families weekly to a summer homeless shelter and a music room, but provide a much-needed $3 million endowment that will help it carry out deferred maintenance on the remaining circa-1889 stone structure containing the sanctuary.
One point of contention rankling the neighbors is a decision to have balconies for the condos (which likely will range in price from $400,000-plus to close to $1 million) face not the Knight's Garden (at the church’s insistence), but the rear of the complex, facing the abutting mostly two- and three-story houses.
“If balconies are not acceptable facing the church garden, they are even less acceptable facing the abutters,” the PSNA letter says, noting that three stories of balconies plus a possible roof garden overlooking neighboring backyards along Orchard and Blake streets represent “a significant loss of privacy and a potential noise generator.”
The letter contends the developers, in their special permit application, fail to address aspects of the city’s zoning code with respect to the balconies, which some abutters fear will mean their new neighbors will not only be looking into their backyards but into their bedrooms.
In Bid to 'Restore Civility', Neighborhood Group Requests Permit Delay
During the buildup to the planning board hearing, abutters and other neighbors have mobilized, forming subgroups to study the zoning and traffic issues, writing letters to city officials and passing out leaflets.
In one letter sent in September to the Cambridge Chronicle, Beech Street resident Ellen Ezorsky said it appeared to her that the “church’s mission is at painful odds with their community.” She excoriated both the church and city officials, saying “I felt that ‘my fair city’ and St. James had no qualms about selling my neighborhood down the river.”
Another neighbor, Orchard Street resident Leonora Hall Williams, said in a letter to the planning board that the “blatant disregard for the neighbors, abutters and for the (next door) Kingdom Hall makes it difficult to feel any goodwill for this project. And for a faith community, the Episcopal Church, to fly in the face of what should be a fair and equal process, and to join hands with the greed of a developer, is a travesty.”
For their part, church members seemed both hurt and stunned by the acrimony the project has generated. Mardi Moran, a longtime neighborhood resident and church member—and tireless advocate for the homeless—seemed near tears at one point as she expressed her frustration at the “shovel fulls” of criticism heaped on St. James’s.
She noted, correctly, that the city’s zoning laws actually permit a much larger residential complex than the proposed project and the church, if anything, has tempered the ambitions of its developer partner.
In the midst of all this, the PSNA in its letter asked the planning board to delay a decision on the special permit so that “meaningful” conversations begun in August among the church, the developers and the neighbors could continue.
While the delay could address some of the issues raised about the project, the “most important reason for this re-engagement may be the opportunity to restore civility,” it said. “In the end, the church, the developer, the neighbors, and PSNA are going to have to live with each other.”
(Illustration: Oaktree Development)