Hearing on Church Condos Focuses on Green Space and Finances

Hearing on Church Condos Focuses on Green Space and Finances

By Karen Klinger

Members of the Cambridge Historical Commission again delayed giving the go-ahead February 4 to a controversial condominium project on the site of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Porter Square, while focusing on questions of financing and future public access to the church’s prominent garden.

The commission continued until its next meeting March 4 a hearing on permission requested by the church and its partner, local builder Oaktree Development, to tear down the parish hall adjacent to St. James’s main sanctuary as the first step in constructing 46 upscale condos on the property at Beech Street and Massachusetts Avenue.

In December, the city planning board approved a special permit for the project, but with the proviso that final approval would depend on the city and state historical commissions, which both have a say because of preservation grants the church received in 1987 and 2004 to restore portions of its main building.

Last month, historical commission members unanimously voted to approve the condo plan "in principle," but said they felt a number of lingering questions about it still needed answers.

Members of St. James’s, a 122-year-old Romanesque Revival stone church that is a landmark in North Cambridge, say they need the money from the condo project to preserve the historic structure. Under the plan, a four-story, 78,000-square-foot complex would be built on land partly owned by Oaktree and partly by the church.

The current parish hall, which the church says has badly deteriorated, would be replaced by offices, classrooms and other facilities on the first floor of the L-shaped building, which would wrap around a courtyard facing Mass Ave. located on a portion of the existing garden.

Throughout the city’s lengthy approval process, the condo proposal has been criticized by some abutters and residents of the leafy surrounding neighborhood, who say the complex is too large and would overwhelm and clash with the area’s mostly Victorian-era houses.

Concerns Raised on Fate of Historic Garden

One of their concerns is the fate of the church’s much-loved Knights Garden, designed in 1915 by pioneering city planner John Nolen, a onetime student of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. In a 2004 report, the city called the 14,000-square-foot garden “one of the largest surviving open spaces on Massachusetts Avenue.”

While the church has said it places a high priority on public access to the space, in recent months the metal fence fronting the garden has frequently been locked. Church members say they closed it after years of trying to police unwanted activities such as homeless people camping out.

A 2005 preservation restriction agreement between the city and church says, in part, that given “the historical and landscape architecture significance and public benefit of the Knights Garden, designs for any new structures on the premises should encroach to the least extent possible on that component of the site.” Despite that stipulation, the condo plan would replace the garden with a significantly smaller courtyard area.

The latest landscaping design, shown to the historical commission by Vinicius Gorgati of Sasaki Associates of Watertown, is comprised of a 7,200-square-foot space—about half as large as the Knights Garden—with a “transitional” threshold of trees and groundcover adjacent to the Mass Ave sidewalk and behind that, a lawn with a “labrynth” design and a small “contemplative” garden. It would also have a low wall to sit on and walking paths.

John Armstrong, an abutter to the church property and leader of a neighbors group opposed to the condo proposal in its current form, told the commissioners that the design, far from inviting the public in, was likely to deter passersby because of its closed-off nature, with only one way in and out.

“It is basically a cul-de-sac,” he said, noting that not even the condo dwellers overlooking the courtyard would have direct access to it. “If they did,” he added, “that would create a reason for people to be moving about and make it feel safer.”

Another attendee at the hearing, Marilee Meyer, an art historian and longtime Cambridge resident, said “Once you cross the threshold, it feels like you are invading a private space. There is no openness there.”

And while Gorgati said plans call for the complex to have about 6,600 additional square feet of green space on the periphery of the site (making for a total about equivalent to the square footage of the Knights Garden), Meyer pointed out that none of that would be accessible to the public.

Church Preservation Tied to Real Estate Market

The garden also figured in the other main point of discussion at the hearing, involving the financial arrangements between the church and Oaktree. Alan Aukeman, co-chairman of the church’s redevelopment committee, explained that the church would retain sole ownership of the garden as well as the sanctuary and additionally own the parish house area on the first floor as, essentially, one condo unit.

He put the value of the new parish house, which the church would receive free and clear from Oaktree, at $2 million. As to the rest of the benefits of its partnership with the developer, Aukeman said the church would get 35 percent of the net proceeds from the sale of the condos.

The church has said that it intends to put this money toward a preservation fund for the sanctuary, which means the building’s future could be closely tied to the health of the real estate market. Oaktree representatives said neither party would see any of the funds until the mortgage is paid off, which will require selling at least 75 percent of the condos.

Before much else can happen though, Aukeman said the St. James’s governing vestry must formally approve the deal with Oaktree, followed by the approval of a committee of the state Episcopal diocese, which is scheduled to meet March 11.

In an e-mail to neighborhood residents following the hearing, Armstrong indicated that opponents of the condo plan—frustrated by their dealings so far with the city—should consider taking their case to church authorities. He said the idea would be to let them know “there are still things that they could do—compromises they could make—that would go a long way toward redressing a bad situation.”

It might help, Armstrong said, “to remind them about the second great Christian commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”