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December 2008

Porter Square Neighbors Association Meeting
December 18, 2008

Announcements

  • Elections took place at the last meeting of PSNA. Officers:
    John Howard, president; Susan Hunzinger, vice-president;
    Mary O’Neill, treasurer; Margaret Studier, secretary.
  • The Walden bridge will be open for traffic December 19.

Proposed building on Lechmere’s car wash site

Holly Antolini, Rector at St. James’s since April 2008, spoke briefly and introduced Alan Aukeman, co-chair of the Development Committee, and Gwen Noyes from Oaktree Development.

Proposal:

The church has been on that site for 150 years undergoing different transformations. The parish hall has 12 different levels, some of it built before 1880, an addition added in the 1950s. It is not historically or architecturally significant, needs renovations, and does not meet ADA standards. The church members recently ran a capital campaign to raise funds to repair their bell tower, but would prefer to put their funds into their ministries such as their soup kitchen, food pantry, and providing low cost rent for a school, rather than into
building repairs and renovations.

Gwen Noyes of Oaktree presented preliminary thoughts about building a combined condominium and new parish hall on the Lechmere car wash site plus part of the church's property. They are in the process of acquiring the Lechmere Car Wash site, where they could build a 20-28 unit condominium as of right. They approached the church about acquiring part of the church's garden in order to build a larger project. This led to a joint proposal for a larger project which would also replace the parish house. The new L-shaped building would wrap around the church building and garden, with four floors in front (45 feet high), three floors in back (35 feet), and 40 to 48 condo units, including 10-15% affordable housing. The new parish hall would occupy the first floor and be a member of the condominium association.

Entrance to underground parking would be either from Mass. Ave. or Beech St. The church would like a presence on Mass. Ave. and it is possible there would also be a small retail business on Mass. Ave. The garden is underutilized and they would hope with this project to make it more accessible to the public and to church members.

See the church's web site for some more details.

Questions:

Q: Apart from the benefit to the church, what good does this do for Cambridge or the neighborhood?

A: This will make the garden more accessible to the community, reduce the possibility of the buildings falling into disrepair or being sold or abandoned some day, and free funds for church ministry activities such as the food pantry and school.

Q: You are proposaing a very large building abutting residential properties, which would dominate and have a substantive impact on the neighborhood of mostly single family homes. It would face the garden and the back of the building would face the abutters living behind—with a driveway/ramp proposed along the back of the building.

A: By zoning, there must be a 20' setback from residential boundaries to a maximum height of 35'. The part along Mass Ave can be taller. It might be possible to design a gap between the two parts to lessen the wall-like effect.

Q: Beech St. is seriously congested at rush hour with cars backed up for two blocks and around the corner on Elm. The parking entrance could make Beech street worse. How much parking will be provided?

A: There will be the required amount of one space per condo unit, plus enough to replace the church's current spaces. A traffic study will be required.

Q: The garden is currently used as a campground. How would you deal with that?

A: The parish house will open into the garden, giving the church better access and increasing activity, which should discourage camping.

Discussion:

Major concerns are:

  • massing—both on Mass. Ave. and at the back of the lot
  • traffic
  • parking
  • inadequate communication with abutters.

Estimated condo unit prices are $500,000 to $800,000. Is this socially good for the neighborhood? Cambridge is awash with such units. Do we need more?

While traffic is a concern, it may be that anybody willing to buy such an expensive unit so close to the T stop may plan not to drive a lot.

Oaktree’s presentation seemed not well thought through or presented with large enough drawings which all could see.

More dialog with immediate abutters is needed. While the church has contacted some, it has not contacted all of them.

Action:

Respond to the church and Oaktree: We want to work with you, and we encourage you to meet with the abutters. We need to keep a dialogue going, and we want to see more detailed plans at a future meeting.