Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So What's the Deal with Blessed Sacrament?

The city Planning Board held a public discussion on Tuesday to review design changes for the Blessed Sacrament condo development (aka Dana Park Place). The good news? Many of the objectionable changes to the project were pledged to be undone. That said, the final development will have some compromised features from the original proposal. The process of how the project got to this point is a revealing story about historic rehab projects in Cambridge.

The proponant, developer Paul Ognibene (and his counsel and architect) revisited the recent history of the project that lies right at the center of C-port: After the Archdiocese closed the parish, it was sold to Ognibene in 2005, and he went forward with plans to develop 49 condominium units under the development entity of Urban Spaces LLC. Neighbors objected to the size of the project, organizing themselves as the Neighbors & Abutters of Blessed Sacrament (NABS). The neighbors filed suit and the project was delayed until a settlement was reached in June 2006. Among the terms of the settlement, Ognibene agreed to lowering the number of units in the church and school to 43.

To this point, most of the project has been completed. Of the original four-building campus, the Erie Street convent was demolished and the rectory was restored as a two-family condo. The school portion opened as a 23-unit condo building last year, and despite suffering the worst of the market collapse, its pricing has held up and 17 units have been sold. Work resumed on the church portion of the project this summer, but observers soon began noticing troubling aspects of the construction: poor brickwork, extensive demolition around openings, and tall concrete block walls in the front portico. Inquiries led to the project coming back in front of the Planning Board--a strange step for a project mostly through construction.

It was obvious that the project changed substantially since the Board-approved version, but the changes were documented in the project's Permit documents, which were approved by the city's Inspectional Services Department. Most of the changes were triggered by changing the height of the underground garage's second level by 18" to meet previously unrecognized code requirements--a condition that some on the Board felt was foreseeable and avoidable. The development team countered that conditions in the foundation of the church, designed in 1907, were unknown and had to be resolved as they were uncovered.

This change in floor height rippled through the design, causing the architect, Khalsa Design, to make numerous unfortuante adjustments in the permit documents: existing masonry details were removed or altered, the "planters" between the columns grew taller, window openings now crashed into the building's ornate, classical cornice.

Fortunately, several folks from the city, including Charlie Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC), have been working with Ognibene to mitigate the impact of the changes, and Ognibene's team came to the meeting with seven modifications to be made to the project:
  1. The planter walls (currently the concrete block backup is installed between the columns in the portico) will be lowered in height to the original proposal, near the top of the front portion of wall today. A more transparent railing will take the place of the removed wall. City planners, as well as a few Board members, also voiced concern over the planters being too far forward, burying the profile of the original columns. CHC will continue to work with the developer to resolve.
  2. The Pearl Street entrance through the original portico, already elevated significantly from the sidewalk, will be raised approximately another eight steps to accommodate the new floor heights. This modification is much worse than the original proposal (and existing building), but unavoidable. CHC will work with the developer to simplify the stair railings and conform to code.
  3. The fifth floor windows have been redesigned to not interfere with the existing building's cornice.
  4. The third floor windows (the top, arched portion of the original nave windows) have been redesigned on both the north and south facades.
  5. Proposed decorative grating will be removed from the Pearl Street facade to reveal more of the original brick detailing.
  6. The buildings new main entrance, off McTernan Street, has been altered from the Planning Board submission to better respond to the language of the existing building's punched openings. CHC will review the quality of the brick infill currently in place and necessary repairs. Ognibene called the shoddy work "a thorn in my side, as a developer."
  7. Windows on the south facade will be shifted up 17", with window glazing to remain the same size, and a planned Juliette balcony will be removed (ostensibly for neighbors' privacy).
Several of these modifications will be helpful in preserving the building's architectural integrity. The fact that the developer was able to get permit drawings approved that undermined the Board-approved design is unsettling and raises some questions about the approvals process. On the other hand, that the city responded to neighbor and staffers' concerns and is pushing the development to take corrective action is significant. The onus is on the city and the neighborhood to see that there is follow-through.

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