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OpEd—14 N. Bennet St. Rectory Conversion ZBA Hearing, Nov. 10

By Ellen Hume

The Zoning Board of Appeal will vote on November 10 on the proposal to turn the St. Leonard’s Rectory at 14 N Bennet St. into six condos, with no off-street parking, a new fifth story, and giant French Door windows with open balconies. We are inviting the neighborhood to attend the meeting online. You can sign up at starting at 8:30 a.m. The hearing on the Rectory is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m.

As abutters to the 14 N Bennet St. former Rectory, we are asking the ZBA to reject Epsilon’s proposal, sending them back to the drawing board to come up with a better plan. To be clear, we are willing to work with any developer who wishes to put condos in the old Rectory, as long they respect the sensitive location and keep within the existing envelope of the building. This isn’t just any old North End building. The 100-year-old Rectory is registered by MACRIS as of historic significance. Just half a block up the street, the Nazzaro Community Building at 30 N Bennet St, is protected as a pending historic Landmark. Ironically, it bears the family name of Michael Nazzaro, who proudly saved the North End from inappropriate development in the 1960s.

It is unusual and significant that both the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) and the North End Waterfront Residents’ Association (NEWRA), have voted to oppose the Epsilon design, including the latest version presented Sept. 14.  If the ZBA refuses to grant the variances, keeping the zoning laws in place that are meant to protect residents from inappropriate development, Epsilon will just have to work with the community to develop a more suitable design. So far, they have refused to negotiate with abutters since January. 

14 N. Bennet St. proposal with fifth floor addition that features a 3′ setback.

Why are we opposed to adding a fifth story where the headhouse now sits, with giant windows and balconies that face eye-to-eye across the street to our Columbus Court building? Windows that violate the BPDA design standards, and which also look into the St. Leonard’s sacristy, and the St. Christopher Friary? We feel strongly that they simply are not suitable to this location, even if the new story stays within the 55 foot legal height limit. This is a five-story walkup, not a building with an elevator or storage area for strollers and bicycles. Do you think families will want to live here, or will it be more suitable to student renters who may have music or loud parties that spill out through open windows onto the three-foot-deep “planter” balconies?

Granting these variances to zoning laws, which are in place to protect residential neighborhoods, could set a bad precedent for other parts of the North End.

We have safety concerns they have never answered. Building another floor on top of the roof could threaten the structural integrity of St. Leonard’s church itself. The 100-year-old Rectory sits on top of underground tunnels and rooms shared with the church. The developer refused our request to conduct a structural analysis, even though the existence of these hollowed out foundation areas raises serious questions about the capacity of the building to hold up a new story, let alone hold the construction cranes, equipment and building materials that will be placed there during demolition and construction. The architect’s own drawings acknowledge that “existing foundation conditions are unknown.” You will remember that another old North End brick building started to collapse suddenly during renovation last year, and the adjacent building also had to be evacuated, condemned and retrofitted because of the danger it would collapse.

Epsilon meets only minimal fire safety requirements for these five floors of condos, with just one staircase serving the entire building. They will remove the fire escapes, despite the double-fatality fire in the building on Hanover St. three years ago. 

When our own 32-unit condo building was developed out of Christopher Columbus High School 23 years ago, developer Anthony Simboli created off-street parking for the condos and a cutout for deliveries and repair trucks. Epsilon offers no parking or cutout for its six new condos, so any car stopping for pickups, repair work, or deliveries will have to block N. Bennet street.  

On Sept. 14, as he tried and failed to turn around NEWNC’s opposition to this proposal, Epsilon’s attorney said they had 80 abutters’ signatures in favor of the project. Really? There aren’t even 80 abutters living next to this property! Who are these people, and what are their addresses? He refused to show them to us. Are they actually abutters, like us? Not one person except the developers and their lawyer has ever spoken in favor of this Epsilon project at any of the four community meetings, which have drawn overflow crowds in opposition. We have repeatedly mobilized our community in opposition for the project. The ZBA hearing has been rescheduled five times.

In whose interest are the zoning laws written, and in whose interest are the variances granted? What case has Epsilon made that this change is the in the best interest of the people who actually live here? The North End community is watching this decision to see if the ZBA will stand with the taxpayers, requiring Epsilon to come up with a better Rectory project that we can all get behind. welcomes commentaries on community issues via email to Opinions are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of or other writers on this site. Responses to this commentary can be posted below in the comment section.