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Controversial project raises abutters’ ire

Neighbors question developer’s ties to Inspectional Services Dept.

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Controversial project raises abutters’ ire
City Realty’s plans for 39 units of housing at Cedar and Hawthorne streets would incorporate the facade of a church currently at the site. (Photo: Rendering courtesy of architect)

At the corner of Cedar and Hawthorne streets, a modest church building is ground zero in a battle over the future of Roxbury’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Author: Photo: Mayor’s OfficeWilliam “Buddy” Christopher

Last week, City Realty Group proposed a total of 39 units at 50 and 56 Cedar Street — zoned for nine and three units of housing, respectively — sparking concern among neighborhood residents. Adding fuel to the neighbors’ worries is the architectural firm the developers brought into the deal: Roache Christopher Architects LLC, a firm co-founded by Inspectional Services Division Commissioner William “Buddy” Christopher and now managed by his son James Christopher.

Because Inspectional Services has the power to determine whether a project can be built “as of right,” or within existing zoning codes, the elder Christopher’s department holds the keys to greenlighting controversial proposals.

“We brought the issue up,” said abutter Rodney Singleton. “[James] Christopher said he was scrutinized like everyone else. We didn’t believe that. Nobody was convinced.”

ISD spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake said the elder Christopher is not involved in decisions involving his son’s work or that of his former firm.

“If anything comes through with James Christopher or his company, that would go through Gary Mosher, assistant commissioner of the building division,” she said.

Asked whether Christopher’s son might receive preferential treatment, Mayor Martin Walsh expressed confidence in William Christopher’s impartiality.

“I don’t have concerns,” he said. “I know he’ll recuse himself. The reason I brought him into that role at ISD is because he has the experience out in the field with development, with architecture, with construction. You can’t bring in someone who just graduated college and put them in charge of ISD.”

Overriding concerns

While neighbors are unified in opposition to the City Realty project, many fear the developer’s ties to City Hall may help them secure a green light.

Last year, Roache Christopher Architects designed a dense six-unit building at 145 Cedar Street for developer Joe LaRosa, who tore down a two-family home on the site. That project seemingly sailed through the city’s review process over the objections of abutters and other neighborhood residents who expressed concerns about parking and argued that zoning laws would not allow that level of density.

Despite the neighbors’ concerns, Inspectional Services deemed that LaRosa could build the project as of right, without going before the Zoning Board of Appeal.

Singleton said the project at 50 and 56 Cedar Street is at variance with the zoning for the parcels in several ways, including height, a lack of setback from the street, density and parking.

“People were horrified with this proposal,” he said.

“It’s over on every variance you could be over on,” said Holly Shepherd. “People were trying to listen, but I think people were shocked by what they were proposing. It’s so out of context for this community.”

Past meets present

Much of the Highland Park neighborhood comprises large single and two-family homes, some dating back to the 1700s. As in many Boston neighborhoods, parking is tight. While many new buildings in the neighborhood include parking spaces on-site, City Realty is proposing just 32 parking spaces for 50 and 56 Cedar Street.

Increasingly active in Boston real estate, City Realty owns 800 rental units in the city and has purchased multiple properties in Roxbury and Dorchester.

While the firm primarily has purchased and rehabbed existing housing, in the last year City Realty began building on vacant parcels. At 3193 Washington Street in Jamaica Plain, the firm is proposing a 49-unit development with parking for 24 cars and 54 bikes. Although the firm is not using Roache Christopher Architects on that project, the development consultant listed on the project is Joe Rull, who in 2014 served as Mayor Martin Walsh’s chief of operations.

“They have a track record of pushing for the highest rents in Roxbury, treating tenants poorly and not taking care of their properties,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson, who last year held a hearing on the firm’s practices. “Over the past three years, I’ve received many complaints from constituents about City Realty and their treatment of tenants and condo owners.”

Jackson expressed concern that the developers might not negotiate a satisfactory compromise with the neighbors, given the scale of what they’ve proposed.

“City Realty’s proposal for 39 units is one of the most disrespectful and out of touch proposals that I’ve ever seen in this community,” he said.