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Allege ISD chief’s former firm gives developer inside track

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Neighbors question integrity of Inspectional Services Department
Cedar Street resident Rodney Singleton says developer Joe LaRosa’s planned six-unit development is too dense for this site, half of which is occupied by a puddingstone outcrop.

When real estate developer Joe LaRosa invited neighbors to review a project he planned for 145-147 Cedar Street last year, neighbors were worried that his planned teardown of a two-family home to build a six-unit building would fall into a familiar pattern of overly dense and poorly constructed houses they say he has built throughout Roxbury.

“His renderings were awful,” said Highland Park neighborhood activist Rodney Singleton. “The houses he has built in this neighborhood are cheap. They’re shabby construction. They’re not in keeping with the fabric of this neighborhood.”

Less than a year later and with no significant changes to his development plan, LaRosa began construction, unleashing a wave of complaints — chief among them, that the architectural firm LaRosa hired, Roche-Christopher Architecture, LLC, has ties to its founder William “Buddy” Christopher, now commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department.

ISD Spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake said Christopher left the firm last year before he was appointed commissioner in May.

“He severed all ties with that firm last year,” she said. “He filed full disclosure forms at the City Clerk’s office.”

Christopher’s son James Christopher now is managing the firm.

While Christopher may be in compliance with state ethics laws, abutters say his ties to the firm conflict with his role as enforcer of the city building code that they say LaRosa often violates.

“From our point of view, it’s a conflict of interest,” Singleton said. “It just smells bad.”

Neighbor Joyce Stanley says she sent a letter of complaint about Christopher’s apparent connection to the project.

“I haven’t received an answer,” she said. “No response. We’re concerned because of LaRosa’s track record. We don’t trust him. We’ve seen what he’s done in other parts of the neighborhood. I’d like some oversight from the city.”

While developers are not always required to obtain approval from abutters when constructing or renovating a building, they are if their project is determined to be out of compliance with zoning codes. Typically, developers who wish to build with greater density, fewer parking spaces or greater height than what is allowable must demonstrate that they have community support before obtaining a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeal.

The Inspectional Services Department determines whether or not a developer must appear before the Zoning Board of Appeal.

At 145-147 Cedar Street, ISD determined that LaRosa could build as-of-right — without obtaining a variance — even though neighbors complained to ISD that LaRosa’s proposal for six units on a lot that currently has a two-family home was at variance with zoning for the site. Although the lot is 15,000 square feet, Stanley says more than half the lot is taken up by a puddingstone outcrop that is not buildable.

Whether or not ISD is tallying buildable space in its calculations for the number of units on a lot remains an open question, according to Stanley.

“ISD never answered that question,” she said. “We asked them in a meeting and in letters. I never got an answer.”

If LaRosa’s use of Roche-Christopher does, indeed, give him an edge in his dealings with City Hall, it would not be the first time he’s used inside connections.

Cozy relationship

For more than four years, LaRosa listed then-Zoning Board of Appeal Chairman Joseph Feaster as his attorney for projects appearing before the board. While Feaster recused himself during votes on LaRosa’s projects, the developer seemed blessed with an uncanny ability to secure board approval of variances from the city’s building code, over the objections of abutters.

Feaster stepped down from the zoning board in 2004, after Roxbury residents complained both about numerous zoning and code violations they said LaRosa committed, along with his frequent zoning board victories. In 2005, Feaster was cleared of any wrongdoing by the State Ethics Commission.

Roche Christopher Architects, LLC has performed design services for projects throughout Boston, including the downtown area, South Boston and Dorchester. Roxbury appears to be new territory for the firm.

Roche Christopher also provided design services for Boston Property Development, a firm that is bidding for the right to develop a city-owned lot at 280-290 Warren Street. Roxbury residents who turned out for an April community meeting to review competing bids for the development project panned the firm’s proposed design for that property.

Louis Elisa sought intervention from the Inspectional Services in 2008 after LaRosa erected a building on Seaver Street that Elisa claims did not have proper set-backs from surrounding houses. Echoing Rodney Singleton’s comments, Elisa suggested Christopher’s firm’s involvement with the developer doesn’t pass the smell test.

“Any hint of there being a conflict of interest should be avoided, especial since LaRosa has been such a pariah in this community,” he said. “Given Christopher’s relationship with the firm, they should step back, just to keep it clean and avoid any hint of a conflict of interest.”