Building projects spark suspicions
Link between ISD and Dot architecture firm causes concern among residents
Three recent development projects in Dorchester, East Boston and Roxbury’s Highland Park share strikingly common traits: angry abutters, approved plans that ease through the city’s permitting process and a Dorchester-based architectural firm.
The firm, Roche-Christopher Architecture, was founded by the city’s Inspectional Services Department Director William “Buddy” Christopher and is currently run by his son, James Christopher. The firm’s involvement in controversial building projects has raised eyebrows and, on occasion, the ire of neighborhood residents.
Complying with state ethics laws, Christopher severed his ties with the firm he founded with business partner Eddie Roche when he became director of ISD.
“Technically, it’s legal,” said Sam Tyler, President of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent government watchdog group. “It would be helpful if there were an additional step in the approval process to make it clear that the relationship doesn’t affect the process.”
Roche-Christopher Architecture is one of scores of firms cashing in on Boston’s current building boom. The firm lists nine large apartment buildings currently under planning or construction on its profile on the construction website BLDUP. But the firm’s connection to the city’s often cumbersome permitting process, and the ease with which some of the its clients navigate that process, has some neighborhood activists crying foul.
Chris Drew, who co-manages the firm with James Christopher, said most projects he’s worked on go through a thorough community process.
“With 98 percent of projects it’s the same thing,” said Drew, explaining the zoning appeals process and how the firm engages with the community. “We strive to do our very best for our clients and the community.”
But that wasn’t the case on Cedar Street in the Highland Park neighborhood, abutters say. Joyce Stanley, who lives two doors away from a project built in 2015 by developer Joe LaRosa, sent a letter to the Inspectional Services Department complaining about the apparent conflict of interest between James Christopher’s work as architect for the six-unit apartment building and William Christopher’s role as head of the agency that would determine whether the project would require a variance, and therefore, a hearing before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA).
Stanley and others in the neighborhood noted that a two-family home had previously stood on the lot. Because the lot was hemmed in by a rock ledge, the neighbors argued that the footprint was not large enough for a six-unit building.
Despite complaints from neighborhood residents, ISD ruled that LaRosa could construct the six-unit building “as of right,” avoiding a hearing before the ZBA. The finished building now dominates the streetscape, clearly larger than the single- and two-family homes that flank it.
Stanley, who never received a response to her letter, said the lack of neighborhood review confirmed neighbors’ suspicions.
“We knew this was rigged and that LaRosa was getting favorable treatment from City Hall,” she said. “It’s a conflict of interest.”
Two years later, this time in Dorchester, a vacant lot adjoining 214 Westville Street was developed by Dot Realty LLC after plans were approved by the BPDA. Roche-Christopher Architecture drew up the plans for the project, which expanded a triple-decker onto an adjoining lot, nearly doubling its square footage.
While the adjacent lot was deeded by the city “to be used and maintained as open space,” the city allowed Dot Realty LLC to develop the land “as of right” and complete the project without public notification.
Neighbors were caught flat-footed when Dot Realty LLC began excavating the site to pour a foundation for the addition, which exceeded the size of the original building. Westville Street resident Vienna Rothberg fired off a letter to city councilors Frank Baker and Andrea Campbell, noting that another neighborhood resident seeking permitting to add two rooms to her basement was required to undergo a lengthy permitting process and submit architectural plans to a local civic association and abutters.
“This case is generating a strong perception in the neighborhood that the mysterious Dot Realty LLC developer has some special connections and is getting a free pass from the City to avoid closer scrutiny and public disclosure,” Rothberg wrote.
Dot Realty extended the existing three-family building by 3,000 square feet, and the value of each unit rose from $167,000 to over $600,000 by the time the last three-bedroom unit sold in April.
Neighborhood resident Davida Andelman said the lack of community process on the project raised concerns among neighbors.
“The kind of ease by which certain projects can go through the city process and others can’t — it’s confusing to me how that happens,” she said. “It raises a red flag.”
In East Boston, where developer Benjamin Goodman of Flying Cloud Realty Trust hired Roche-Christopher to design a 22-unit building at 75-85 Liverpool Street, there was a community process. Formerly the site of two residential buildings and a one-story garage building, the proposed five-story mixed-use building with commercial space and 11 off-street parking spaces was approved despite opposition from abutters.
The BPDA greenlighted plans for this project on Dec. 14, 2017, but, in a subsequent memo, recommended developers seek zoning relief for several issues: the height of the building, its new intended use for multi-family occupancy, yard setbacks and off-street parking.
Public comments submitted to the BPDA during and after an Oct. 4 community meeting showed residents were concerned with the size of the project and the lack of parking spaces.
“This area is already being affected by large apartment buildings being built who are not providing enough parking spaces for all of the units,” wrote Liverpool Street resident Martin Velez to the BPDA at the end of October. “This one will just add to the problem of parking for the residents.”
The project was approved by the ZBA on Feb. 13, although several residents on the block of Liverpool Street where the project is planned told the Banner they received no notification about the project and were not aware of development plans.
Velez, whose home abuts the property, attended two BPDA meetings on the project, but says the process was rigged.
“The decision was already made,” he said. “What’s the point of the hearings? You can’t fight the City.”