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Hurdles cleared, Cambridge group celebrates arts project

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / October 1, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - It started as a simple idea.

A local nonprofit would convert an old carriage house on its Sacramento Street property into studio space for artists and children to hone their craft.

But for six years, the effort to make that dream a reality has been locked in a court battle that pitted neighbor against neighbor and transformed the residential area into a center of discord.

Earlier this week, members of the Agassiz neighborhood group that had proposed the center joined about 500 supporters to mark the end of the lawsuit and the start of the carriage house renovation. With cheers and a barbecue, they celebrated the Maud Morgan Visual Arts Center, named for a member of the Cambridge arts community who championed young and emerging artists.

“It’s fantastic to see the excitement of everyone that this is finally happening,’’ said Terry DeLancey, executive director of the Agassiz Baldwin Community - formerly known as the Agassiz Neighborhood Council.

But a handful of opponents who filed suit said the group had not been a good neighbor. They fault its members for withholding key information about its renovation plans, ignoring residents’ concerns, and imposing its own will on the community.

“They treated us shabbily,’’ said David Kudan, a rabbi who was a plaintiff.

“They have never given us a rationale for why they would have such a huge program in our neighborhood.’’

The community group, which provides services, events, and programs conceived the idea of the arts center 10 years ago, when it bought property at 20 Sacramento St., which is off Massachusetts Avenue about halfway between Harvard Square and Porter Square.

Members decided to use the main house as their office. But the carriage house in the back, which was dilapidated and in need of major repair, was more of a problem.

Group members ultimately decided that they should revive the carriage house as an arts center to augment the otherwise meager offerings in the neighborhood.

They raised $1.2 million for the project, DeLancey said, and planned to have a host of programs for children and adults.

At first community residents balked at the idea, DeLancey said, citing more noise and traffic on a narrow and busy street that already has a community garden, a public school, and two dormitories for Harvard and Lesley University students.

After listening to residents’ concerns, DeLancey said the nonprofit scaled back some offerings.

“We worked with so many neighborhood groups and came up with the conditions that they wanted met . . . but that still did not satisfy them,’’ said DeLancey.

But in 2003, Lucian A. Bebchuk, a Harvard law professor who owns a house on the street, slapped the council with a lawsuit challenging its special permit from the Cambridge zoning board to renovate the carriage house into the arts center.

A handful of neighbors, including Kudan, joined Bebchuk’s lawsuit. Bebchuk did not return calls to his office or answer an e-mail seeking comment this week. His lawyers also did not return a phone call.

Kudan said that in principle, the plaintiffs are not opposed to the center, noting that they support new arts programs in other locations but just not on their busy, home-lined street.

He faulted the nonprofit for what he said is its poor handling of the issue.

“There were so many missteps,’’ Kudan said. “They could clearly come up with a workable compromise.’’

But many residents, and even the courts, dispute that view.

At the event this week, George Hein, an Agassiz Baldwin board member, flatly refuted the plaintiffs’ complaints.

“Just look at the number of people who came out to support this today,’’ he said. “We went overboard. . . . We had enormous compromises to placate the neighbors.’’

In the end, the plaintiffs lost at almost every turn. A Middlesex Superior Court judge rejected the lawsuit in 2006, and an appellate court upheld the ruling late last year.

The Supreme Judicial Court also refused to hear the case last year.

As the legal battles dragged on, the carriage house became ever more decrepit.

DeLancey said that is partly because the center was waiting for the green light to begin the renovation.

Work is set to begin next month, and the center will open next summer.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com