Neighbors lose suit to halt shift of art institute

Lesley seeks move to historic church

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / April 12, 2011

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A state Land Court judge has ruled against residents suing the city of Cambridge and Lesley University over plans to relocate the Art Institute of Boston to the site of a historic church in Porter Square.

Neighbors of North Prospect Church filed the suit in 2009, asking the court to overturn new zoning laws that enable Lesley to move the church to the south side of its Massachusetts Avenue property to make way for a new four-story building for the institute.

But in a decision issued April, Land Court Judge Alexander H. Sands, III, struck down the neighbors’ suit, including a contention that the Cambridge City Council engaged in illegal spot zoning on the church site.

The plaintiffs are now considering appealing the decision to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, said Thomas B. Bracken, the attorney representing neighbors, Peter Lang, Katherine Lapierre , Sarah Farrington and her brother, John Farrington.

Bracken said Judge Sands ignored the history of the church site when he ruled it was not a case of illegal spot zoning.

“We were disappointed,’’ Bracken said. “We still think we have a good case, particularly on the spot zoning issue.’’

Bracken said the city had included the church property at 1797-1893 Massachusetts Ave. in a residential district for more than 100 years and the City Council’s decision in 2009 to switch the site into a business district was illegal spot zoning. The business district is less restrictive to new development.

Sands ruled that while the property had been in a residential district, the church site had not been used for residential purposes for more than 100 years and that extending a closely neighboring business district to the site “can hardly be classified as violating principles of uniform zoning.’’

Bill Doncaster, Lesley University spokesman, said the school is pleased by the judgment. The university plans to break ground on the site next spring, he said.

Last month. the Cambridge Planning Board granted Lesley a special permit needed to move forward with the project.

Lesley purchased the church in 2006 and plans to move it to the corner of the property. It will be renovated, converted into a library, and connected to a modern glass building that will be erected on the property. Together, the buildings will house students from the institute, which merged with Lesley in 1998.

Lesley will then sell the institute’s Beacon Street building in Boston’s Kenmore Square, Doncaster said.

Neighbors who filed the suit have said they do not object to moving the institute to Lesley’s Cambridge campus, but they do object to the plans for the church site.

Bracken said his clients are also suing the Historical Commission for endorsing the project and moving the church, even though it has been declared a landmark by the city.

The church was built in 1845 on the site of what is now Harvard University’s Littauer Hall. It was moved to Porter Square in 1867 by a team of oxen.

Mayor David Maher was unavailable for comment yesterday, and city solicitor Donald Drisdell did not return calls seeking comment.

Brock Peters can be reached at