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Lesley University clears key hurdle

Zoning shift aids art school move

By Jazmine Ulloa
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2009
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Lesley University has cleared a key hurdle in its bid to move the Art Institute of Boston to Porter Square.

The Cambridge City Council approved a zoning change earlier this week that extends the city’s business district, ending at Roseland Street on the eastern side of Massachusetts Avenue and at Oxford Court on the western side, to include the site of North Prospect Church, which Lesley hopes to transform into the home of the art institute.

The historic church, with red doors and a towering white steeple, will be lowered off its stairs and shifted to the south side of the property, said Bill Doncaster, Lesley’s spokesman. (The congregation that sold the church to the university in 2006 moved to a new location in Medford.)

“There is a lot of energy that comes with the art school that will add to the vitality of Porter Square,’’ Doncaster said. The new institution will house classrooms, galleries, and an art library.

The art school will attract more students, spurring local business, proponents said. It will also promote arts and education in an area primarily known for its shopping mall, said John Howard, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association.

“Most people were not opposed in principal to bringing the institute to Porter Square,’’ Howard said. “It is when you get to the details that people disagree.’’

But some residents said they believe the area is already too crowded, has too much traffic, and not enough parking spaces. Wallace J. Gardner lives off Massachusetts Avenue and said the area does not lend itself to such a large project.

“During rush hour, Massachusetts Avenue gets so jammed, it backs up all the way to Harvard Avenue,’’ Gardner said. “If you add a school with more people and no garage, we are going to be locked in here.’’

The art institute, which became part of Lesley in 1999, enrolls almost 600 students and is currently located in Kenmore Square. The university still has a few steps to take before it can relocate it.

The Cambridge City Council designated the church a landmark Monday night, so the university must apply for a certificate from the Historical Commission before moving the building. It must also design the school and apply for a special permit from the city’s planning board, which will include a comprehensive traffic and parking study, Doncaster said.

At the request of neighborhood residents, the university’s zoning plan also looked at long-term development of all Lesley’s Porter Square properties, said Doncaster.

Although the only project under way is the design of the art school, the zoning proposal also created a so-called overlay district (which allows building rights to be transferred from one property to another within the area) that will encompass all the university’s properties in the square south of the MBTA tracks, including the church site, University Hall and its parking lot, and the two lots on the western side of Massachusetts Avenue.

Laura J. Ulloa can be reached at lulloa@globe.com.