The city let a state senator fast-track an expansion of her Jamaica Plain home after failing to cite her plans’ apparent violation of the neighborhood’s zoning code, according to a Boston Globe review assisted by two architects.
The apparent height violation was made more visually jarring by a last-minute roof redesign approved weeks after a public hearing on the plans. Rather than sloping back from the street, as originally proposed, the new roof peaks at the front of the house, exaggerating its size from the street view.
The construction at the 3-5 Bremen Terrace home of Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and her husband, Bryan Hirsch, was allowed to begin “at risk,” after their architect called for quicker action to accommodate her pregnancy.
“The owners are expecting a child in June and it is of paramount importance that the project is substantially complete by that time,” architect John Freeman wrote to city inspectors in April.
At-risk permits are a gamble and require the sign-off of the Inspectional Services commissioner or the assistant building commissioner, and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.
New construction can be ordered torn down if it fails to win final approval or is successfully appealed by neighbors.
One neighbor has already filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court against the couple, and the city agencies that allowed the work to begin, contending the house exceeds the neighborhood’s zoned height limit.
Neither Chang-Diaz nor her architects would speak to the Globe for this story, and city officials declined to comment, citing the litigation.
Chang-Diaz’s lawyer said in an e-mail that he was not aware of an issue with the height calculations but that the architects would examine it and that it had always been the couple’s intention to comply with the permitting process.
“They take the concerns expressed by their neighbor seriously and are closely reviewing the steps that they took along with their architect and builder to participate in the standard City of Boston process for permitting an expansion to their home,” wrote the attorney, Daniel P. Dain.
The couple bought the two-family house in May 2014 for $700,000 and pursued plans to expand the attic into more usable space. In November, they hosted an open house to show neighbors their plans to lift the roof several feet to accommodate a third floor, Dain said.
Their next-door neighbor, Brian Wells, who would later file suit, did not attend, but Hirsch showed him the plans separately, Wells recalled. Hirsch said he was still considering a change in the roof style, and Wells said it made no difference to him, assuming the height was the same.
“Everything I asked about was based upon it not moving up 8 to 10 feet in height, but 1 to 2 feet,” Wells said.
But two architects who reviewed the plans for the Globe said the documents presented to the city for the renovation should have been flagged by a city inspector from the start for excessive height. Homes in Chang-Diaz’s neighborhood, tucked behind Forest Hills and the Arborway, are limited by zoning to be no more than three stories or 35 feet tall.
To gauge the height of a sloped roof, architects usually measure halfway up the slope of the roof from the sidewalk. If the house is set back from a sidewalk, on ground that’s not flat, architects typically take an average height of the ground elevation between the building and the lot line, or a line 20 feet from the building.
Charles Fox, an architect who lives in Jamaica Plain and who designed a much more modest addition for a homeowner across the street from Chang-Diaz, said it appears her plans inappropriately used the rear lot line, not the front, to calculate the average grade of the property. Such a calculation would fail to take into account the dramatic drop in elevation from the house to the sidewalk: The front porch of Chang-Diaz’s house stands 12 steps off the ground and reveals a covered basement that slips nearly below ground in the backyard.
A second architect, who did not want to be identified because he works with the city, agreed with the other architect that the calculations appear to have been made from the rear of the lot — an interpretation that, he said, defies common sense.
“Height is measured by what the public sees,” the architect said. “You can’t go in somebody’s backyard. Zoning is a public domain. . . . You do it from a public street.”
Thomas White, the city inspector who reviewed Chang-Diaz’s plans, apparently accepted the calculations and did not require a variance for height, though he did require one for the increase in the house’s size relative to the lot size. White declined to comment when contacted by the Globe on Thursday.
The Zoning Board of Appeal accepted the architect’s calculations and the inspector’s decision on height without challenge. No one from the neighborhood raised objections at the March 10 public hearing, where the board gave verbal approval to the plans, contingent upon design review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
The design review team issued its approval on March 31 — but with a different roof than originally proposed, allowing room to install solar panels. The altered roof, officials decided, would not affect the height.
Fox agreed, but said it may have further influenced neighbors’ perception of the changes.
“The shape of the roof doesn’t change the calculations for height, but it does make it look a lot higher,” he said. “They could easily have downplayed the height issue by using what they had originally drawn.”
Fox was further surprised that the builders were allowed to proceed with such dramatic structural changes with only a “short-form permit” — the kind issued for minor alterations that do not increase living space.
Boston’s permit process, notoriously time-consuming, can take six months if a project requires a variance, one specialist said. But within four months of applying for a permit, Chang-Diaz’s architect pushed for quicker action because of her pregnancy; in his April 6 letter, he also noted that a public hearing had been postponed a month due to snow.
The following day, an at-risk permit was issued and the zoning board approved the project. The board’s decision still had to be prepared and submitted to the city Law Department — a process that generally takes three weeks — so it was not until May 1 that the decision was recorded in the city Inspection Department. Last week, neighbors got notifications of the decision, triggering a 20-day period in which they could appeal.
By then, the entire roof and top story of the house had been torn down and reconstructed.
Andrew Ryan and Wanda Joseph-Rollins of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.