I was looking at plans for a house that’s going to be built behind mine, and just got it’s ZBA stamp of approval, and realized that they hadn’t fixed the stairway. For the first three levels it’s shown on the plans going up in a counter-clockwise direction, then on the top floor the way down is shown counter-clockwise. It cannot possibly be built as it is drawn.
This bothers me for a few reasons. If you work as an architect, you know that a typical permit set is a fairly simple set of drawings, used mainly so that the city can review them for compliance with code issues, such as egress requirements, for example. Egress, as in: the way out. The hallways and doors and (whoops!) stairways. This suggests to me that the City of Somerville does not conduct competent professional reviews of plans submitted for permitting.
Another reason it bothers me is that the developer will eventually have to submit a revised set of drawings changing the design to something he is actually able to build. It’s my experience that this redesign may serve as cover for an assortment of other changes the builder wants, so that the final construction is actually quite different from the plans that were reviewed by the Zoning Board. That is, unless someone comes along a asserts that these are really substantial changes—a pretty vague concept as far as I know. At that point they may be subject to a new review, but of course by this time the building is mostly or even completely constructed. The developer thereupon assumes his best poor-pitiful-me expression and moans that changing the building will bankrupt him. (I do know of one case, not in Somerville, where the city actually made the developer tear down the non-compliant building. That was justice. But it doesn’t happen often.)
By the way, this is the second special permit I know of in Somerville where it turned out that the permitted egress was non-compliant. This second case was an apartment building that required two paths of egress, and the secondary egress did not have a clear path, outside the building, to get occupants out to the street. An area of plantings to screen the building’s garage from view, which the neighborhood had arm-wrestled with the developer to get, was immediately sacrificed. Except it turned out that their was a third claimant for this space, namely NStar, who came in after the fact and insisted that the gas meters for the building had to go in this location. How did the City, in its wisdom, resolve this conflict? It didn’t. NStar put the meters in without any public consultation or review, and to this very day the apartment building lacks a compliant secondary egress.
This project going up behind me was a bone of contention between the developer, the neighborhood, the city for an astonishing fifteen years. I’ve only been here fourteen. In that time I’ve observed the permitting process for several projects (I’m an architect), and in my opinion the process is flawed in concept and sometimes embarrassingly incompetent in execution. I’ve mainly kept my opinions to myself so as not to prejudice this one case where I’ve been involved as an abutter, but now that case is resolved—not to my liking, but resolved—so I’d like to review some of the problems in future SV postings, and propose some changes.