Clinic business

Mental health and addictions clinic can stay on site, but zoning board requires outreach to neighbors

The North Charles Clinic won another three years at its North Cambridge location at a Zoning Commission appeal hearing on Thursday. (Picture: Google)

The North Charles counseling center will have at least three more years to treat people with addictions and other health conditions at 54 Washburn Ave., North Cambridge, on the Somerville line, despite complaints from many neighbors .

The Board of Zoning Appeal voted 4-1 on Thursday in favor of a special permit for North Charles, with some who voted against it seven years ago expressing regret for the unanimous opposition. Even some now in favor of maintaining the clinic’s mission in place were reluctant to grant a longer stay, not seeing the nonprofit making more of an effort to work with neighbors to address concerns.

North Charles is in the seventh year of a 10-year lease, with an option to renew for five more, general manager Gary Houle told the board. After board members gave their reactions to the night’s testimony, it was clear that the only question was how long an approval would get the clinic – as short as two more years in space or as long as five.

“The establishment offers an indispensable service to… our own citizens. And the board believes that the proposed use will not impair the integrity of the district or adjacent districts,” Chairman Brendan Sullivan said in moving the three-year motion. Member Constantine Alexander, who was president when North Charles first ran in 2015, added that this would include that “the petitioner and the neighborhood will try to come together to demonstrate that what is being done at the address is not not a substantial change in the established neighborhood. personage.”

This work is expected to show that people’s fears “turned out to be less severe than they thought”, working to live with neighbors and “reaching out and trying to make neighbors less antagonistic than they are now and have been for the past five years,” Alexander said.

Commercial uses, residential area

The nondescript two-story structure sits in a residential area near Massachusetts Avenue and has parking on one side – beyond which is the Somerville line, where Washburn becomes Newbury Street. The building has had commercial uses since its construction in 1900, including as a toy manufacturer and refrigeration and office services business for financial services and telecommunications software companies.

Many residents say even the refrigeration service company was quieter and less disruptive to the neighborhood than North Charles.

“Currently due to the Covid pandemic it’s quiet. But before that it wasn’t. Packages were stolen. People were urinating regularly on the property, there was a lot of profanity in the street in a family neighborhood. People selling pills. Tons of coffee cups of Dunkin Donuts. Police were called regularly. Firefighters were there often,” Esther Splaine, a nearby resident, told the council. administration.

Another neighbour, Ivan Toft, said he did not oppose North Charles seven years ago, but does now. “As someone who’s lost a sister to drug addiction, I’m deeply offended by the idea that we’re all sorts of backward, bigoted nimbys who don’t support the mission,” Toft said, using a term for people who can approve a project but not-in-my-backyard. “But we cannot confuse the mission of [North Charles] and the needs of the City of Cambridge and the patients who truly deserve this care, together with where the services are provided.

Support the clinic

There were neighbors who came out in support, however, and some signed a 180-person petition accompanied by statements of support from city councilors Marc McGovern, Patty Nolan, Paul Toner and Quinton Zondervan. (A petition opposing the North Charles Special Permit had 31 signatures, mostly Washburn residents.)

Recently arrived, Collin Fedor said that when he learned of North Charles, “I felt even more proud to live in this neighborhood”. It meant “my neighborhood is doing its part to provide these services” as a pandemic-driven behavioral health crisis met a raging opioid crisis.

McGovern, speaking as a social worker rather than a city councillor, noted that although he lives far from North Charles, he and his family live just yards from a drug needle exchange in Central Square which he has consistently supported – “so I get it. And I’m not asking anyone to support something in their neighborhood that I don’t support in mine.

A search for alternative sites in 2015 looked at around 20 properties, but Houle said there were few that met North Charles’ needs, while the Washburn building was the right size and had parking and from a friendly owner. The already high need is now “through the roof”, he said, and the search for a different site has not been renewed. Outreach activities the clinic attempted with neighbors years ago have been poorly attended, its team said.

The need for mental health counseling is “through the roof,” said North Charles general manager Gary Houle. It is seen in a screenshot of a Thursday meeting.

Turnaround for the board of directors

Given neighbor testimony that seemed to confirm the board’s concerns seven years ago — and some opening remarks that sounded pointed and skeptical as Houle and the North Charles team presented their case — the members’ remarks of the BZA leading up to the vote were surprisingly sympathetic. Sullivan, at least, signaled some re-examination as he described his visits to the building over the past six years, including during the pandemic, as patient visits were replaced with phone calls and videotherapy. Houle said he believes this change is permanent.

“What I really focused on [seven years ago] was the idea that it would cause a substantial change in the established character of the neighborhood,” but the decrease in traffic negated some of that concern, Alexander said. “The fears I had then turned out to be unfounded.”

Sullivan said that in 2015, the council took a “very strict and draconian look at the ordinance and felt it would undermine the integrity of the district…and I think mea culpa and shame on me.” It might be easy to say I’ve voted this way before and why should I change my vote? And it would be easy to say yes to neighbors who live across the street. And I hear them and I can understand their position,” Sullivan said. “But I can’t say no to the people North Charles treats.”

“A Seven Year Battle”

Board vice-chairman Jim Monteverde agreed, as did associate member Wendy Leiserson. Only associate member Slater Anderson said his stance hasn’t changed, and “it’s been a seven-year battle, and it hasn’t gotten better.”

“There does not appear to have been any effort on the part of North Charles to work with neighbors in any capacity. And that’s a shame. So I’m not swayed,” Slater said.

But most members agreed that the “use of the North Charles General Office as an educational and/or non-profit institutional use, health care facility, and social service center” fell within the ordinance, and the debate focused on the duration of the clinic’s offer and what conditions to impose in an attempt to bring peace to the neighborhood.