The Zoning Board of Appeal voted 4-3 today to approve a plan to put four apartments atop an existing real-estate office at 97 Salem St. in the North End, which means the proposal was defeated because state law requires at least five votes.
The vote came after a contentious hearing in which opponents said would just make the already crowded Salem Street and North End even more crowded and cast shade on one long-timer resident's home, while one supporter accused opponents of having "ulterior agenda" for opposing a proposal by two brothers who had always treated him kindly even if he isn't Italian himself. Restaurant owners across the street from each other took opposite sides.
Before the board today was a proposal by the Alfe brothers, who own the building, to add four apartments - one a duplex - above it, with a roof deck for the two duplex unit. With the number of units down from the nine originally proposed, the Alfes and their attorney, Jeff Drago, said this would let them put up a building on which each floor would be farther from the rear property line than the one below, minimizing the impact on rear neighbors from the new 55-foot-high building.
The mayor's office supported the proposal, with a neighborhood liaison pointing to the reduction in the number of units and the addition of sprinklers, which she said would benefit not only the building's new residents but people living in neighboring buildings in the densely packed area. City Councilor Michael Flaherty also approved.
Also supporting the proposal: Nicholas Leo, the owner of Crudo across the street and an Atlantic Avenue resident, who praised the building's design and said the Alfes had gone "above and beyond" in changing the design to meet neighbors' objections. Another North End resident praised the brothers as always providing "a warm and welcoming environment for everyone."
But other nearby residents, the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council, the North End Waterfront Residents' Association and City Councilor Lydia Edwards (North End, Charlestown, East Boston), opposed the proposal. Edwards said her office has received a large number of letters and messages in opposition.
A lawyer representing Carol Fabiano, who lives at 30 Parmenter St - a building her husband's family bought some 100 years ago - said the Salem Street proposal would "completely obliterate" the sunlight she gets now.
Mary McGee, a former president of the North End/Waterfront Residents' Association, said that one of the hallmarks of the North End was that buildings were different sizes - a 55-foot height maximum in neighborhood zoning was not intended to ensure all building reached that tall, that the new building would only increase crowding along Salem Street and that the board should "show some respect" for the historic neighborhood by rejecting the proposal.
Also opposing the proposal: Carla Gomes, owner of Antico Forno, the restaurant right next door to the building.
Gomes attacked the "impropriety" of what she said were zoning-board members meeting with Drago's group during a break before the hearing and said she is worried that construction of the new floors would damage her business.
Another resident went even further and said she did not see how such a tall, narrow building could stand and that she worried it would simply topple over on Antico Forno.
One resident also opposed the proposed building because it was completely out of character with the shed he said was in the rear of the property between 1916 and 1957.
A shadow consultant hired by the brothers said his studies showed minimal impact on any neighboring buildings, although in response to a question by board Chairwoman Christine Araujo, he said he could not speak specifically to Fabbiano's building, which would be some 30 feet away from the new structure.
The vote means that, unless they sue, the brothers will have to wait at least a year to try to win approval again to add to the current building.