Two Medford residents withdrew their appeal for an enforcement action against the Tufts’ Joyce Cummings Center last week just hours before a Wednesday session of the Medford Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) that would have resolved the matter.
Laurel Ruma and Mike Korcynski, two Burget Street residents, had pursued an administrative appeal of the Medford Building Commissioner’s approval of a structural permit for the Cummings Center because they believe that the six-story building slated for completion in spring of 2021 would leave their street in shadow much of the year and put a dent in property values.
Ruma and Korcynski explained that they withdrew their appeal on advice of counsel, but declined to go into further detail.
Director of Government and Community Relations Rocco DiRico wrote in an email that the university is pleased that their appeal was withdrawn and will press ahead with construction.
The last-minute withdrawal did seem to come as a surprise to the Tufts administration, which had dispatched DiRico, Ruth Bennet, the director of strategic capital projects, one of the project’s architects and a lawyer to fight the appeal at Wednesday night’s meeting of the ZBA in Medford City Hall.
The delegation from Tufts quietly filed out of the meeting after ZBA Chair Scott Carman announced the withdrawal.
The original plans for the Cummings Center violated the Medford zoning code in a number of ways, but the university received exemptions, called variances, from the ZBA in 2017 and the Medford Building Commissioner granted the building’s permits.
After the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority pulled out of plans to combine the Green Line Extension stop with the new academic building, Tufts underwent a redesign in 2018. New plans in hand, the university went back to the City of Medford to request if further variances or new permits were necessary, but the city building commissioner certified that they were not, DiRico wrote.
Ruma and Korcynski were appealing the building commissioner’s decision to grant a structural permit to the Cummings Center by arguing that the variances should not have been granted for the new plans, ZBA Secretary Denis MacDougall confirmed in an email to the Daily.
Had the appeal been upheld by a unanimous vote of the ZBA, it would have halted the already advanced construction of the Cummings Center, though the university could have appealed that decision to the Massachusetts Land Court.
Ruma explained she did not see a way forward for the appeal.
“This was the last gasp and we were the only petitioners still in it,” she said. “We worked very hard for more than a year to come to a better outcome with Tufts, but it became clear that we couldn’t find common ground.”
DiRico rejected claims that the university has not worked with its neighbors on the project. The university has held eight community meetings with residents since the design plans were modified in 2018 and DiRico regularly meets with a community working group.
These efforts have resulted in a number of modifications. DiRico cited the removal of windows on the back of the building, the addition of a pedestrian path connecting Burget Street to College Avenue and the removal of a proposed bridge over Boston Avenue.
“At each and every step, we made sure that this process was transparent and that our neighbors’ concerns were being addressed,” he wrote.
Korcynski took aim at the City of Medford, saying that they handled the dispute poorly.
“I think that the City held Tufts to no zoning restrictions at all,” he said. “They could’ve, but they didn’t.”
This is not the first time Ruma and Korcynski have tried to appeal the center’s building permit. At the ZBA’s November meeting the board members voted 2–1 in favor of an appeal of the building permit, but lacking a unanimous vote, it failed, MacDougall confirmed.
The university relies on a 1950 Massachusetts law known as the Dover Amendment, which prohibits local authorities from regulating land-use by education institutions to defend itself from zoning appeals. MacDougall wrote that this has been the case for the Cummings Center. The law does allow municipalities to regulate a number of basic items like height, setback and parking.
The story gained attention on campus when the Tufts Observer ran a feature covering the dispute in its Feb. 24 issue.
However, the magazine erroneously asserted in its initial reporting that the Cummings Center construction proceeded without the proper “variances and approval” and relied on expired variances.
DiRico explained that Tufts did in fact receive all the necessary permits and variances before ground was broken and, though the variances are from 2017, the building commissioner approved their use for the new plans. Carman, the ZBA chair, confirmed this.
The Observer also reported that the building will be 135 feet tall; it will be 94 feet, according to DiRico.
The university also took issue with the Observer’s characterization of a disagreement about the use of Stearns Estate Field as a construction staging area last summer, whose article reported that the ZBA forced Tufts to relocate the staging area. DiRico said that the university did so voluntarily.
The Observer later clarified and corrected its reporting in response to concerns provided by the Tufts administration.
All of the structural steel for the building will be completed this month, according to the latest project update available online from Tufts’ Operations Division.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article was published on March 4. This version has been updated to reflect ongoing developments.