This whole thing smacks of sneakiness.
That's a quote from one of the people attending a meeting last week with Councilwoman Susan Guidry and neighbors near that 5600 block of Magazine Street, where Erin Romney, owner of Romney's Pilates, is building a new location for her studio.
This story made the front page of Da Paper today, with Rebecca Mowbray picking it up now that the noise of Magazine Street residents is reverberating beyond the 5600 block. You'll find my take on the situation here, and some additional thoughts on neighborhoods in Council District "A" as well.
Mowbray's article answers some questions that ran through my mind, and I'm glad someone other than a blogger with a day gig picked the story up. When I was reading documentation submitted to the city by Romney, some of the letters of support caught my eye. Brittany Brees sort of made sense-she's got name recognition that any business would kill for. Then I noticed a letter from Boysie Bollinger, shipyard owner and local GOP kingmaker. Ms. Mowbray made the connection:
But construction resumed Tuesday after the owners, Erin Romney, a distant cousin of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and her husband, Hunter Cazes, stepson of shipbuilding magnate Boysie Bollinger, agreed to make some design changes and contract for more parking with other businesses off-hours.
Now this is making sense, particularly the zoning variances obtained prior to the installation of a new mayor and a Democrat in the District A Council seat. Susan Guidry sent incumbent council member Jay Batt, a Republican packing, but it's not surprising that Batt kow-towed to Bollinger's stepson.
The rest is the usual sort of shell game you see with contractors and developers-present the bare minimum of specifications to the authorities, start construction, hope nobody notices what you're up to, then do what you really want once the project is so far along it's impossible to stop it. Even better if you've got a pretty fitness-instructor out front as the business owner:
"We've done all the right things and have gone through all the right channels," she [Romney] said. "It's probably been the toughest three weeks of our lives."
She promises neighbors that the building will be beautiful, with a smooth white exterior, cream awnings, gentle wall-wash lights and elegant landscaping.
Hmmm..."all the right things?" Let's have a look at what they said the building would be:
At the Board of Zoning Adjustments meeting, Romney testified that her business was a private, appointment-only facility averaging four clients at a time, mostly at non-business hours...
Those in the neighborhood say such statements are blatant misrepresentation, and the board was duped. The class schedule and list of teachers on the Romney website prove that more than four people at a time will be in the building, elevating the need for more parking, they say. And the picture that was shown to the board depicts a much lower-profile two-story building than what has sprouted on Magazine Street.
Two things here, design of the building and parking requirements. On design, the sketch shown in Da Paper and in our first article on the building, clearly shows a two-story building. What's going up is three stories. Romney's husband says the sketch is to show how the parking works. But one picture is worth a thousand words, and a smart developer knows that. Show people a drawing of a 2-story building, they think they're getting a 2-story building. Add another story and say "oops?" Is that evolution or deliberate misrepresentation?
Now, as to parking. Two things here. Romney testified to the city that her classes were only four students at a time. Opponents say her anticipated schedule is for a much larger student group. When four becomes ten, that's a lot of cars that are going to end up in the neighborhood behind the facility. Did Romney lie to the BZA, or is the expanded schedule another "oops?"
Then there's this graf in Mowbray's story:
When neighborhood concern boiled over in December, the city sent out inspectors to check whether the project was being built in accordance with its permits. After measuring, they discovered that the building had grown enough that it actually needed 15 spaces instead of 14, so even with the 10-space waiver, it still required five spaces instead of four, necessitating the shutdown.
Now, I'll admit that I got my degree in Secondary Education, not engineering, physics, or architecture. Can someone explain to me one basic question:
How does a building on Magazine Street grow?
Is this some sort of organic process, like when I eat too many cheeseburgers in a week? Is this growth something that is outside the control of a property owner like Romney? I mean, people often grow enough that they need to buy a bigger size in pants, but when a building grows to the point where building code says it needs more parking, I'm not sure it's the same thing.
Did Romney and her developer lie to the city, or was there some sort of mistake in the plans? Oops!
Let's give Romney the benefit of the doubt that she's told the truth, and what appear to be misrepresentations are really just "oops" incidents, at what point do all these "oops" equal a permanent stop-work order? Are we dealing with a businesspeson and a developer who are part of the Keystone Cops? Should ineptitude be rewarded? Certainly lying to city officials and the district's Council member ought to be enough to force absolute compliance, but there's a lot of grey here.
Either way, it's going to be very difficult for the neighbors to take Romney's word that the new building is going to look good. What if all her design statements are just another "oops?"