City Gives Fly Club Exemption

Council Agrees to Keep Fly Club Out of Downzoning Plans

The City Council last night approved a request to exempt one of the nine-all male final clubs from a proposal to downzone parts of Harvard Square.

In a letter submitted to the council, the Fly Club successfully argued that proposed restrictions on property development and withdrawal of historic protection would jeopardize its economic survival.

The arrangement is the latest in a series of financial dealings between the club and Cambridge focusing on the club's claims that high city taxes may force the club to close its doors.

The Fly Club, which is being investigated by the state on charges of gender discrimination, asked to be exempted from a plan to redraw the borders of the Harvard Square Overlay District and to reduce the floorto-area ratios of certain lots by nearly 60 percent.

That ratio, known as FAR, is the proportion of a building's floor space to the size of its lot.


"In the specific case of the Fly Club property, we doubt that provisions to lower the allowable F.A.R. [floor-to-area ratio] to 0.75 from 1.75 encourage the preservation of a valued and (potentially historic building) that we can scarcely afford to maintain," states the letter, written by Fly Club Trustee Richard J. Lyman.

The city has offered incentives to property owners, particularly along Mt. Auburn St. where the Fly Club is located, to preserve the historic character of their buildings. Several final clubs have received or requested tax reductions in exchange for such agreements.

The Fly Club does not appear to have signed a "facade preservation easement" in the past.

The Fly Club's FAR now stands at 48, meaning that very little further construction could be done under the proposed changes. A new residential building on its property could provide an alternative funding source for the club, Lyman indicated in the letter.

"Severance of this parcel from the Harvard Square Overlay District removes incentives for the property owner to preserve the existing structure," Lyman stated.

In past financial dealings with the city, the Fly Club has argued that its weak economic base merits special consideration.

"While the Fly Club has no wish to raze its buildings, the owners increasingly feel the burden of commercial tax assessments, particularly coupled with progressively more restrictive residential zoning constraints," Lyman wrote.

The Club frequently has requested tax reductions known as abatements, arguing that high city taxes could force the club to fold.

For example, two years ago the club requested a permanent abatement. At the time, the club stated, "The Fly Club operates at a substantial loss much of which is attributable to the real estate taxes levied by the City if [sic] Cambridge."

The club claimed that the University would obtain its property, and the city would lose tax revenue because of Harvard's tax-exempt status.