Thirteen months after a fire gutted the Schlichte-Johnstone Law Building at 14 Pleasant St., the owners have filed for a special permit to rebuild a little taller than before.
But even as the permit goes before City Council, two neighbors have taken the project to Salem Superior Court.
The building at 14 Pleasant St., which housed the law offices of sisters Catherine Schlichte and Patricia Johnstone and the upstairs home of Johnstone and her husband Gary, a city assessor, burned in what proved to be a controversial fire in March 2011.
The blaze ripped through their building and damaged the adjacent Raymond Alger gallery at 16 Pleasant St., before being doused by firefighters. It then flared again, requiring firefighters to battle again to put it out. The Fire Department's handling of the blaze came under fire itself in an after-action report sought by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and delivered by New Hampshire-based consultant Municipal Resources Inc.
Schlichte has filed a special permit request with the City Council to add a second residential unit to the building, and extend the height to 37 feet — nine feet taller than before.
"We're going to reconstruct it," Schlichte said. "That's always been our plan.
"We have lost hundreds of thousands because of the fire," Schlichte said. "The only way to be able to rebuild that building and put the law offices back in it is to be able to make higher productive use of that building."
Gloucester's Zoning Board of Appeals gave its initial approval to the project last September, but neighbors Jack Carter, who co-owns 16 Pleasant St. with Raymond Alger, and Fred Martini, a Peabody assessor who owns a condominium in 20 Pleasant St., have both filed lawsuits appealing to block the project.
Both 14 and 16 Pleasant St. occupy the lot of what used to be a historic house, before the brick buildings went up.
The last quarter of that historic house makes up the top floor of Carter's building. He said the change to 14 Pleasant would harm the historic nature of the property. A "party wall" separates Carter and Schlichte's buildings.
But, there are other problems with the Schlichte-Johnstone project, he added.
He said he's concerned about the chimneys on his roof.
Carter's roof is already surrounded by taller buildings — 14 and 20 Pleasant, and the backside of BankGloucester. But, within the city's zoning code, he said, a chimney has to be two feet higher than anything within 10 feet of it. If the 14 Pleasant Street height extension goes up, he said, it will obstruct the draft of the chimneys and make it difficult to get close enough to repair them.
"If the alteration is to proceed, Carter will have lost his ability to heat and occupy 16 Pleasant St.," his lawsuit, filed by attorney Robert Wolfe, states.
Martini sees another issue.
"It's (going to) entirely obliterate my view of the harbor, which I paid a premium for when I bought the property in 2005," said Martini.
Schlichte said she sympathizes with Martini's objection. But, she said, project architects couldn't find a way to increase the space and preserve his view. She added that the law firm intends to seek a mutual easement to raise Carter's chimneys to the necessary height.
Meanwhile, Carter, who's dealt with a leaky roof all winter, says he's still wrangling with his insurance company, MassBay, for money to repair the fire damage to his building.
"It's still pretty much as it was," he said.
Schlichte said the sisters' law firm, now working out of 3 Heritage Way in Gloucester, has put $300,000 into repairs on its former law offices. The building, she said, has a roof now, and the framing is shored up. Schlichte said she expects the plywood covering the facade to come off within the month.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.