More mixed emotions than mixed-use in proposal for Kendall Square

One option proposed by Boston Properties for housing in Kendall Square puts a 250-foot tower on Main Street. Five floors of retail and office space are at the tower’s base.

There was a complicated dance Wednesday as city councillors simultaneously hugged The Broad Institute and held Boston Properties at arm’s length for inspection, although the two are partners in proposing an 18-floor building for Kendall Square that can be done only with a change in Cambridge zoning laws.

Councillors at the Ordinance Committee meeting were effusive in telling the disease research institute’s deputy director and chief operating officer, Alan Fein, how much its presence was appreciated, but wary of giving the 300,000 square feet needed by developer without getting anything in return.

That could include such things as public art space, low-cost office and lab space for entrepreneurs or building housing that was part of a plan negotiated three years ago by Boston Properties.

It was that 200,000 square feet, or up to 186 units, of housing — the fact that it didn’t get built, and whether it will get built now if the developer gets its additional space — that provided much of the discussion, starting with an explanation of its disappearance by Boston Properties’ senior vice president of development, Michael Cantalupa.

“It’s very market-driven,” Cantalupa said, describing how construction got under way during the economic downturn being referred to as The Great Recession. “Were the market to not have changed beneath us on the order of two plus-or-minus years ago, then the housing that was contemplated by the special permit might actually be there. We were that close.”

The packet presented to councillors at the Ordinance Committee meeting showed three options for the housing:

a 23-story version on Ames Street, across from the institute, that incorporates part of a parking garage for a total 146,000 square feet or 249 feet in height;

a 24-story version on Broadway, atop the same garage, that is 182,700 square feet or 250 feet tall;

a 24-story mixed-use version on Main Street that includes two floors of retail (accessible from the street) and three floors of office space before residences begin. This building would be 194,000 square feet and rise 250 feet.

“That opportunity still exists irrespective of whether the 300,000 square feet is granted,” Cantalupa said. “We’re hoping the economic conditions are there.”

Boston Properties owns the land under discussion for the housing and Broad expansion. All of it is in the 24-acre Cambridge Center, a complex of office buildings, hotels, retail and garages finished in the late 1980s after nearly a decade of construction.

Later Terrence Smith, director of government affairs at the city’s Chamber of Commerce, read a statement referring to the company’s “commitment” to housing — later confirmed to be implied rather than spelled out in a document. Expanding on the comments by Smith and Cantalupa, company Senior Vice President and Regional General Counsel Madeleine C. Timin explained:

“The current zoning doesn’t have any requirement for a specific time, and we’re not proposing to change that. You could have a specific commitment that has a time. Or you could just be committed as a concept, which is obviously demonstrated by the fact we pursued the special permit.”

Some city officials also seemed confident in Boston Properties’ intentions. Roger Boothe, director of urban design for the Community Development Department, said, “They wouldn’t have spent all that money designing it if they didn’t mean to build it. They just weren’t able to go ahead because of the economy. It happens a lot. We give a lot of special permits, and people don’t build if they can’t make money, if they can’t get financing.”

Councillors and residents, though, expressed wariness and recalled the sheer obstinacy of Kendall Square in becoming a neighborhood of mixed uses rather a collection of business buildings.

The complaints people make now about the square, after years of efforts to bring retail and housing, sound just like the analysis given a quarter-century ago in The New York Times by Fox Butterfield:

Some people worry that all this office construction is not being accompanied by the development of housing. Alfred Vellucci, an outspoken City Council member, contends the Cambridge Center complex, which originally was supposed to contain some housing, turns into “a graveyard” at night. “There’s not a creature stirring, not even a mouse,” he said.

“Certainly we’re in a down market now, but we weren’t always in this market. And we’ve been building Kendall Square for decades in up and down markets, and we haven’t seen housing come in. How have we continually not had housing?” Leland Cheung asked Boothe and fellow city planner Stuart Dash.

Cheung’s drive to see progress in the area — he was frustrated earlier in the week by fellow councillors in his attempt to fast-track information from city officials for use in the Wednesday meeting — was quickly mired in the minutiae of such slow-moving, massive projects. The momentum was rescued by councillor Ken Reeves, who, among musings about Kendall lacking “a sense of place” despite years of developers’ promises, boiled down the argument with vigorous simplicity:

“If you would like us to give you 300,000 square feet for free, what is it  you can give us that is a city amenity that would make all that giveaway worth it? This is with a sure understanding that to have Broad want to expand 300,000 square feet is a miracle; we should be on our knees … but I also understand we have a Kendall Square that is just not happening. And in no danger of happening.”

The prodding came after Cheung’s request for low-cost space for entrepreneurs, to ensure “the economic engine of Kendall Square” wasn’t priced out of the area, was brushed back by Cantalupa, who said “market forces” would take care of the problem, and his attorney, James Rafferty, who said such subsidies raised practical issues such as how to ensure it was worthy firms getting the benefit.

“I’m very well aware there are a suite of logistical issues. I guess I’m looking to the developer to help me figure those out,” Cheung said. “We can all talk about ‘market forces will figure it out’ as a good thing, but we haven’t accepted that as a rationale when we’re talking about low-income housing. I do think that this is an area where the community has decided the community needs to make an investment in supporting the small company, which will be the job leaders of tomorrow. It’s an investment for all of us.”

The Broad Institute expansion is proposed for Ames Street, next to its site at a corner of Ames and Main Street. Fein said there were five buildings housing institute workers now, some with extremely short-term leases, while its work force is growing by 20 percent a year. Another 150,000 square feet is needed just to replace the expiring leases, he said.

“We have to be in some other space in four years. If this doesn’t work out for some reason for another, we need the time to make other arrangements at some other location, hopefully consolidated,” Fein said. “That’s why I’m here to support the petition.”

The institute and Boston Properties does not have a signed business agreement, though, as Cheung noted several times, and that makes approval of the zoning change for Broad a dicey proposition.

It needs to make sense “no matter who is there,” Cheung said.

Boston Properties’ proposal for the expansion of The Broad Institute would allow for the consolidation of several scattered sites with short-term leases.

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