Forest City tweaks Central Square plans to add appeal, but tweaks become targets

Forest City has carved out open space on at Massachusetts Avenue and Blanche Street, probably for open-air dining, company officials said Thursday, showing it from overheard and in a rendering of a proposed use.

Forest City has carved out open space on at Massachusetts Avenue and Blanche Street, probably for open-air dining, company officials said Thursday, showing it from overheard and in a rendering of a proposed use.

Developer Forest City’s plan for a giant lab and office building was back Thursday with some people-pleasing tweaks: a promise to build 25 units of affordable housing, which is five more than previously; to seek out and charge low rents to small, local, owner-operated stores and eateries for the 15,000 square feet of retail on the building’s ground floor; a commitment to gold-level compliance with LEED environmental buildings standards, an advance from silver; and knocking out one corner of the building for what is likely to be open-air dining.

The sweetener of building 25 units within seven years is new since Tuesday, when Forest City gave a presentation to the Planning Board. The company was then pitching 20 units within four years.

The changes weren’t pleasing enough, though. Roughly the last hour of a more than three-hour City Council Ordinance Committee meeting was taken up with cautious, skeptical or downright hostile public comment – part of a two-hour public comment period that skewed 63 percent negative.

The proposal is to change local zoning to allow a 246,716-square-foot building at 300 Massachusetts Ave. for the Millennium biotech company, designed to be 95 feet tall at its highest point. (A “penthouse” of mechanicals such as heating and air conditioning doesn’t count against allowed height but would add some 30 feet to its peak.) Current zoning for that area near Central Square allows 80 feet (again without counting mechanicals).

Councillors’ calculations

City councillors also had their doubts about the plan, with most resistance centering around those units of affordable housing.

The plan – presented mainly by Peter Calkins, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Forest City – was largely the same as how it ended in August, and that became a problem: While promising an additional five units of affordable housing, councillors noted, the amount the company would pay for failing to keep that promise didn’t go up proportionately. As councillor Ken Reeves first noted, it was $4 million going into the Affordable Housing Trust for a default on 20 promised units, and it’s the same for 25.

“I would certainly want the 25 units, but if we don’t get the 25 units, I want what the formula would have given us in payment,” Denise Simmons said. “I want the equivalent by formula.”

David Maher looked at the estimated per-unit cost of $200,000 and upped the estimate to about $5 million – and even that would need to be supplemented by tax credits, bank loans and other funding, according to officials from the Community Development Department. Leland Cheung noted that the payment would come only after seven years, when $4 million or $5 million would be worth less than when the commitment is signed.

“I [also] would hope to never see that $4 million,” Cheung said, asking it it was possible “for the petitioner to make building the housing seem more obviously in their benefit. I’d rather it be in their financial interest to create the housing, not to give us the funds.”

More councillor questions

Councillors Craig Kelly and Minka vanBeuzekom had another point of resistance: Suggesting that Forest City could pay the city a promised $1.08 million in community benefits immediately upon approval of the zoning rather than in four incremental steps triggered by the granting of the zoning, special permit, building permit and certificate of occupancy. “We give them something, they use it, they don’t use it, that’s their issue. We should not, I don’t think, have to wait for them to do stuff to access the payments,” Kelley said of payments modeled after a recent agreement with Novartis.

“Why can’t we get the money up front?” vanBeuzekom said. “There will be things perhaps outside our control in terms of the timing of the building, but we’ve given away the right and we can’t get it back.”

Kelley continued to push on issues such as how far from the zoning area Forest City might build its 25 units and why the 168 units of affordable housing it promised to spare within its University Park for 75 years (the length of the company’s ground lease) couldn’t instead be granted forever by the land’s owner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meanwhile, vanBeuzekom had requests that predicted what some residents would ask in the public comment period ending the night: that the company add the mechanicals to its drawings, since “just because it’s a penthouse of mechanicals doesn’t mean you don’t feel that extra 30 feet from the street”; and that it do studies of traffic, transit and parking for after a Millennium building went in. (Resident Steve Kaiser, a traffic engineer, submitted his own study to the council and hoped there be others to challenge it.)

While Calkins assured there would be enough parking in a Franklin Street garage when Vertex workers move to Boston and other spaces are reallocated, vanBeuzekom noted that there would still be a significant gain in people and perhaps cars when new businesses moved into the buildings Vertex and Millennium were relocating from.

Affordable retail

All agreed the retail could be a win for the area, giving life to a city block referred to more than once Thursday as “desolate.”

Nearly the entire frontage for the building at ground level would be retail, including one, 10,000-square-foot section that could be broken up into four or five businesses. A small gap between retail sections would lead people to Millennium, a sacrifice of the typical “trophy lobby” that retail expert Jesse Baerkahn said was a significant gesture on the company’s part.

“It’s exciting to have a long strip along the street … it sets up a situation where we can be far more creative and dynamic in how we devise the space. That is crucial today, as we’re seeing far, far less large retailers and more folks that have a hyper-focused concept. They may require only 1,000 square feet where five years ago they would need 5,000,” said Baerkahn, who was charged with finding Millennium tenants after his success in Kendall Square, which he transformed from a silent business district with upscale restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops, services and stores. There were two steps to finding the right tenants, he said, starting with “making a true commitment to marketing and hustling and finding those folks. That’s not easy. The second is also not easy … it’s making a commitment to structure deals and offer economics that are conducive to allowing small businesses to occupy the space.”

After the meeting, Baerkahn expanded on the difficulty of finding the right retailers, considering that “local is often more expensive … but I think it’s certainly achievable.” He named Clover Food Lab, which began selling its sandwiches and snacks out of a truck and has expanded to multiple storefront locations – yet still sells nothing over $7.

Residents and councillors suggested they were extremely serious about the affordable aspect of those potential shops and eateries. Resident Nancy Seymour coined the term “exclusionary retail” to describe the sort of high-end, tech worker-oriented wares residents wanted to discourage in favor of shops that could be used by long-term residents of the area, many of whom have low or moderate incomes. Lee Farris said that if residents had to choose between locally owned and affordable, the latter was better.

Simmons also looked sharply at the company’s claims that open-air dining was truly “open space,” saying, “I want this open space to be open space that’s accessible.”

Master plan

According to the Community Development Department, the city has a master plan, a set of documents that “taken together, reflect the evolution of the city over the last three centuries and provide a planning framework into which new projects must be inserted with care and with attention to many trade-offs.” But the several resident e-mails seen in a packet available Thursday make it clear this either isn’t generally known or that the set of documents, completed anywhere from 1987 to last year on a piecemeal basis, isn’t accepted as comprehensive or cohesive.

Speakers mentioned the need for a master plan too. Mike Connolly – an independent candidate for state representative in November – said he saw a need for “a plan driven by the people” rather than developers such as Forest City.

Kristen von Hoffman, a sustainability expert with the school district, noted, as Kaiser did, that Forest City’s zoning request was just one of four overlapping upzonings requested for Central and Kendall squares, and that the city had some 12 million square feet and 5,000 units of housing in development. As a Yale undergraduate 11 years ago, she said, she conducted urban planning research on revitalizing New Haven, finding that a master plan with “mixed-income affordable housing as well as an integrated economic approach were key to New Haven’s success.”

The members of the Ordinance Committee that remained after three hours – Cheung, Maher and vanBeuzekom – voted to let the Forest City zoning petition go to the full council without an up or down recommendation and to bring the matter back to a 4:30 p.m. Jan. 30 committee meeting, again at City Hall.

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7 Responses to Forest City tweaks Central Square plans to add appeal, but tweaks become targets

  1. patrickbarrett

    January 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    The city council has proven to be quite the ill-suited owner in all of this. Forest City came to them with ta plan they could have built as of right. The city asked them to revise and include housing; they did just that. Instead of having a conversation the “citizens” went nuts and the city council fed FC to the lions. What I enjoyed most was the people who claimed that they actually used a park populated almost entirely be drug addicts and alcoholics. They don’t. However they fought for it twenty five years ago and thus ever shall it remain a park; who cares if they don’t actually ever use it.

    Further, Forest City has under built from their original drive into University Park by a little more than 300k sqft. They reduced the 150k sqft of retail at the behest of the city as to not canabalize “local retail.” Now they are criticized for creating a “dead” street scape on Sidney. Now they’re begging for an additional 100k on a sight that really ought to have been included in the original plan, but the stars of ownership just hadn’t quite aligned at the time. A tenant, a Cambridge based tenant, #20 on the Forbes best companies to work for, whose mandate is to “cure cancer” has to scratch their heads wondering if they should just pack up and go across the river where Menino can actually get things done. Millennium is a fine neighbor too. My wife sits on the board of the Margaret Fuller House and helps organize the Sweet Soul Supper. Last year Millennium sent 25 volunteers, men, women, children; to help me and my wife unload supplies and setup the event. Funny, I never see these “neighborhood” folk show up to lend a hand. All they seem to be able to offer is their ire and need to occupy something. Well I hope they want to occupy that subsidized retail because without any significant market rate housing developments in Central Square it won’t matter how low you make that rent if no one is buying.

    So here we are coming on to two years in the making. Here we are, trying to figure out if we want to let a developer have 100k sqft of lab space to house a Cambridge employer, charged with curing cancer. The best part is that we charge them 1mil+ for the extra development rights and take another 4-5mil for low income housing for something “we” told them to do; and now we can’t even decide if this is what we want.

    What have we taught developers through this process? Pfizer did what they wanted to do without having to engage the public or this council. Maybe that’s the lesson. Build what you can by right and don’t try to work for something more. The council loves the word “perpetuity” maybe we aught to place the ordinance in amber and ever it shall be?

    Lastly, did any of these councilors lament the passing up of over 100 units of market rate units? Nope. Its easy to laud for low income units, it seems like the right thing to do, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Its a classist policy. Every councilor present told me last week that people who can’t afford to live in Cambridge are more important than those that can. The policy is dangerous and unsustainable (there I put in a word y’all will like).

    Now there is blood in the water and I see the dorsal fins of “no money” and van Hoffman in the mix. Never saw them at the C2 meetings (maybe I wasn’t looking). They seem to be aligned with the downzoners and moratorium ilk. That their comments are highlighted here reads like tea leaves. We ought to have a master plan, but not something that is etched in stone. The C2 advisory board gave this city its “master plan” and though it focused on Central Square, we were not oblivious to the impacts of areas adjacent. Scary times I have to say, but I digress.

    Finally, treat developers with discipline and consistency and you’ll have a good companion for growth. Give them conflicting orders and beat them in public and you’ll get bit. Don’t ever blame the dog that bites you, blame the owner. (how long until this one gets erased?)

  2. Mike Connolly

    January 22, 2013 at 1:30 am

    I believe “dorsal fins” implies having a spinal column, so I’ll take that as something of a compliment, Patrick.

    In all seriousness, though, and with all due respect to your views and your contributions to the city (as a developer and a member of the City Manager’s Central Square Advisory Committee), here is how I see this issue:

    I start from a perspective that recognizes the fact that we live in a society where there is tremendous inequality of wealth. Something like 1% of the population controls 42% of the wealth. That is unacceptable.

    Furthermore, we live in a country where money buys political outcomes. 94% of the time, the candidate with the most money wins the election. And roughly half of the money that funds the typical City Council race comes from outside Cambridge.

    Like many Americans, I look at these facts together and recognize that we are facing conditions of systemic corruption, at every level of government.

    So that’s my personal starting point. That’s why I got involved in politics in the first place. What does that have to do with Cambridge?

    First of all, given the fact that our economy is unbalanced, it is our obligation to do more to provide housing for people who, in your words, “can’t afford to live in Cambridge.” To do so is not “dangerous and unsustainable” as you suggest; rather, it’s prudent and worthwhile, for it helps to ensure the rich diversity that’s been the hallmark of our city. And it’s the right thing to do.

    As an aside, I would suggest that rewriting our zoning code for the sake of multinational pharmaceutical corporations is actually the more “dangerous and unsustainable” course of action. What happens when more biotech companies start merging with each other? And how long before they are able to save money by moving more of their research overseas, to emerging biotech hubs like India and Singapore?

    Of course, I admire the work that is being done by these local employees. But the fact remains that this corporation is not charged with “curing cancer” as you suggest — rather, it’s charged with making profits and enhancing returns to shareholders. Let’s not romanticize it.

    Next, given the fact that our political system suffers from systemic corruption, I believe we must go out of our way to directly answer the concerns of all those residents who are critical of this project. Members of the Cambridge Residents Alliance and other neighborhood groups feel like the city will do anything to accommodate big development — and I tend to agree with them.

    As it stands, the majority of the incumbents on the City Council have received financial contributions directly from the principal stakeholders in the Forest City Real Estate Corporation, the developer of the project. So how can we be sure that our elected officials will review this project in an unbiased fashion?

    And don’t get me wrong: I think development is a very fine thing — but I want the process to be consistent with the will of the people. According to this report, 63% of the pubic comment was negative.

    The bottom line is that I’m happy to be engaged in this discussion — and I will pleased if we can put the 300 Mass. Ave. space to a good use. And my hope is that differing views may help us get to that point…

    But when the majority of the City Council is receiving money from the Forest City Ratner family, then I think it’s necessary for us to listen to the many Cambridge residents who are raising valid concerns over height, housing, noise, traffic, parking, pollution, transportation, signage, open space, gentrification and displacement, etc.

  3. patrickbarrett

    January 22, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Mike,

    This isn’t “occupy” day. The inclusionary portion of the ordinance provides for low income unit coupled with market rate. If you can’t make a project work financially it is “unsustainable.” Area IV and Cambridge Port receive the bulk of low income units (we must be at 35% total housing stock at this point) and they’re all clustered in the same place. Dividing the city by economic status IS dangerous, take a look at the police bridge stats. You can be smug and act like you’re above the finances, but you’re not, and its a much safer approach to build housing that can be maintained and support then to allow multiple organizations run amok building through out Area IV, Cambridge Port, and East Cambridge.

    63% of .0001% of the population of Cambridge is far from a consensus. Most of the people who support this development had to go home and feed their families, or work (novel idea there), or pick their kids up. If you based your decisions as a potential councilor on what that .0001% says at every council meeting nothing would ever be accomplished. Here’s an idea, if you guys want to derail development, usurp my property rights, and “balance” the equation; turn in your residential exemption and pay twice as much residential property taxes.

    You talk about rewriting the zoning code? Is the zoning ordinance an inflexible document etched on stone tablets? A company that attempts to cure cancer can’t make a profit? Will you take a salary if you’re elected on the council? You and your occupy ilk apply the prefix “big” to so many things its lost any meaning to me. I don’t think this council needs someone so detached from reality or polarizing. Why vilify corporations in the city?

    Do you own the mass ave block? How could you put it to “good” use? If a developer shows up to build what they can as of right, do you think you could block that development?

    Lastly, I don’t know much about your campaign. They call you “no money” which I guess means you don’t take contributions? Will take the $72k and an assistant as well? I don’t disagree that the council is a bit bloated, but going on a wire and insulting all of them in an attempt to grab one of those seats doesn’t bode well for getting anything done if chosen. I recommend toning down the smug holier than though the world isn’t fair rant. There is a way to approach both sides without suggesting that their on the take or something invidious is happening. It is unfortunate that you’ve already selected your base … just remember that there are many more people who live in this city than the angry bile filled groups you have latched on to. Good luck.

  4. Mike Connolly

    January 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Hey Patrick — I just want to say that I recognize that you bring a great deal of insight and perspective to the debate over the future of Central Square.

    Moreover, that we are engaged in an ongoing dialog over the future of our city is a good thing. So I appreciate your views even though I don’t agree with everything that you’ve said.

    My position is to stand with the people who are critical of this development — and if I were a member of the City Council — then I would do everything possible to make sure that all public concerns are not just heard, but actually addressed and resolved.

    As it stands, we know there are concerns over height, housing, noise, traffic, parking, pollution, transportation, signage, open space, gentrification and displacement, etc. Additional questions remain regarding the nature of the proposed ground-floor retail and the terms of a possible letter of commitment.

    Thankfully, we have groups of dedicated individuals who are providing alternative views on these questions. You might call them “angry bile filled groups” but I believe these folks are doing us all a great public service at a time when most of our city council has effectively given up on the job and surrendered our planning duties over to the big developers.

  5. Lars M

    January 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    patrickbarrett…please run for city council, We need you!!

  6. JohnM

    January 22, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Patrick,

    Thank you for continuing to provide perspective that is far too often missing from discussions at City hearings and forums. Mike, you also deserve kudos for engaging with Patrick in an open and forthright manner. Others would have attack him, you have kept it respectful which is something that we need more of in this discussion about the future developments of Kendall and Central Squares. Too often those on either side discard the thoughts, opinions and concerns of those on the other side with condescension and derision so it is nice to see a strong willed debate in each direction.

    Patrick has raised some very interesting issues for your consideration Mike to which I would like to add a few of my own:

    1). You and many people on the same side of the current argument as you claim to be pushing for more affordable housing in Cambridge. That’s admirable, but I have a question – why hasn’t you, the Cambridge Residents Alliance or a group of similar people put forward a zoning petition to redone ALL residential areas of Cambridge to residential zone C thereby allowing for the construction of multi-family homes throughout the city and eliminate the “wealth” effect built into the zoning code whereby those in Res A are generally wealthier than those in Res B and they mor so than those in Res C? This would appear to be something that would be more egalitarian and would work towards making Cambridge more affordable for all. Perhaps it might anger some in Res A or some even in those rare Res B zones in a sea of Res C, but what’s wrong with taking some zoning preferences away from the fortunate few so those in need can have their fair share too?

    2). At various meetings and hearings that I have attended and watched on TV I have heard people reference the height restrictions in DC. Paris and elsewhere as a reason why Cambridge should restrict our maximum height to, for example, 7 or 8 stories. I hope you have heard these same stories. Would you be in favor of rezoning Cambridge to be more like DC or Paris where there is a height restriction? Remember though that the height restriction also comes with an allowable height that covers the entire City not just the Kendall and Central Square areas. So would you favor allowing 7 story buildings throughout all of Cambridge?

    3). Affordable housing appears to be a major issue that you hold dear. Therefore, would you favor a moratorium on any additional affordable housing construction or acquisition in those neighborhoods in Cambridge that exceed the City’s overall average until those neighborhoods that do not meet the average have been brought back up to the average? Some will argue that it is too expensive to build affordable housing in those other neighborhoods, but, based on your Occupy background, isn’t that sort of the whole point. The current system creates neighborhoods of haves and neighborhoods of have nots.

    4). The last question of the night – Patrick and other small commercial landowners like him pay higher tax rates than residential homeowners who receive trash pick up, recycling pick up, send children to the schools, get parking permits, etc. for the payments of their taxes. So what does a commercial taxpayer get in return for the payment of their higher tax rate?

    Thank you and look forward to your replies and watching you on the City Council campaign this summer/fall.

  7. patrickbarrett

    January 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Lars M thank you for the support, I’m quite surprised to find any on this site. I think if I ran for council it would pose too many conflicts of interest relative to my ownership of property in Central Square. I’m also in law school, have a baby on the way, am on the board of the csba, and have couple of projects that I’m working on while running my private business. I will say that someday I deffinately will make a go of it, I just think this year would be too difficult and selfish.

    I’d like to answer the questions posed to Mike though since he hasn’t.

    1) The zoning in Cambridge is a bit of a mess. Res A and Res B are quite prohibitive when looking through the lense of mitigating the housing crunch. I personally think its a good idea to take a look how zoning contributes to the separation of wealth in the city, but I also think there aught to be places in Cambridge that allow for less dense neighborhoods and the opportunity to own more than a 1000qft plot. There are a ton of under utilized lots in the Res C, C-1 zone that really need an exorcism. Housing stock that is over one hundred years old and neglected as a result of rent control. The zoning ordinance is actually pretty good in my opinion, but there are some places that need to be looked at, which is really the core of my whole “the ordinance isn’t etched in stone” philosphy.

    2)I too have heard those cite Paris as the model. I found the reference curious as Paris does have high rise structures. I personally like that Cambridge is a different town from one section to another and wouldn’t think a policy creating such uniformity would be all that interesting or productive. If we really want to look like Paris, then highrises in one section, midrise in others, and 35′-45′ in other sections… its all really quite diverse. However you don’t see many singlestory commercial in those metropolitan areas. I can’t really think of one in D.C. (but thats just off the top of my head). My issue with the Mass Ave. corridor is really a great example of where vitriol will get you. Most of those low level structures used to be 80′ tall, they were cut down during the depression to mitigate property taxes. I can’t imagine in this day and age what it would take for me, as a property owner to essentially stab myself to hurt the city, but I can guess that it had a lot to do with people so polarized in their belief structure that instead of doing what was right for the city, they latched on to a crusade that was helpful to get them elected.

    3) This is my favorite point of concern. Area IV, East Cambridge, and Cambridge Port, have the lion’s share of low income. In fact I believe that if you removed these three areas we’d be below the 10% required by the state and the 40b statutes. Why? The proponents would argue that its simply cheaper to build here and thus we have this clustering. It seems odd to me that people so willing to “fight the good fight” would all of the sudden bow before economics. In fact its not really true either, as I’m sure many of you remember the school house in Harvard that wasn’t fit for low income. Cambridge is such a divided city; which always surprises me when you think of how many progessive minds live here. I would absolutely be in favor of a moritorium on low income housing in the afore mentioned areas of Cambridge until the other areas are at least brought up to 40b standards. However, then I’d stop. I’d seek to change a lop sided distribution model that favors low income housing funds to historical preservation and open space construction 80-10-10 respectively. Its a fools policy and destructive. We don’t need pockets of poverty in Cambridge, we don’t need anachronistic projects that segregate by class, and we don’t need three organizations that seemingly answer to no one continue to build in East Cambridge, Cambridge Port, and Area IV with no real inventory of the kinds of low income faciilities they are building and why. We can’t house everyone, and if you can’t afford to live here and want to own maybe you should look to other developing towns, invest, and seek to make those places as great as Cambridge has become.

    4) This has been a bone of contention with me for a while now. Fortunately Minka and Toomey answered the call and proposed that this change for small business owners. I don’t mind paying increased taxes (I’m a REAL REPUBLICAN) I utilize much more of the city’s resources maintaining commercial interests. What I do mind is a council that takes me for granted or flat out ignores me. Trash is expensive and I pay about $25k annually for Main St. and that includes recycling with out consideration to the four city toters that I use to mitigate the residential portion of the building. That Minka and Toomey recognized this inequity is much appreciated and was a nice reminder to me that they haven’t completely forgotten us.

    Something more I’d like to add thats been bugging me. Mike, you told me not to romanticize the actions of Millenium and while I don’t think I was being overly romantic, I think it incredibly short sighted and arrogant to completly dismiss the altruistic behavoir of the people who provide tangible assistance. You wind up pouring gasoline on a divide that you won’t be able to put out, ever. This is small city local politics. If you want to occupy something or take on the cheats that put us in a recession; more power to you. However, that fight isn’t in Cambridge its in Washington and you might want to think about taking it there. You will not be able to the rent controll shaped hole in the hearts of those embittered groups by pandering to their angst. This council needs a lot less razzle and dazzle and a lot more hardnosed work and balance. I worry that you’re interested in more of the former than the later. Civic duty is a calling not a job, and if you truly are a “no money” canidate I hope that you would consider refusing the enormous paycheck the councile members get, and deny the need for an assistant, unless of course you hire a highschool student on an internship basis. I teach down there every Tuesday and Thursday, and there are some really bright young men and women down there that could use the experience and the money for college.

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