There was a time city officials were bickering about their different visions for the Foundry, the 52,000-square-foot structure at 101 Rogers St. deeded to the city more than a year ago in return for nearby zoning change that benefited a developer.
Now they’re allied in just wanting some answers from the city manager on what the East Cambridge site can be, including the minimum 10,000 square feet set aside for community use.
The latest effort to wrest answers out of the office of City Manager Robert W. Healy came Monday at a City Council meeting, as councillors Tim Toomey and David Maher introduced a policy order for Healy to “appoint a special task force of real estate and engineering professionals to assess and evaluate the current condition of the property and projected capital needs as well as anticipated expenses of maintaining the Foundry building.”
The task force is asked to present a detailed report on several factors “within three months.”
“I support this order, but I hope we’re more effective in managing this order we have been in the last two,” Craig Kelley said.
In June there was an order asking that Healy report back on the legal process the city must follow for the sale, reuse, or lease of the space.
In July there was an order asking the manager to answer such questions as whether the building could be rented as is – similar to questions Toomey and Maher are asking now – and open-ended bids for information such as “Are there any issues councillors should be aware of with respect to the building?”
In December, as promoters of the city’s tech startup scene and residents debated whether business or community got a higher priority in the building (and apparently agreed it was possible to have both) and School Committee members began eyeing the Foundry for a sale with proceeds helping pay for school construction, a third council policy order appeared reminding the manager of the earlier requests. As of Monday, those orders remained on the “awaiting report list,” though, meaning the manager’s reports aren’t ready.
The building was deeded to the city in January 2012 in exchange for Alexandria Real Estate Equities getting the right to build up to nine stories tall on a dense, 15-acre biotech lab and office campus along Binney Street.
Councillors still want to know about the Foundry building’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (which Toomey suggested is nonexistent); the structural integrity of its roof, foundation and masonry; and its heating, air condition, plumbing and electrical systems; and other operating needs. And they asked that the report look at what the city could expect to get from a sale, since according to Toomey and Maher there’s a “possible” deed restriction for that minimum of 10,000 square feet of community use.
“The city has not had a good history of being a landlord,” Maher said.
“It’s time to bring in some experts in engineering and real estate and see what the building is worth,” Toomey said, including a possible sale alongside the possibility of using it for city government space and public space. “There are a lot of questions about this building, and I don’t think we can handle it ourselves right now.”
If the city does keep the building, it has to examine bringing in a management company to lease it out, he said.
The reference to the community use being only a “possible” requirement in a sale didn’t sit well with all members of the public. During public comment Heather Hoffman said “community benefits don’t seem to be things the City Council values enough to make them perpetual – they can be taken away at any point. Our open space is open so long as it’s convenient to the developers. This building was a very important part of the community mitigation for a huge upzoning near our neighborhood.”
Husband Mark Jaquith, though, said mainly that the council’s action – and deadline – was overdue. He was grateful the policy order was on the agenda and called the task force requests “a good start” that could be supplemented with soil tests and rezoning, along with pushing again for community gardening and meeting space. Maher agreed soil contamination tests were needed, especially if the open space around the Foundry would be used for day care.
“Let them ask questions from A to Z and come back with a very comprehensive account for the community,” Toomey said. “Then we can make a better-informed decision.”
In the meantime, councillor Ken Reeves said he was setting up a tour of Jamaica Plain’s Brewery Small Business Complex, which is a successfully converted industrial building that could provide a model for the Foundry building’s future – and, it turns out, is managed by a Cantabrigian, Reeves said.