The empty Foundry building is getting a $40,000 study that could be done by the end of May to show what is needed to start its reuse by business startups or nonprofit organizations needing cheap space in East Cambridge.
It’s good news for residents and city councillors already impatient to know what will happen with the 52,000-square-foot building at 101 Rogers St. It was transferred to city ownership in January 2012 as part of the rezoning that let Alexandria Real Estate Equities build its lab and office space tall and dense on a 15-acre campus along Binney Street.
“I came three months ago to complain about the Foundry, that no one is doing anything about it,” fumed Spring Street resident Ilan Levy during the public comment period at the Monday council meeting, when the study was requested and approved by all eight councillors in attendance. “It has been in the city’s hands for more than a year and a half.”
He urged the councillors to reject the $40,000 requested for the study by City Manager Robert W. Healy and plunge ahead on renting out the space, but the request is actually something many have been awaiting for months:
Councillor Tim Toomey started asking in June 2012 about how to sell, reuse or lease the space, and he was joined by councillor Leland Cheung in late July 2012 in asking such specific questions as whether it could be rented as is or “what would make the building operational, habitable and safe to use.” On Dec. 3, Toomey, Cheung and the other seven councillors issued a joint order reminding Healy of the earlier order and asking for an update.
The final order came Feb. 11 as another full-council request for a task force of real estate and engineering professionals that could give an independent assessment of the building’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We’re all somewhat frustrated at the pace of trying to decide what the future of the Foundry building should be, but we want to do it right, and that’s the most important thing,” Toomey said. “We felt it was important to bring in this council order several times, and the city manager is now moving forward with a complete study.”
Healy’s letter acknowledges that his call for a transfer of $40,000 to pay for a study comes as an answer to “several” council orders. But he said it would “hopefully produce” the documentation that would allow a decision on use to be made – analysis city employees weren’t qualified to give.
The task force idea called for in early February “was a good one, except those are busy people who as a task force aren’t going to be able to meet and produce a report by the end of May,” Healy said.
There will be no delay in getting a firm reviewing the building’s structure, mechanical and electrical and fire protection systems; environmental and fuel efficiency possibilities; costs of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and heat and air-conditioning needs; and budget demands for reuse because the city doesn’t have to bid for the work. The city has about a half-dozen “house doctors” contracts in place – that were bid for by competing firms – in which architectural firms are kept on what is essentially a nonpaid retainer to be able to respond quickly to calls for work, explained Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi.
The “house doctor” in this case is HMFH Architects, which has worked with the city on the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School and War Memorial Recreation Center projects, Healy said.
“You knew back in February we wanted this process done. I’m surprised that it’s taken so long for the task force to realize they didn’t have the expertise,” vanBeuzekom said.
Members of the public also expressed frustration that the building was sitting unused, not just failing to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lease revenue but unavailable as a resource to community dance troupes and art facilities needing homes. As part of the zoning deal, 10,000 square feet of the Foundry is set aside for community uses, and some hoped even more of the space would go toward charitable and creative needs.
“I hope the council strongly considers holding onto the building and using as something to balance what Kendall Square is. Kendall Square has lots of high-tech that’s brought lots of revenue and a lot of excitement to the area. We are starting to see retail and housing … but clearly the one thing missing in this area – there’s no real arts in this part of the city,” said Jay Wasserman, who was involved in the Alexandria rezoning process that brought the Foundry as mitigation for the project’s added height, density and traffic. “We know various groups desperate for space. And if there’s ever been anything handed on a silver platter for all these groups, it’s the Foundry.”