- Arts + Culture
For The Middle East nightclub complex in Central Square, it’s grow or leave, and owners Joseph and Nabil Sater are going to their neighbors to seek support for a plan that would see them buy the one-story property for $7 million and add four or five floors of residential units above it.
“The landlord wants to sell the building, and we have to do something. I don’t want to give up,” said Joseph Sater, talking to a few dozen residents and politicians gathered Tuesday night in his corner bakery space for an hour of catered community Q&A.
The Middle East has been at 472-480 Massachusetts Ave. in some form since 1970, growing its storefronts and roles in the community, but the recent death of its landlord has forced the issue, Joseph Sater said. He intends to exercise an option to buy the space from the DuPont family within the next two years.
Residential, as recommended
Despite the need to generate plenty of money for the purchase and construction – and at least one audience member who pushed the idea hard – the Saters said they are not interested in creating lab or office space they could lease for a premium. “It does bring more income, but that’s not my community need. The Red Ribbon Committee said more residential,” Joseph Sater said, referring to the 2010 Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square. “I have to take the perspective of the community to heart.”
Ken Reeves, the city councillor who led the committee, was at the meeting, along with councillor Minka vanBeuzekom and council candidate James Williamson. Councillor Denise Simmons talked with the Saters before the meeting. Reeves’ committee led to the so-called K2C2 work that envisioned the next decades of development in Kendall and Central squares, and in both areas it was recommended to build residential towers reliant on public transportation and filled with people who would support the local ground-floor retail and entertainment options.
Although the family’s sympathies lean toward the arts, which Joseph Sater said could be seen not just in Central Square, but in their purchase, rehab and reopening of the Somerville Armory as an arts space in 2007, that means resisting the call to turn the corner into an expanded arts mecca, and that there will also be no artist live-work space above the Middle East unless someone wants to subsidize it.
The expense also means that living in the Sater’s residences won’t be cheap. Although the goal is to exceed the number of low-income units required by Cambridge zoning, Joseph Sater said, he was blunt that the price of the remaining units – it’s not set if they will be apartments or condominiums – “is going to be high.”
If the subsidized middle-income starting to be discussed at City Hall becomes a reality, the Saters will look to have some, said William Schaefer, the Sater’s longtime architect, who took audience questions for some of the meeting.
While the planning is in the earliest of stages, there is one factor that will shape much of what happens at The Middle East: If they razed the structure to rebuild from the ground up, the Saters believe it would be fatal. Revenue would be lost from its upstairs and downstairs performance spaces and two dining areas surrounding the Sater-owned ZuZu restaurant, and “it takes three to four years to come back,” Joseph Sater said.
That means no expansion of The Middle East (or for its nightclub neighbor on Brookline Street, T.T. the Bear’s Place); no parking, since that could be achieved only through an underground garage; and no extreme or net zero environmental efforts that could raise costs significantly, although early plans include rooftop and community gardens, as well as solar cells on the roof and rear of the building.
The second floor would have some restaurant space and community amenities, which would buffer residences above from the noise of the club on the ground floor. Schaefer told the meeting that an outside dining area was envisioned for the second floor at the corner, one of the planned carve-outs that could soften the perceived height of the building, and that some form of sculpture could go over that, as well as on Brookline Street over the entrance to the Middle East Downstairs. It would be visible as people came near from the south. “That’s the makings of a landmark,” he said. “Nabil has said to me, ‘We want to make something beautiful,’ and that’s a great corner.”
There could be anywhere from 50 to 100 units, depending on the configuration needs of the community for the square footage inside, and the building would be constructed by right, with no intent at this point to seek a special permit to exceed the 80 feet height allowed by zoning, Schaefer said.
“We can do it”
Building atop the iconic nightclub will come with huge challenges, Schaefer said. First the foundation will need to be firmed up; then the walls will added buttressing for a structure that will be built above the club to support four or five floors of use.
“Some of the developers that we’ve talked to have said, ‘You guys are nuts, trying to build over this.’ I believe, based on conversations I’ve had with some of our engineers, we can do it,” said Schaefer, who leads William Schaefer & Associates on Bay Street and created The Middle East Downstairs space in 1995.
A firm that has done acoustics for Symphony Hall is also being consulted about damping noise from the nightclubs, Schaefer said, but members of the audience still wondered how that likely issue would be handled, given that there has been no shortage of foolish people moving in by Boston nightclubs or other noisy areas – and complaining about the noise.
Joseph Sater said his record in the neighborhood on addressing noise complaints is good, but that he would certainly make a point of warning renters or buyers. “We’re going to have it in the lease: You’re living above The Middle East,” he said.
“I want to live above The Middle East,” someone called out from the audience, to much applause.
Another community meeting will be held in about a week, according to the Saters and Schaefer.