The Planning Board unanimously greenlighted development Tuesday of 10 Essex Street, a 46-unit transit-oriented residential development in the heart of Central Square, after a protracted hearing process that begin in December. The development is sited on one of two parking lots behind the former site of the Harvest Co-op and Pearl Art, which is also the future home of the grocery store H Mart.
The developer of the project, Central Square property owner Morris Naggar of 3MJ Associates, applied for a series of special permits for the development, chief of which were: cutting required parking in half to one space for every two dwelling units; a maximum height of 70 feet; and less setback from the street, allowing a narrow sidewalk.
Naggar chose to go ahead with this project while the zoning recommendations from the city’s K2C2 planning process are still in discussion. While those Kendall Square and Central Square recommendations are expected to be adopted in some form this year, and would likely permit taller and denser development on Naggar’s property, he is proceeding under current zoning.
Naggar also agreed to a restoration and renovation of the facade of his adjoining building, 605 Massachusetts Ave., to restore damage to its brickwork and improve the transition between the two buildings.
The board heard the case originally Dec. 3 and had been scheduled to continue hearing it Jan. 21 and then Feb. 11, but those hearings were canceled because of snow and quorum requirements.
Traffic, parking and transportation
Public testimony at Tuesday’s hearing and letters to the board hit a wide array of issues relating to the development, but as board chairman Hugh Russell noted, “we heard a great deal of testimony that asks us to go beyond our authority.” The board is narrowly constrained by the zoning ordinance, and in general is required to issue a special permit if the petitioner meets the written criteria for the permit. Issues raised that the board considered beyond its scope included the percentage of affordable housing units included with the development, environmental impact of the building, future of the adjacent city-owned parking lot and traffic from H Mart.
The evening began with a presentation by Naggar’s team, beginning with longtime Cambridge attorney James Rafferty on the evolution of the project and how it had changed from what the board heard in December. Rafferty reported on a parking study the developers had done and that the Holmes building, across Massachusetts Avenue and a comparable residential development, continues to meet the same parking ratio as 10 Essex would and has for its entire existence.
Rafferty emphasized branding the project “as a non-auto building,” or transit-oriented development. He noted that the location was ideal for a low parking ratio, being a stone’s throw from an MBTA red line stop and on top of a grocery store, and outlined a series of measures to encourage transit and discourage parking. The developers have agreed to provide one stick for tenants who lease parking – a $20 monthly penalty above market rate pricing – and several carrots for tenants who do not: a $50 per year credit for use at a local bicycle shop for tuneups and the like; one year of free Hubway bike rental and Zipcar memberships; and three months of free MBTA passes.
Architects John Pears and Mark Boyes-Watson discussed changes to the architecture and design of the building since December, incorporating feedback from the board’s prior hearing. Design changes include replacing blue panels with green patinated copper; black slate for gray slate; and widening the sidewalk slightly, by about a foot, to 6.4 feet for most of the run.
But residents were generally not concerned with the building’s design issues. Neighbors, especially those nearest on Essex Street, continued to express concern that on-street parking was particularly difficult to find, and building anything with a parking ratio reduced from one space per unit would make it harder for those already in the neighborhood to park. Others, including Central Square residents, supported the parking requirement reduction, agreeing the location was ideal for non-car-owners. The board felt ultimately that because the lower ratio was recommended by the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department, they could safely reduce the required parking in this development. Some board members felt more strongly than others, but all ultimately agreed.
Public testimony also discussed the sidewalk width and the special permit for relief on setbacks. Essex Street already has extremely narrow sidewalks, but no parking on the project’s side of the street. The board conditioned the special permits on the proponent discussing with the city the possibility of expanding the sidewalk, a late-breaking suggestion advocated by city councillor Dennis Carlone that seemed to meet with approval from most people in the room.
The board granted several additional special permits that were not contentious, such as allowing a green roof and permitting a small portion of the building to stick out toward Bishop Allen Drive. The applicants also noted they elected the option of reduced short-term bicycle parking for the building’s retail businesses in exchange for paying money into a fund the city maintains for the purpose; this was driven by the narrow sidewalk and lack of a place to put that parking, but it was not technically a special permit.
The building’s 46 units of housing will include five for low-income tenants as a result of the city’s inclusionary housing program. The building will be a mix of studio and one-, two- and three-bedroom units, along with ground-floor retail. The project is designed by Perkins Eastman, bringing Pears’ involvement, and Boyes-Watson Architects. The building will be six stories high, with underground parking (for half the units), and totals 114,000 square feet of gross floor area on a lot size of 35,000 square feet.