The City Council blocked work on a fast-moving consulting process for Harvard Square’s iconic kiosk at a Monday meeting, saying officials were moving too fast without public input and encouraging skepticism that the process was rigged.
Councillor Jan Devereux said she’d been alarmed to see a city legal ad Friday setting a Nov. 8 deadline for questions from potential consultants and a bidding deadline of Nov. 17. She introduced a policy order with councillors Nadeem Mazen and Dennis Carlone that added two months to the bidding process to remake the kiosk, moving those dates to Jan. 1 and Jan. 31.
The order passed unanimously.
“It really disturbed me,” Devereux said of the city’s process. “It seemed to me to suggest that we already knew who we wanted to bid, and that we maybe have identified who we want to hire. That really violates the spirit of trust we had been rebuilding throughout this process.”
Residents have long been complaining that city officials’ actions don’t match their stated intentions to include the public in a re-envisioning of what the kiosk will be when the lease for the Out of Town Newsstand ends this year and it and the surrounding plaza are revamped.
In the words of Carole Perrault, the city’s actions defied community values by bringing another project to the public “already cooked.”
The roughly 500-square-foot structure, which dates back to 1928 as a subway entrance and to 1984 as a newsstand, is owned by the city and has been imagined as hosting a variety of uses, including becoming an information center. But the project is now taking place amid broader concerns about the future of Harvard Square as a giant mall project threatens to displace dozens of small businesses nearby and disrupt commerce and quaintness throughout, and a rendering of a bare-bones, glass-walled kiosk by The Galante Architecture Studio that emerged this summer suggested to many a fait accompli. Several people complained that city planners were holding back information and that the granting of a design contract to Ted Galante, a board member of the Harvard Square Business Association, was a conflict of interest.
“It seems premature”
Councillors who expressed their own concerns months earlier – it was a “train running,” Carlone said, with $4.6 million already set aside – made a receptive audience, but the language of the city’s legal ad, called a request for proposals, raised concerns on its own. It specifies that the city’s consultant could go about its work after holding a single public meeting, Devereux said, “an extremely low bar for public participation.”
In addition, the city has agreed to appoint a kiosk task force, but no action on the task force has been announced. “It seems premature to issue an RFP and even hire a consultant before the task force has even had a chance to convene,” Devereux said. “I feel like the task force before it’s even appointed has already been told ‘You will have very little to do … This is just a gesture for you to ratify what we’ve decided.’”
She wanted to see more consultants submitting bids with new ideas and public involvement, which would be impossible with a bidding process of less than 10 business days, as well as public presentations of their proposals and for the task force to have a say in consultant decisions. Councillor David Maher suspected some of what Devereux proposed would be impossible under state law, but voted for the order with the understanding the City Manager’s Office would iron out the details later.
The Historical Commission meets Thursday to consider a landmarking study of the structure; landmarking would bring protection of certain architectural features. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, but that status doesn’t protect the kiosk from dramatic changes to its aesthetics – as noted in citizen petitions that drew around 1,000 names and by another Monday policy order supporting a landmark designation study. Landmarking could affect the final design, providing another reason to slow the consultant bidding process, councillors said.
Update on Nov. 9, 2016: The Historical Commission voted 6-0-1 at its Thursday meeting to initiate a landmarking study of the kiosk.
An additional cause for unrest, the fate of the city-owned Foundry building in East Cambridge, was raised Monday but delayed for a vote until next week. Mazen, Devereux, Carlone and vice mayor Marc McGovern called for a radical reworking of the findings that brought forward a single developer looking to provide far less public space than was expected throughout years of discussion. “We weren’t listened to,” Mazen has said to city staff, more or less matching the bitterness of several residents along the way.
“We’re just not learning,” Devereux said Monday, comparing the Foundry and kiosk processes. “It disturbs me that this is what we’re coming to with such an important piece of public property.”