Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Plans for remaking Lechmere Square when the T stop moves includes transforming a garage area seen at top into a year-round, 30-stall public market like the one seen above. (Photo: On Land LLC)

First came a torrent of public support, then a unanimous City Council vote Monday supporting a neighborhood plan to remake the area around the Lechmere T stop.

The vision of the East Cambridge Planning Team includes a 12-story hotel; a commercial building of up to four stories, with retail or restaurant space at ground level; and between those a plaza and year-round, 30-stall public market under a refurbished T garage roof.

This is possible because with the end of the original partnership behind NorthPoint, 45 acres in East Cambridge (and crossing into Somerville and Boston) that was to become a glittering community of homes and offices, came the end of plans for a deluxe, privately developed T stop. The state still intends to move the stop closer to NorthPoint, on land it owns beyond the six-lane Monsignor O’Brien Highway, but its plans are taxpayer-funded and hardly deluxe.

It would be more like “a turnstile with a roof over it,” joked Mark Jaquith, a member of the planning team and Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods.

In looking at plans for the T stop, the team saw problems:

It is the only station without an enclosed lobby; there’s only one entrance and it’s poorly located. There’s insufficient bicycle parking. Bus, traffic, pedestrian flow and street design need improvement. Millions will walk across the highway yearly.

In addition to coming up improvements to the T stop and traffic patterns, the team saw an opportunity in the 72,000 square feet T plans left open for development. Starting in the fall, the team, including Alan Greene, Chris Matthews, Paul Cote and Matthew Gordy, said they

… crafted our plan to design the best civic space possible while preserving the valuable development rights that the MBTA is counting on to raise revenue through sale of development parcels. Our plan accomplishes this goal.

Other concerns directing our approach were the absence of public open space associated with the Cambridge Street business corridor, preservation of historic aspects of the site, and the lack of a year round public market in our city. This creative plan will make Lechmere Square one of the metro area’s most attractive destinations. The location is ideal, situated at the beginning of one of our major retail corridors, and between a successful mall, growing business district and lively residential neighborhood on one side and a major transit node and NorthPoint (which will eventually be built) on the other.

Specifically, the order by city councillor Tim Toomey asks for the city to work with community groups to study whether the plan is workable, ready it for presentation to officials — the need for special legislation is likely, Toomey said — and help make it happen.

The cost of the project is unclear, and Toomey said there would be work done over the next couple of months in bringing together interested parties to help determine it and fund it. “Clearly we’re going to need some private resources, a developer. Alexandria Resources has shown some interest in this,” he said, referring to Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc., of California.

There has also been talk Forest City Enterprises Inc., of Cleveland, is interested in entering NorthPoint since it announced late last month its $668 million sale of seven buildings in its University Park tech complex on Massachusetts Avenue.

“I’m somewhat optimistic that this can work,” Toomey said. “This neighborhood group has done this on a shoestring budget. Now is the time to take it to the next level.”

Nearly 20 people claimed time in the Monday meeting’s public comment period to praise the team’s work and ideas and urge the council to support them.

Charles Marquardt called the plans “a great opportunity to bring NorthPoint and Brickbottom and other parts of that Somerville neighborhood back into Cambridge. What’s come about as part of the green line extension is that the T has been really successful in getting Somerville and Cambridge to unite in opposition to the T and in favor of this type of development.”

“This is something we can do as to a city to make it more inviting to folks coming in from Boston, coming in from Somerville, rather than putting up a wall between NorthPoint and Cambridge,” Marquardt said.

Cote was also among the speakers. “It’s inevitable Lechmere Square will be transformed over the next few years. But there’s a question of whether the transformation will be a positive one, well considered, or whether it could possibly be a disaster that we’re all presiding over,” he said. “It’s clear NorthPoint is sort of a stepchild of the whole [green line extension] process. It’s not very well planned in the T’s documents, and I think the city of Cambridge should take an active role in planning the square — a critical gateway to the city.”

An early criticism of plans for the Lechmere T stop is here.