Thursday, April 18, 2024

EF Education First, at left, plans to build additional offices across the intersection in Cambridge’s stagnant NorthPoint neighborhood.

The NorthPoint neighborhood may yet be tamed. The City Council gave preliminary blessing Monday to a 300,000-square-foot project to house the growing EF Education First, a language and travel company, and essentially took over several roads so it could impose traffic and parking rules.

The building project has many steps to go through even before returning to the city for approval, warned Dean F. Stratouly, president of developer The Congress Group, but he hopes also to get fast-track approval at the state level that will allow construction to start next year. The building could open for business as soon as the spring of 2012. The project is self-funded, which should help speed its progress.

It would be a companion building to the Education First offices already in NorthPoint, mirroring it from across Education Street.

“They are out of space,” Stratouly told the council during the meeting’s public comment period. “They approached me six months ago and said, ‘We would like to stay in Cambridge, but we need a new building.’”

Plans for the project may change as The Congress Group goes through the approval process. Included now is a 75,000-square-foot parking lot and 10-story building with a private auditorium and public Lingo Bar & Restaurant — another mirror image, since there is a Lingo in the current Education First building that would stay open. The Congress Group would work with the state to build several public tennis courts and a skate park nearby, Stratouly said.

“NorthPoint is kind of stagnant, so this is a very positive sign,” said councillor Tim Toomey, describing the expansion as something that can “bring economic vitality and life to that area.”

Education First would add an estimated 400 jobs to staff the new building, councillors said, and Stratouly said there might be 200 construction workers needed over the life of the $30 million project. (Education First would spend additional money on the new building’s interior, he said.)

They would be union workers, assured Joe Power, business representative for Cambridge-based Carpenters Local 40.

The councillors embraced the project as progress for the overall NorthPoint project — pitched as transforming 45 acres of wasteland into 19 city blocks with 2.2 million square feet of commercial and office space, 150,000 square feet of retail and 2,700 residential units. But in the words of The Boston Globe’s Paul McMorrow:

Development at NorthPoint stopped soon after it started, in 2005. Pan Am Railways, which had inherited the development site from the old Boston and Maine Railroad, tried dumping its local real estate development partners. The railroad’s minority partners (execs from the former Hub brokerage Spaulding & Slye) balked. The two sides would up suing each other in Boston. Because that wasn’t enough, they slugged it out in a Delaware courtroom, too. The two sides only managed to agree on two things: They both wanted to quit the project, and they wanted a big payday to do so.

Five years later, the neighborhood has 500 to 600 residents and a handful of businesses in addition to Education First and Lingo, including a convenience store and Cambridge College branch, councillor Denise Simmons said.

There are also 30 or 40 mystery cars parked under the bridge headed into Charlestown, at fire hydrants and in lanes not made for parking, which threaten collisions between cars squeezed into one and a half lanes as they try to pass, councillors said. And there has been no ticketing or towing because there has been no rules or punishment imposed on what has not been city land. The few roads in NorthPoint so far, although built to city specifications, have thus far not been city owned, leaving them, in the words of councillor Tim Toomey, a “no-man’s land.”

The council voted unanimously Monday to take possession of the roads and bring order to them — and extract tickets and parking fees from them, if only to pay for snow plowing the city has done there — as soon as meters and signs can be installed.

City Manager Robert W. Healy said that should be done within 60 days, although “I hope it’ll be done in 20 days.”

This post has been updated to clarify the size of the project and to add its cost and the responsibility of The Congress Group for nearby tennis courts.