Sunday, May 19, 2024

A policy order by city councillor Leland Cheung affecting development in Cambridge’s Kendall Square failed Monday because of a “charter right” veto. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

City councillor Leland Cheung hoped to hear Wednesday about the chances of getting housing, low-cost office and lab space for entrepreneurs and public amenities such as a grocery store and public art for Kendall Square.

But he was blocked Monday at a council meeting by Mayor David Maher, who invoked his councillor’s “charter right” to veto the proposed policy order until the council gathers again — Monday, well after the Ordinance Committee meeting in which Cheung hoped to explore the issues.

“This is absolutely the wrong place to bring this forward,” Maher said before announcing his veto.

Cheung’s request of the city manager had already survived an amendment by Sam Seidel to move it to the committee itself, meaning that instead of hearing an answer back on Cheung’s questions, the committee would discuss whether to ask the questions in the first place. Seidel said Cheung’s questions seemed “precipitous” because there was “a lot of conversation that could still be had,” and said after his amendment failed 6-3 that “we have four very substantive requests that need to be processed by Wednesday at 5 p.m. We never operate on this calendar. The shortest turnaround time typically is Monday to Monday. Zoning matters typically take weeks.”

Those voting to put off the request were Maher, Seidel and Tim Toomey. Seidel and Toomey are co-chairmen of the Ordinance Committee.

Toomey — who called the proposed policy order “a waste of space at this location” — suggested the council meeting be paused for an impromptu meeting of the committee, but Maher ended the discussion with his veto.

“We keep letting them off the hook”

Cheung’s proposal was directed at the developer Boston Properties, which is asking to enlarge a project beyond what city zoning ordinances allow. The project could host an expanded Broad Institute, a base for genomic research founded in 2004 in collaboration with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is now spread throughout more than three Kendall Square buildings, including 5 and 7 Cambridge Center and 320 Charles St.

Boston Properties had agreed as part of a project to build Kendall Square housing, but has not, and Cheung’s policy order hoped to ask the city manager — possibly in return for letting the company build bigger than it first proposed — to enforce the agreement.

There are “promises of housing that haven’t been followed through on. We keep letting them off the hook, and we’re the ones who suffer because of it,” Cheung said of developers.

He also wanted “a nonbinding review of the Broad expansion at the Planning Board at the appropriate juncture” and

a draft letter of agreement which can be set forth as a proposal to the landlord and anticipated tenant, designating a portion of the building to hosting an “incubator” of low-cost lab space for upstart local entrepreneurs to work from, and setting aside an investment in public art at the location. … [Also, a report] on whether the ground floor retail proposed by Boston Properties would be of the size and nature suitable for a grocery store, convenience store or small foodstuffs boutique.

Comments from some during debate suggested Cheung’s proposal was misunderstood and his explanations went unheard. (This is not the first time proposals by Cheung have encountered resistance as a result of misunderstandings.)

Ken Reeves warned that placing a grocery store was “more of an art than a science” and that it would be bad to “send a message that we want to look at a food store above all else,” for instance, but Cheung’s language asks only to see if Boston Properties’ proposed ground-floor retail space was able to accommodate a grocery store. Reeves worried such demands could scare off the Broad Institute, which “surely most any other place in the world would love to have,” a concern amplified by Toomey noting:

“I’m hoping we’re not going to try to discourage development in this area … other communities are rolling out the red carpet to get this kind of development. I would just caution how we move forward and approach this.”

Cheung assured his fellow councillors he’d spoken with leaders at the institute “and nothing here is alarming to them.” And he said twice he’d talked with the city solicitor and with City Manager Robert W. Healy last week about his requests “and there was no red flags raised about the turnaround time.”

Mixed use and smart development

Other councillors seemed supportive of his policy order, including Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis, who repeated longstanding criticisms that Kendall Square is lively during the workweek and largely dead at other times, a result of having fewer residents and public resources than other parts of the city.

Asked for comment Tuesday, Cheung said in an e-mail that “I support local businesses, nonprofits and smart development, but I’m not afraid to hold developers accountable to the promises they make to the community.”

“Roughly 2.6 million of the 2.7 million square feet set aside in the original zoning have been built out. The original intent of the zoning was for mixed use — housing and commercial in the same district, knitting together the square. That’s not what we’ve gotten and now we’re at the last of the space. Promises have been made to the council that have not been kept.

“Some of my colleague felt I was moving too fast; that I wasn’t following the established process.  I worry that that’s the very process that got us the results we’re not satisfied with now. So yes, I am going to think outside the box to fight for the community. I am going to push hard to prevent the council from rubber-stamping a petition made by the developer, for the developer, that doesn’t consider the broader community and economic ecosystem of the area.

“I’m interested in working with Boston Properties to achieve an outcome that makes sense for everyone, including the community.”

“As a credit to my colleagues, the attempt to stop debate on my policy order by sending it to committee was defeated,” he said. “The order — which asked developers to consider the community — failed only because it was charter-righted.”