Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A proposal to add 1.1 million square feet of lab, office, retail and housing space is presented Tuesday to Cambridge’s Planning Board. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A plan to remake Kendall Square into a vibrant gathering place of restaurants, shops and public plazas won significant praise Tuesday from the Planning Board, only a day after members of the City Council blasted the source — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — as suspicious and deficient.

In all, the school wants to add 1.1 million square feet of retail, laboratory, office and housing in a key 25 acres of Kendall around where its Infinite Corridor, starting at 77 Massachusetts Ave., meets the Kendall red line T stop on Main Street.

“Very well thought out, and quite wonderful,” Tom Anninger, vice chairman of the board, said after the presentation. “If you did only a quarter to a half of what you say, it would still be a lot.”

There were some notes of caution sounded among board members, including chairman Hugh Russell’s observation that the amount of retail space suggested was out of step with trends showing shoppers moving online. Other members questioned the reliance on plazas meant for public dining and entertainment, saying that European café model didn’t work in the United States.

“It seems to be a fantasy you’ve created here,” said Anninger, suggesting also that the proposal was missing a “big and bold” centerpiece that would make it work.

The proposal heard at the Tuesday informational session, during which board members could speak and ask questions but the public could not, would bring 940,000 square feet of labs and offices, 100,000 of retail and 60,000 for market-rate housing. That’s enough square footage for between 40 and 50 units, associate board member Charles Studen said.

The school could get 800,000 new square feet for academic research out of the development. Although the timeline for the project is muddy, the school’s enthusiasm was made very clear by Michael Owu, director of real estate for the MIT Investment Management Co.

“We want to create this space as quickly as possible,” Owu said.

A spectrum of size, opinion

The work would focus on construction or renovation of eight buildings, ranging from very small to one climbing 230 feet in an area zoned, Russell noted, for a maximum of 120 feet.

Around the buildings, according to the development team’s sketches, are places for futuristic public art, spaces that can hold events such as book fairs, amenities including fountains, scrolling news tickers, rooftop dining and giant screens where movies can be shown and a human scale of two-story buildings along Main Street and Broadway, wide sidewalks and plazas — including one 70-foot-wide space carved out of a 27-foot-wide alley between a T stop entrance and MIT Press building. While the streets couldn’t be realigned, as board member H. Theodore Cohen hoped, the team promised better “wayfinding,” lighting and trees.

Steven C. Marsh, managing director of real estate with the MIT Investment Management Co., said repeatedly that the architectural details of the project weren’t set, and he and Owu acknowledged the range of opinion and reaction they’d received during an extensive set of public meetings held with everyone from councillors and other city and state officials to neighborhood groups, nearby businesses, MIT faculty, staff and students and, in a series of six brainstorming sessions, the general public.

While that earned tribute from the board, a formal letter to MIT President Susan Hockfield from the East Cambridge Planning Team wasn’t so impressed. “We were shocked by the increase in density,” team president Barbara Broussard wrote, and “particularly struck by the lack of any significant addition to the housing stock.”

Sadly, we do not see any evidence, in the plan that Mr. Marsh presented, for real additions to the quality of life in our part of the city. His reputation for sensitivity to the needs of the neighborhood was severely damaged when he terminated the leasehold of the only public pharmacy in Kendall Square and replaced it with a Fidelity sales office. He spoke about adding retail service and life at the T stop in Kendall Square but his track record with the existing frontage on Main Street is terrible. And we see no reason to trust MIT’s Real Estate Group to create and sustain a more imaginative, people-friendly environment along Main Street.

The letter, dated Sunday, reflects some of the suspicion of councillors such as Ken Reeves, who frequently accuses the school — with examples — of failing to rent prime space, develop lively properties or be transparent about development. To some councillors, even the timing of a meeting so close to the holidays is suspicious.

But Marsh spoke passionately Tuesday about creating “a sense of place” that would benefit the city as well as the school and, although he didn’t address directly the traffic or parking concerns mentioned by the East Cambridge Planning Team or members of the planning board, did say after the meeting that he expected the development to host a pharmacy and, while rejecting a supermarket, would consider “an urban grocer … That we think is viable.”

The next steps are for MIT to file a plan with more specifics; the city to study the possibilities; and a rezoning petition to be filed that would allow for the plan’s density. “All of this is happening all at once. It will be quite a challenge for all of us,” said Susan Glazer, acting assistant city manager for community development. A request for proposals is set to go out “right after the first of the year,” but the city must find funding.

While the wariness of the East Cambridge Planning Team and councillors suggests a battle, Planning Board members seemed engaged with the proposal — even the rise in density that might otherwise be the most contentious part of rezoning.

“This is the place for density. In 30 years, it won’t look so big to people,” member Steven Winter said. “But we need to build it now.”

“The approach you’ve taken is a good one,” Studen said. “It looks like a good start.”

The Fox petition

The board also voted 5-0 to reject a spot zoning request from 29 residents on and around Cottage Park Avenue to keep out new commercial uses and allow only single- or two-family homes. The board wanted a more detailed study before changing the designation to “Residence B” or “Special District 2” from “Business A-2,” even though they were “sympathetic to the basic goal, protection of a residential neighborhood,” Russell said.

Cottage Park Avenue is in North Cambridge, a short spur to the south from Massachusetts Avenue only blocks from Route 16 and the Arlington border.

The street, built before there were cars and shaped by the railroads, as well as street zoning dating back to 1943, is “recognized as an anomaly,” said Lester Barber, assistant city manager for community development.

But the board opted to move carefully on the so-called Fox petition, led by Cottage Park Avenue’s William A. Fox, because it affects “only six lots but a lot of lives, and it deserves to be done right,” Russell said.