Saturday, April 20, 2024

The potential demolition of the Lechmere T stop and bus structure in East Cambridge and coming development of the neighboring NorthPoint area — now two condominium buildings, a park and some roads — were discussed at a Monday meeting of the City Council. (Photos: Marc Levy)

The future of NorthPoint and Lechmere united residents and city councillors Monday, with City Manager Robert W. Healy staying noncommittal in answers about the area — 43 acres planned as Cambridge’s newest neighborhood that would inherit a relocated Lechmere T stop, opening up space for a “Lechmere Square” public market, plaza and hotel.

Planning on NorthPoint began in 2000, but actual construction had barely begun five years later before being halted by court battles among the first set of developers.

A three-firm coalition revived the project late last year.

“I think we’ll see some more public discussion coming shortly,” Healy said, explaining he would first be meeting this month with Thomas N. O’Brien, managing director of HYM Investment Group, which is to manage the coalition’s day-to-day operations on NorthPoint. “I think we’ll see more participation from HYM and the city and the public on this over the next couple of months.”

Seven members of the public stood during public comment to stress their support for Lechmere Square, designed by some of the same citizens as part of the East Cambridge Planning Team, and to restate their long-standing opposition to state plans to widen Monsignor O’Brien Highway, also known as Route 28. The issues are intertwined: When the Lechmere T stop moves into NorthPoint, on the far side of the highway, pedestrians will have to cross six or seven lanes of traffic to get to it; widening the highway may also make it impossible to keep a 1920s-era bus structure that will hold a 30-stall, year-round public market.

That plan — which also envisions 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 — was endorsed unanimously a little more than a year ago by the City Council. Tim Toomey, a state representative and councillor who has been a tireless champion for East Cambridge, made it clear Monday that he stood by it.

Councillors ally against widening route

“Frustration is certainly rising,” Toomey said, noting the public comment. “We shouldn’t be widening the roads. We have to make a real, concerted effort with our traffic department and the city and state to make sure that doesn’t happen. Just for pedestrian safety, to widen that makes no sense.”

“Reducing the number of lanes would be beneficial,” he said. “Drivers will adjust if the lanes are reduced.”

“I’d like to second what councillor Toomey said. I don’t think we want to do anything that doesn’t narrow the lanes,” said councillor Craig Kelley, who is almost always looking for ways to rid the city of cars and nearly as frequently clashing with Toomey. “The East Cambridge folks have a really good idea for Lechmere Station and, given the extent to which our tax engine is created in that general neighborhood, to the extent that we can give them something proportionately back, I would really like to see it. They deserve it.”

In his first appearance before the council on which he served for seven years, Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy responded as cautiously as Healy to the comments of the councillors and residents — repeating the answers of officials going back to at least May, when state transportation experts held design workshops around the extension of the green line from Lechmere. Those plans took a significant step forward with a land exchange agreement announced March 3 between the state and Pan Am Railways.

“We’re trying to look at the design of the roadways in a way that will actually maximize their operation for all forms of transportation. Part of this is trying to make sure turning lanes work for the timing of signals and pedestrian crossing to the station,” Murphy said. “But as the manager said, we’re at an early stage in terms of this development.”

O’Brien and his development team spent much of the past year negotiating with the state for NorthPoint rights, Murphy said, but it is now time to “re-engage” in design conversations.

Residents remain opposed

East Cambridge residents, though, never disengaged, and are already looking for answers from the new assistant city manager and developers, as well as from Healy, about the highway-widening plans. Planning team member Chris Matthews articulated for more than one speaker that “those of us who have looked at this closely are scratching our heads and wondering how a mass transit project could [lead to] widening the highway through our neighborhood.”

The widening would last for only three blocks between bottlenecks at each end, resident Barbara Broussard noted shortly afterward. Like Toomey, she thought it reasonable that drivers could spend a few more minutes in their car at intersections by the potential Lechmere Square, especially since the idea of mass transit, let alone the green line extension from Lechmere into Somerville and Medford, was to get people out of their cars.

But if the plans drew skepticism, the response Healy filed Monday to the council’s Feb. 28 request for details of the NorthPoint purchase drew a bit of outrage. East Cambridge activists Mark Jaquith and Heather Hoffman, who are partners, referred to it as “rehashed press releases” that includes information that is more than seven years old.

“You guys are not going to be wasting his time asking him to get press releases that you could get yourselves,” Hoffman told councillors. She frequently chides them as lagging on zoning issues but on Monday, on this issue, had a rebuke for Healy instead. “You asked him for real information, and I hope you get it.”