Re-imagining Central and Kendall, councillors think (very) big
In remaking Central and Kendall squares, city officials seem prepared to go big.
They talked Monday at a City Council roundtable about adding population and potentially larger buildings in which to hold new residents, but the talk stressed that residents of all income levels must be represented in the housing stock.
“The residential component is key. You need residences there,” councillor Sam Seidel said during the roundtable with Goody Clancy, a Boston firm that did the East Cambridge Planning Study in 2001, built housing along University Park and helped Harvard expand into Allston. Last month it was named as the finalist for a $350,000 contract resulting in a plan for the squares and land between them.
“There’s obviously a lot more building that could happen,” Seidel said, noting that six decades ago Cambridge’s population was 120,740 — nearly 15,600 people than live here now. “Once you go north of 120,000, which I don’t think would be very hard to do, given that the land is available and the height you could go, what does that mean? What happens? What is Cambridge at that point?”
Other councillors weren’t quite ready to talk about returning to the population density of 1950, although Leland Cheung said he’d rather see “taller buildings” than safe and uninspired proposals. He actually urged the representatives of Goody Clancy to come up with innovative ideas by expressing skepticism over a habit of planners and architects to present ideas with people drawn milling around out front and asked them to “Show me some reason to believe there’s going to be all these people.”
Housing for all
But he had one group of potential tenants and homebuyers already in mind: fellow members of the academic communities of Harvard and especially the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a dominant force in Kendall Square through its campus and dozens of spinoff startup firms. He suggested housing be crafted with the idea of keeping more junior faculty and postdoctorate students from having to leave the city after work, or even to keep them in Kendall rather than send them back to housing in the south of the city so academic-entrepreneurial synergies never stopped.
Senior housing and multigenerational cooperative housing, or co-housing specifically for entrepreneurs, were other areas to look at, he said, and he was “alarmed” by a declining number of families with children.
The Goody Clancy team, led by David Dixon, was already focused on the housing needs of families — while there was a time people dreamed of living in the suburbs near golf courses, they now want back into cities, he said, and that doesn’t change when they have kids — as well as a wider variety of workers. “What we’ve encountered in other work is that we pay a whole lot of attention to how we’re going to get the $100,000-earning person in here, but there need to be some making-$10-an-hour folks supporting them,” Dixon said. “The [expense of] housing in this region means they have to live way far out and the drive is tremendous.”
“Forget even the moral perspective,” he said. “From a practical perspective … what are the job training and the housing needs that will support Kendall Square?”
Start of the process
In addition to the idea of building up in Kendall and getting in on the institute’s current plans to redo 1.1 million square feet there — contributing to as much as 4 million square feet facing redevelopment within the next five years — the Goody Clancy team also saw the parking lots of Central Square as land that could be put to residential purposes. As in Kendall, there has been much work done imagining the next steps in Central’s development, mainly in the form of a commission led by councillor Ken Reeves. But as a nexus of four Cambridge’s neighborhoods and a densely populated residential area, Central Square drew more worry that redevelopment could be shocking or hurtful. Mayor David Maher, vice mayor Henrietta Davis and councillor Denise Simmons all spoke to the need to get citizens involved, especially those who aren’t in the habit of taking part in public meetings.
“I would like to see a commitment from you to go back into the communities and hold roundtables,” Simmons told the consultants.
The firm is only at the start of the planning process, which looks to include at least four other firms handling such specific components as transportation and implementation. Dixon and City Manager Robert W. Healy assured there would be calls for involvement as a timeline was set. A Central Square process would likely begin in a few weeks, and there would be a series of “intense” workshops in the fall.
Already there are some nine communities around the United States that Goody Clancy has targeted as holding lessons for Cambridge, ranging from a tech area built in Seattle too far from where people wanted to be to the High Street University District in Columbus, Ohio — where Dixon warned councillors not be immediately put off by the size of buildings. “They may very well be exactly the wrong thing here,” Dixon said of the sizable structures, but he also spoke of “the right density in the right place.”
Councillors also expressed concern about the streets between the two squares; the Massachusetts Avenue gateway from Boston, which stretches Goody Clancy’s responsibilities but faces significant work by the expanding biotech firm Novartis and the developer Forest City between the institute and Central Square; a Kendall grocery store, something already dismissed by developer Boston Properties for its next round of work in Kendall’s massive Cambridge Center; and the “Lechmere Square” public market idea proposed by a citizen group. In Seidel’s excited questions, the plan grew to 80 stalls selling prepared foods, groceries and fish from the 30 envisioned by citizens.