Sunday, June 16, 2024

Along with the rest of an exciting, arts-based vision for Central Square described Monday came a call for 1,000 units of housing to be built atop what are now parking lots or one- or two-story buildings, much of it to be affordable to middle-class residents without subsidies.

That’s means possibly thousands of new residents for Central Square, in addition to construction adding height and density to the area and making room for the other three priorities named by the Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square: an incubator for businesses such as musicians, writers, dancers, architects and visual artists (similar to the incubators for tech industries and life sciences in Kendall Square); a large market hall for local food and products; and subsidized day care centers.

More publicity-grabbing festivals, such as the defunct Central Square World’s Fair, were also mentioned as needed during a presentation to the City Council by city councillor and commission chairman Ken Reeves and other members.

“If there were 1,000 more units in Central Square, once you knew the income range in those units you could say more about what could be supported in the first-floor retail,” Reeves said, explaining a formula determining what percentage of income is used within six blocks of a person’s home and “used by architects and Realtors to determine what commercial rents should be, because of what the local income structure can bear. The idea makes sense to me.”

A 1946 photo used in a report by the Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square showed more density in Central Square, and 1,000 more units of housing — intended to be primarily for the middle-class incomes — could be on its way.

The 1,000-unit figure comes from Goody Clancy, the consultants hired by the city to shape the future of Kendall Square, Reeves said.

But shaping the future of an already dense Central Square based on an influx of residents begs the question of logistics, especially when developments throughout Cambridge are universally met with questions and concerns about traffic and parking.

First, Reeves said, “Central Square was already upzoned in the last rezoning. In that zoning, you allow height and massing around transportation nodes, which is what Central Station is. All that two-story stuff on Mass. Ave., a lot of it used to have six and seven stories, but they were torn off because the people who owned them didn’t want to pay the taxes when they had vacancies up there.” He pointed to a 1946 photo used in the commission’s report and its presentation that showed more density (and larger, more garish signs); Cambridge’s peak recorded population of 120,740 was from the 1950 Census, while the city has a recorded 105,162 in last year’s report.

“A dialogue about density in the square will be a big issue,” Mayor David Maher acknowledged Monday.

Transportation infrastructure

The Harvard Square T stop has about 20,000 weekday riders, Reeves said, and the report says Central Square has 14,531. (Central is the third-busiest stop on the red line, behind Harvard and South Station, according to 2010 figures from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.) The square is also a major hub for buses to and from Watertown, Allston and Somerville, with well over 6,000 people boarding them daily.

“Could Central Square take on what Harvard Square takes on? I say yes,” Reeves said, noting also the “bicycle revolution” that has taken place in Cambridge in the past several years.

Not only is the T stop not a limiting factor in growth, but there’s even room for more cars, suggested Brent Ryan, an assistant professor of urban design and public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tapped by Reeves to lead much of the commission’s reporting and presentation.

“When I talked to the Forest City people, they said, ‘We’re so surprised. Our parking garages are half-empty.’ People are not driving here. They’re coming on the bus, they’re coming on their bikes, they’re walking, they’re taking mass transit, they’re not driving. The garages are empty. Probably the city felt they were getting a good deal when they asked for so little parking at University Park, and they overbuilt,” Ryan said. Forest City is the developer behind the institute’s mixed-use University Park, mostly known for its office and lab space, just outside Central Square. (The presenters said the institute has $1.5 billion in real estate investment, half of it in Central.)

“We’re not in the same world as 20 years ago, where everybody wanted to drive in from the suburbs,” Ryan said.

The largest businesses coming to the area, including three biotech companies already on the way as Central’s borders with Kendall Square blur, can be tapped for an infrastructure improvement “wish list,” he said, since Cambridge is in a unique position in which “even if we do nothing [to entice them], developers will still want to build here. We’re in a position 99 percent of other cities would want to be in.”

Class issues persist

But councillors listening to the presentation worried that there would be more of the high-end development that makes the average condominium in the square worth $430,000 even during an economic downturn, and it was noted that despite the 10,384 institute students living in or within a mile of Central, the visitors they draw tend to speed straight from MIT dorms to Harvard to spend tourist dollars despite Central’s significant number of sophisticated and well-regarded restaurants and arts facilities. (Robyn Culbertson, of the Cambridge Office of Tourism, agreed the square “is not a tourist destination” and noted that the report used the term “visitors” instead. But when she made a half-joking pitch to give Central Square the tourist center it lacks and put it in the “entire first floor of the Novartis building” going up nearby, she got a positive response from councillor Leland Cheung: “We all chuckle when you say that,” he said, “but we can have anything we want.”)

In addition, the high-earning innovation-industry workers tend to eat inside their buildings — thanks to good food provided within by employers to keep them working and avoid public conversations that could leak valuable information, councillor Marjorie Decker said. She credited workers and clients at the square’s 20 nonprofits and social service agencies with providing more economic benefit.

There’s plenty of concern about the effect they have on the square’s image, Decker said, “and not enough recognition of their value.”

George Metzger, president of the Central Square Business Association, agreed. “Without a doubt, the square to a great degree owes its identity to the nonprofits,” he said, and “are part of the diversity in the Central Square area.” Most of the social service providers also own their buildings, Reeves said, and will very likely be around for the long run.

But the future lies in the arts, not additional social services, according to the Red Ribbon Commission report — a culmination of a 16-month process that drew in hundreds of participants to its 13 meetings. A city manager-appointed commission is replacing it.

Remaking Central Square won’t be fast, or done in a single, comprehensive sweep, Ryan said. He described Cambridge as “a patchwork,” where work can be done — tearing down or building up, and with sensitivity toward the historical structures peppering the area — only on a parcel-by-parcel basis.

“Over 16 months, we’ve been able to begin the conversation,” Reeves said.