Monday, July 22, 2024

A rooftop garden at Cambridge Center in Kendall Square faces the loss of 18,147 square feet in an expansion meant to house more workers for Google. The City Council tabled the plan Monday. (Photo: Google Maps)

A Kendall Square developer retreated Monday in the face of resident and city councillor outrage from asking the city to let it build a 25,000-square-foot building atop a beloved rooftop garden.

The request was made via the city manager’s agenda for that night’s council meeting, and its appearance there was the first people were hearing of it. Developer Boston Properties suggested it could be back March 19 after putting the plan through a more public process.

Not likely, councillors said.

“I don’t see how this is going to be wrapped by March 19, if ever it’s going to be wrapped up, as far as I’m concerned,” Tim Toomey said. “To bring it forward tonight, in this fashion, I just can’t say how disappointed I am. I just don’t understand how this can be before us.”

Indeed, the more discussion there was about the tabled proposal, the more questions seemed to arise, many of which put City Manager Robert W. Healy in the position of either predicting the future or answering for Boston Properties and its tenant, Google. But Healy was clear in saying he had vital information the nine councillors lacked.

“There’s a timeliness — Google as a prospective tenant needs to know whether this is a possible location or not,” Healy said. “I will only say, without going into any detail, there is a timeliness to the need to know whether this is a viable real estate option for Google to exercise.”

More Google, less rooftop garden

The search engine empire is interested in what Healy calls “a major expansion” in Cambridge, but is crowding its offices at Three, Four and Five Cambridge Center in the 24-acre complex Boston Properties built and owns. Boston Properties could accommodate its growth with a connector building between Four and Five that would take away 18,147 square feet of the garden, built atop a central parking garage, that was created as part of an open space covenant scheduled to end in 2022. In exchange, Healy said, the covenant for the smaller space would be extended another 28 years, until 2050, and Boston Properties would add a 47,000-square-foot urban park under a 40-year covenant “for a net gain of 28,853 square feet of public open space in the Cambridge Center area.”

Residents expressed surprise that the park wasn’t intended to be permanent. Rhonda Massie, of Charles Street, was upset “that the city accepts terms like this” and hoped the city was prepared to buy it with open space money to preserve it forever. Neither the park’s origins under a temporary covenant or the possibility of an open space purchase of a garden atop a parking garage were discussed by city officials, though.

Boston Properties’ senior vice president of development, Michael Cantalupa, noted that the proposed ground-level park “was more than double the amount of space to be reduced,” but residents balked at its suggestion and its preliminary design. “The park they propose as a tradeoff for the rooftop garden looks like just a bunch of trees and benches got dropped on a lot,” Cottage Street resident Saul Tannenbaum said.

The councillors saw in the developer’s proposal “the dog park we’ve been asking for for 20 years,” as Toomey said, but when councillor Ken Reeves inquired further about it, Healy noted that, whatever it looked like, “There is nothing cut in stone about this being a dog park.”

Concerns of housing, consultant and CRA

Councillors including Reeves also wondered about housing Boston Properties agreed to build when granted an additional 300,000 square feet in Kendall’s so-called MXD District in the August 2010. Healy called the intention to build more housing “a matter of record. The housing units have to be built. If they are not built, there is a financial penalty — a cash payment will be due to the Affordable Housing Trust. Boston Properties fully intends to live up to the commitments.”

When asked how this rushed proposal fit in with the work of Goody Clancy, the consultant the city brought on last year for $350,000 to craft the Kendall Square of the future, Healy assured the council that “This is not for any reason bypassing Goody Clancy. It is consistent with the view that Goody Clancy will have.”

That the proposal was coming by way of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, after temporarily side-stepping neighborhood groups such as the East Cambridge Planning Team,  raised even more hackles. The authority is a five-member body, with four appointed by Healy subject to confirmation by the council and one by the state, but two seats seem to have been vacant for at least a year and the other three are holdover appointments whose five-year terms are over but who continue to serve, according to a March 22 report cited by  Robert Winters on his Cambridge Civic Journal site. Only Cambridge residents may serve on the authority, which led Reeves to say that “this is the most curious thing, because the one [member] I know, Alan Bell, he’s been in California for years, so I don’t see how he could continue on it.”

Healy said he has interviews scheduled for this week and vowed that “in a short period of time we should have a full complement,” although he had no control over the governor’s appointment.

“I think we have a legal issue here with the CRA. I think somebody’s got to look into it and find out where the board members are and whether what they’re saying is actually legal,” said Carole Ballew, an East Cambridge Planning Team member from Charles Street.

Another Charles Street resident, Joe Aiello, introduced himself as being from Chicago because, he said, “We do backroom political deals really, really well in my city, and this whole Boston Properties thing reeks of backroom politics.” He also said the minds of Google could come up with another way to add space for employees without taking away any of the immaculately maintained haven of the rooftop garden.

Reeves was also careful to say that the ire was directed at Boston Properties, not Google, and that the city welcomed the company’s expansion. “It’s really an issue that has to do with the landlord, not the tenant at all,” he said.