Lacking housing commitment, residents resist trading garden for Google space
Google and its expansion plans in Cambridge were caught in the middle Wednesday between its landlord, Boston Properties, and the intense and bitter mistrust East Cambridge residents — citing repeated failures to build promised housing — have for it.
Residents’ skepticism flared up repeatedly at the East Cambridge Planning Team meeting as the developer presented and took questions about its plans to build two floors of glassy office space between Four and Five Cambridge Center in Kendall Square, removing about 18,000 square feet of a rooftop garden from public use. Google employees would use space in both buildings and occupy the connector. Some 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of the garden would remain on the far side of the connector building, officially unreachable by visitors because it would be reserved as an amenity for a residential building Boston Properties might put up on Ames Street.
As part of the same plan, the developer would add ground-floor retail space, improve access to the garden via an atrium lobby and pay for transforming a triangle of rundown scrub and parking lot between train tracks, Binney Street and Galileo Galilei Way — about 0.1 miles from Cambridge Center — into a park. From the perspective of Boston Properties’ senior vice president for development, Michael Cantalupa, it more than doubles the amount of open space being lost to residents from the rooftop garden.
Residents were not impressed, especially when recent City Council candidate Tom Stohlman produced a Cambridge Redevelopment Authority document on his iPad from as recently as Sept. 1 affirming the land is already intended to be a park.
“We should have this anyway. That is not a fair trade. How do you call that a fair trade?” said resident Heather Hoffman, and she was equally as dismissive of Cantalupa’s vision of the residential building. “There’s no trust here. We’ve been lied to over and over. We’ve been promised things. This housing is vaporware.”
Claims were heard several times that Boston Properties had promised to build housing in Kendall over the years and failed repeatedly to deliver. “Folks in this area have been patient for a very, very long time on the housing question. We’ve all felt that while the city has supported you in increasing the commercial real estate … quality of life here has suffered,” said Bob Simha, a resident who was the longtime chief planning officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Cantalupa. “You would do yourselves an enormous good in terms of public relations, and from a business point of view there is a very substantial demand for housing here, demonstrated by the occupancy in the two existing developments built here recently. I can’t think of a better time in terms of interest rates for you to get in the ground and demonstrate your good faith. You really need to step up and do the housing project now, and I think you’ll be celebrated for it. And I think you’ll make a very handsome profit from it.”
Simha’s suggestion was seconded and thirded, but even while highlighting Boston Property’s recent focus on building residential property — including additions to Boston’s Prudential Center — Cantalupa declined to set a timeline for building an anticipated 186 or so Kendall apartments or condominiums. Although Google’s connector structure is expected to be done by mid-2013, the closest Cantalupa came to a housing commitment was noting that unless residential construction is begun within seven years of the end of work on its Broad Institute expansion, the company faces “significant penalties.”
Ultimately, though, “I can’t commit to you today that we’re going to do this housing on any specific schedule,” he told the crowd. “We very much want to make it work but I can’t commit to you that we’re going to start on a specific time frame.”
At one point, Boston Properties had steel for a residential project ordered so construction could begin, only to reverse course when the market changed, Cantalupa said.
“Building this connector … is a commitment”
The East Cambridge residents had listened politely to the presentation, but their questions to the developers were mainly skeptical and occasionally surly. The tone got a bit of a reboot when the floor was taken by Steve Vinter, an officer with the Kendall Square Association and engineering and site director for Google — a Boston Properties tenant most Cantabrigians are proud to host and reluctant to see lured away to Boston (an attempt said to have been begun by Mayor Tom Menino immediately after Boston Properties’ first, failed attempt at speeding the Google project past the City Council).
He lightened the mood, explained Google’s interest in the added space — a vast, light empty area that would serve the company’s collaborative culture — but complimented the questioners for their skepticism.
“It is remarkable to see this discussion happening. I just want to say, you’ve got something very special here. You’ve got a community, and you’ve got people who are passionate about what that community looks like,” Vinter said. “I’m proud to be here, and I genuinely mean it. I want to work in a community like this. We chose Cambridge for a reason. For a lot of reasons. A lot of them had to do with … the culture.”
He understood that some people didn’t think the tradeoff of rooftop garden space for the triangular park was worth it, he said, and that there were also people who were “concerned about the trust issue and this future building. You should be. I care too.”
As a Kendall Square Association member, he wanted open space, housing and retail, and “this plan has all those things … building this connector over here is a commitment that’s going to happen,” Vinter said. Then, referring to Boston Properties and Cantalupa: “I think you should hold him to it.”
That brought on a minor explosion, though, led by members of the East Cambridge Planning Team — a resident group with no direct legislative power — calling out “How?” and “We have never been successful.”
Toward the end of the meeting residents cleared the room of developers and members of the media, which included reporters for The Boston Globe and Boston Herald, to vote on whether to support the project. The verdict was to oppose it until Boston Properties began construction on housing and unless “the lost area in the existing rooftop park were replaced by an expansion of the park on adjacent rooftops.”