Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Renderings are passed around last week at a meeting of the East Cambridge Planning Team discussing Boston Properties plans surrounding a rooftop garden in Kendall Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In a surprise move, a neighborhood group is supporting a plan by the developer Boston Properties to shrink a rooftop garden in Kendall Square but contribute money toward developing  a larger, ground-level park nearby.

The City Council is scheduled to hear the issue at its meeting tonight.

Based on an East Cambridge Planning Team press release last week, it was expected that the group would support the plan — intended to allow an expansion of Google’s local offices — only if the lost garden space was replaced by an expansion of the park onto neighboring rooftops and if a residential tower went up on Ames Street simultaneously.

But a team letter dated Monday says its board, “based on a majority vote, is pleased to support Boston Properties’ revised proposal to create an urban campus for Google by connecting several of its existing buildings in Kendall Square. Reservations do remain about the swap of part of the existing roof garden at Cambridge Center for a commitment to fund a future park on Binney Street rather than expand the rooftop garden to the roof at Three Cambridge Center.”

The board voted 7-2 after “dozens, if not hundreds” of e-mails went flying over “way too many hours over the weekend,” said Chris Matthews, the team’s vice president. He called it an imperfect solution “we were rushed into” by Boston Properties, and made the distinction that it was a board vote, not a vote of the general membership.

“We’ve been reacting as best we can to a difficult situation,” Matthews said.

Part of the change came about when it was realized extending the rooftop garden was “not feasible for structural reasons,” according to the letter signed by team president Barbara Broussard. Boston Properties officials explained that neighboring buildings had different structural systems not designed to support a rooftop garden, Matthews said.

Gardens, parks and housing promises

But the other factor, concerning housing, also isn’t taking place as the team hoped. On Monday, the team merely urged city councillors “to require a concrete timeframe from Boston Properties for building the housing, including meaningful penalties” for failure to complete it, as well as for failure to deliver land and funding for the park and ensuring ground-floor retail goes into the residential building planned for Ames Street.

A letter to the council from Boston Properties, however, is fuzzy on some of those details.The letter, dated Friday and signed by Michael Cantalupa, says among its five commitments for the Google expansion plan that the company will, within one year of the city issuing a certificate of occupancy for the rooftop building, “agree to submit for public review and comment a set of conceptual design plans for a residential building of approximately 200,000 square feet to be located on Ames Street.”

As it stands now,unless residential construction is begun within seven years of the end of work on the company’s Broad Institute expansion, the company faces “significant” financial penalties, Cantalupa said.

The board is asking for more details, Matthews said.

Boston Properties also promises to extend the agreement concerning public access to the rooftop garden to Aug. 5, 2050, from the current expiration date of Aug. 5, 2022; a contribution of $2 million to the park between Broadway, Binney Street and and Galileo Galilei Way; $250,000 to improve the sculpture park at Third Street, Broadway and Main Street, known as Point Park; and add events and programming to the plaza on Main Street in front of the Marriott Hotel.

But at the team’s Wednesday meeting, Cantalupa did not tie that programming to permission to build Google’s rooftop connector building.

“We’re not done there,” he told the crowd at the East End House meeting. “A very significant portion of what we plan to do is programming that plaza. … Half the job was actually building space, the other half is programming it. We want to create a landing area where we could have outdoor activities.” He mentioned outdoor dining, as well as cultural events.

Although the land on Binney was already intended to be a park, it would have been on land owned by Boston Properties. Now the land will be deeded permanently to the city, Matthews said, and the Planning Team is asking the city to find matching funds. “It was a temporary covenant and completely unfunded. To have it funded and in writing is not where we were a week ago,” he said.

A message was left at Cantalupa’s office seeking comment.