Three plans for Kendall and Central in a night, with one raising discontent
Like taking in a trilogy at one sitting so you can see how the parts come together — and, at three hours, taking nearly as much time — a plan for Central Square’s University Park and two for Kendall Square by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a city consultant were laid out Tuesday for the Planning Board and a standing-room-only crowd.
Consultant Goody Clancy had presented versions of its Kendall plans twice in the past month, but the MIT and Forest City proposals were essentially new. The institute proposal had in fact expired; this was a first hearing for a possible revised petition.
It seemed to please with a plan that remade the map of Kendall Square to allow open, direct access to the canal, with new retail, dining, potentially a “small urban grocery or marketplace” and canal-side housing; to the Charles River, changing Point Park to open onto a path down Wadsworth Street; and from the enclosed “Infinite Corridor” to the institute’s Sloan School of Management, which would connect the campus all the way from Massachusetts Avenue by adding a broad plaza with sculpture and events such as book fairs. The plan also includes improvements to Main Street.
The plans call for some 300 units of housing to be added, significant growth from the original plan shown December 2010, when associate board member Charles Studen estimated enough square footage for between only 40 to 50 units.
“What was once primarily a lab- and science-based initiative is really now a more balanced, mixed-use revitalization project,” said Steven C. Marsh, managing director of real estate with the MIT Investment Management Co., who referred repeatedly to input he’d received from neighbors of the project.
Board member Steven Winter credited Marsh and the institute in return, saying, “This is the first time I’ve heard loudly and clearly and without any qualifications that there’s a commitment to housing. I’m so very pleased to see that and to continue to work with you to make that happen.”
The institute has also been sharing information and intentions with Goody Clancy, Marsh said. The collaboration will likely be necessary as the plans move forward, as the institute doesn’t own all of the land included in its designs.
There was less enthusiasm for what developer Forest City sketched out for Central Square, where a mixed-use zoning petition is sought to make over an area roughly four by five blocks just below Massachusetts Avenue — but poking up along Sidney Street to the avenue to include a slender residential tower and, at 300 Massachusetts Ave., a commercial building with a wider base to house life science offices or lab space.
The residential building to go behind the Central Square fire station is proposed at 165 feet high, or 14 stories holding 130 units, with a representative of the project explaining that the height resulted mainly from having to find a way to make a building with only an 8,000-square-foot footprint work financially. The commercial building would be half as many stories but 110 feet high. (Mechanical equipment adds 30 to 50 feet in height, Forest City executive Peter Calkins explained.)
Current zoning allows 80 feet in height.
New residents would use University Park’s three existing parking garages, and traffic studies cited by Forest City showed they also wouldn’t boost traffic significantly.
Roger Boothe, the city’s director of urban design, greeted the 14-story tower by saying it “would clearly be a new landmark” although its height would also be less noticed because it was set back from the avenue and “respectful” to the neighboring firehouse.
The height wasn’t greeted so warmly by residents.
“These buildings are too tall, they’re just absolutely out of scale,” said Jonathan King, who’s been active on with the Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square and through the Goody Clancy process. “It’s kind of an insult to the residents in Cambridgeport and the other side of the street.”
Politics watcher and math professor Robert Winters described himself as generally supportive of the plan, despite remarking on “the city’s relentless desire to build housing anywhere and everywhere” but said “the one alarming aspect of this … it takes a little getting used to the height” and wondered if it was negotiable.
Julian Cassa said he had “a serious issue with the height,” but, like recent City Council candidate Tom Stohlman who spoke before him, also opposed the decrease in the park stretching from Massachusetts Avenue to Green Street by the firehouse. It’s the only green space pedestrians on the avenue come across in the roughly two-thirds of a mile between City Hall at Inman Street and the MIT campus after Vassar Street, but the Forest City residential tower replaces the entire rear of the park and takes up even more of it with retail or dining toward the avenue.
Another two blocks down Sidney Street, though, is the significantly larger University Park Commons, and board chairman Hugh Russell thinks that goes some distance toward making up for the loss.
“This is not the only open space resource. University Park has a whole system of open space, and the piece of space where they’re thinking of building the apartment building is a pretty small fraction,” said Russell of the firehouse park, speaking after the meeting. “So you’re not losing half of something, you’re losing 5 percent of something. You have to ask yourself the question, how does this particular piece of open space fit into the overall context?”
Still, he recognized that residents were unhappy with the prospect of losing the green space on the avenue and wondered if a further solution might be found, such as widening the Sidney Street sidewalk to help guide people to the commons.
This post was updated May 3, 2012, to clarify that the institute zoning petition for Kendall Square hasn’t yet been refiled.