Despite urging, new board moves cautiously on Kendall Square proposals
Even with four motions tabled, Monday’s meeting of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority lasted three and a half hours. And well it might have: It was the first meeting of its board of directors in more than two years, as well as the first for all five members of the board.
In addition to taking steps to get the agency creaking back to work again — electing officers, affirming ethics training and the like, as well as setting a meeting-posting policy of seven days’ warning although the state requires only two — the board members began addressing construction proposed to benefit Google by developer Boston Properties. The building, which would link Google offices on opposite sides of a parking garage but take away much of a rooftop garden used by the public, is among the most significant and controversial issues facing Kendall Square.
“How much time do you want to devote to this?” board member Barry Zevin asked presciently as the Boston Properties issues arrived on the agenda. “Because this could take a long time.”
Boston Properties officials were pushing hard for immediate action.
“We have a client that is eager to see this plan come to fruition,” said Kevin Sheehan, a project manager for the company, referring to Google’s hopes of consolidating hundreds of new employees quickly into the space. “They’ve given us a timeline to prove to them that this will get done. A decision not to approve those aspects of the transaction would be very disturbing to our tenant and would jeopardize the transaction. Honestly.”
“We’re a bit on borrowed time in terms of time frame,” said Michael Cantalupa, Boston Properties’ senior vice president for development, calling the board actions he hoped for Monday night “the equivalent of a loving arm” around the company.
Moving with caution
But the board’s new chairwoman, Kathleen Born, was uncomfortable being rushed.
“I’m actually a little surprised at being asked to vote on something I’ve just seen for the first time,” Born said, asking the Boston Property executives, authority lawyers and its executive director, Joseph Tulimieri, the ramifications of the votes asked of the board.
While the vote immediately before the board — taking out newspaper ads to tell the public of upcoming discussion and potential votes — was described as procedural, necessary to move forward (and reassuring to Google) but not final or constraining, the new members opted for caution anyway. Margaret Drury, elected as the board’s vice chairwoman, suggested that the ad be published with softened language guaranteeing there was more examination of the issues before a final vote. After much more discussion and public comment, it was Drury who brought about the vote, which was unanimous in favor of posting the ad with softened language.
“I move the question,” Drury said. “I’ve waited for 20 years to say that.” The line got laughs from the audience filling Kendall Square’s Marriott Boston Cambridge, most of whom knew Drury as the longtime city clerk who worked patiently and mostly silently with the City Council.
The board members arrive amid massive expectations from warring factions: those who believe the authority’s path is simplified, if not set, by the fact the council already voted 7-2 in favor of the rooftop connector plan; and those who note that the plan was presented as being from the CRA, which hadn’t met in some two years. (The plan arrived at the council three months ago described as being proposed by “Boston Properties, together with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.”)
The council voted March 19, when it was believed the authority had three of five board members; it wasn’t until the next month it was revealed there was only one member — Zevin. And not only had his term officially expired; it expired without him ever attending a meeting, because Tulimieri said he was unaware Zevin had been appointed.
Tulimieri’s authority to act over the past two years, including presenting a plan to the council as being from the CRA, is as much of a question as how much councillors relied on the authority’s imprimatur in voting.
For some at the Monday meeting, the questions were extraneous.
“The redevelopment authority’s role is less important than the city’s role,” said Jeffrey Mullan, counsel to the board from the law firm Foley Hoag. “Definitely less. The city has the more significant role given its overall municipal [authority]. What the members of the authority are being asked to do tonight is consistent with the council vote in every respect.”
“While recognizing it was an abbreviated process … the council’s votes certainly represent the expectation that this transaction would in fact go forward, ” said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development.
The city manager presented the Google connector for a vote Feb. 27, but it was thrown out until Boston Properties went through some public process. The company won the support of the Kendall Square Association, a self-described business league whose vice president is Steve Vinter, the Google official who served as the company’s public face for the proposal; failed to win over the East Cambridge Planning Team; and showed up for the March 19 vote with the surprising support of seven of the planning team’s nine-member board — a whirlwind three weeks in a city where a real estate company seeking to build basement apartments can struggle for 11 months and even permission for a driveway can take four months to win.
Board member Chris Bator walked the line between the factions, referring to the authority’s role repeatedly as “ministerial” or administrative considering the council had voted already, but only after Mullan explained the council’s superiority and Tulimieri and Cantalupa assured him the public process had been “extensive.”
A backward process
The audience, packed with residents who’d followed the story from the start, served as a sort of Greek chorus for the proceedings, shaking their heads, muttering darkly or even calling out “No!” when the testimony of officials or executives seemed off-base or deceptive. They responded with alarm to claims of an extensive process and when Boston Properties’ Sheehan said the East Cambridge Planning Team’s board had changed its opinion over a weekend even though after the full presentation “we didn’t have any further contact with the organization or its board until the City Council meeting.” (A board member confirmed Tuesday that this was untrue, with the contact coming through the company’s lawyer.)
Thomas Joyce, a member of the East Cambridge Planning Team, called the entire process “unsettling to me from the very beginning” and noted that the Boston Properties presentation to the team came a mere three business days before the council vote. “Everyone in the process all along felt forced,” he said. “Given the fact the City Council has voted on this, it feels like a fait accompli.”
Tom Stohlman, a recent City Council candidate, also complained of a process that seemed literally backward.
“This is a circular thing going on here, which erodes the public trust, and I’m very concerned about it,” Stohlman said. “The City Council made all of their decisions, had all their hearings, believing that the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority had looked it over and affirmed it and everything was fine.”
Heather Hoffman, another member of the East Cambridge group, noted that the city’s Code of Ordinances lays out an extensive process for disposing of “city-owned property or property rights or interest such as a public easement on private property” that can be ducked only if the council confirms it to be “of such little significance that the above described process would be unduly burdensome.” In that process, which takes at least six weeks, the council and Planning Board hold hearings before a council vote. In a meandering explanation before the March vote, City Manager Robert W. Healy seemed to explain that his request of insignificance for the rooftop garden was based on the need to act quickly to avoid Google moving out of Cambridge — a fear that has never been shown to have basis in fact.
“If you want to advertise things, fine, tell the world that this is under discussion,” Hoffman told the authority board members. “But don’t authorize anybody to sign anything that signs away your rights to make real decisions after you’ve seen things for more than a few minutes and your right to act as a real board and the public’s right to speak on these things. … It’s one of the most beautiful, magical places in the entire world. Don’t give it away without being sure that that’s really the only way you can do what’s necessary for everyone.”
The four items bumped to the next meeting involved giving Tulimieri the power to transfer authority-owned land — the plaza in front of the Marriott to Boston Properties and proposed park land to the city; to take a step forward on another, four-story connecting structure between Google buildings that will not subtract from the rooftop garden; and approval of schematics for the same complex.
In addition to the election of chairwomen, Bator was named treasurer, Conrad Crawford assistant treasurer and, at Drury’s suggestion, the role of assistant secretary was created and Zevin appointed to fill it. Tulimieri, as executive director, also serves as secretary.
There was much discussion of how to make the authority more transparent, including the posting of agendas and other materials online as quickly as possible, and Born suggested significant eventual wholesale changes to the authority’s website. A policy was set for requests for information from the authority — Mullan had to remind Tulimieri that written requests were preferred, not required — but not a policy for public comment at meetings. On Monday the board took comment throughout the meeting as it felt its way toward deciding the best format. “I consider public input to be a very, very important part of our process,” Born told the audience.
The treasurers were asked to meet with Tulimieri to advertise for a financial auditor for the authority. Accounting firms are replaced every few years, and the board members decided the next audit should be by a new firm and more comprehensive than the usual.
The next meetings are to be June 20 and July 18, each at 5:30 p.m., and are eventually to settle on the first Wednesday of the month, the board said. Members also expressed interest in going to a June 5 meeting of the council’s Government Operations and Rules subcommittee that will look at the relationship between the authority and council, and Mullan noted all members could attend and watch without violating open meeting laws. There was a bit of awkwardness earlier as Tulimieri reminded the board that three members could gather without having to post it as a meeting — only to be reminded by James Williamson, a member of the audience, that only two members could do so; three members constituted a quorum of the board.
This post was updated May 22, 2012, with more action from the Monday meeting. It was updated May 23, 2012, to correct that the City Council has responsibility for deeming property “insignificant” in a disposal process.