Sunday, April 21, 2024

A developer’s plan for Central Square was split in two on Monday, with Forest City now looking to win a smaller commercial building for its University Park and — temporarily — no apartment building.

That means there’s no immediate threat to the roughly 13,000-square-foot, L-shaped park that provides the only green space in the roughly two-thirds of a mile between City Hall at Inman Street and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus after Vassar Street, which might relieve some of the residents giving testimony to the City Council early in the evening. They rejected the notion that the park was underused and opposed the part of the proposal that had a 14-story, 130-unit apartment building taking away about 10,000 square feet of park in favor of ground-floor restaurant space.

“We’d all agree [this] needs a lot more discussion and input from the community,” said city councillor David Maher, who proposed the changes. “It will kind of put the brakes on and allow us to have a more in-depth conversation with Forest City, city planning staff and the neighborhood.”

His changes also shrink the building proposed for 300 Massachusetts Ave., meant to house life-science offices and lab space, to 725,000 square feet from 840,000, which would let Forest City build without needing an exemption from the area’s zoning laws.

Forest City’s plans for Central Square include a commercial building at 300 Massachusetts Ave. reaching 110 feet in height and a residential tower reaching 165 feet — temporarily off the table since a 6-3 vote by the City Council to split the projects.

The City Council voted 6-3 twice, with councillors Leland Cheung, Craig Kelley and Minka vanBeuzekom the minority opposed to taking out the housing part of the plan while commercial construction keeps getting debate. First came the vote to accept the change in language proposed by Maher, then the vote to move the revised plan to a second reading and potential approval.

Agreeing that more dialogue about the apartment building was needed did not equal comfort in taking it out of the proposal.

“When this came up for the first time a year ago, there was a lot of desire from the community to make sure that we … brought them to the table and require them to build housing,” Cheung said of the Forest City proposal. “Technically, removing the housing piece is a step back. We’re now taking the housing piece off the table and there’s a lot of uncertainty about how it’s going to be folded back in.”

The Forest City petition expires Aug. 13; it’s scheduled for an Ordinance Committee hearing June 27. The council has only a single full meeting during the summer, July 30.

Maher assured the councillors repeatedly that “my belief” is that discussion of housing would again be “very related” to the commercial building getting a vote in July.

Councillor Craig Kelley said the move simply wasn’t allowed by the city’s zoning code. “There’s no way to bifurcate it, I don’t think,” he said, and he warned that the council’s summer meeting was bound to be crowded with other issues.

Residents question height, timing, class

The plan would bring long-term construction to Lafayette Square, between Central Square and MIT, which suffered two years of construction before the popular plaza known as Jill Brown-Rhone Park opened in June 2008. The construction would have resulted in a 110-foot commercial building and 165-foot residential building in an area that now allows 80 feet, and many speakers on Monday thought the plans built too high. Most ire was directed toward the apartment building, which Sherri Tucker called an “ugly monolith” and Jonathan King, in voicing a residents’ group request for a halt to all plans so neighbors could weigh in, said was “completely out of scale with the low-lying buildings [around it and would] dwarf the firehouse, ruining far and away the most handsome and refined building in Lafayette Square, and blot out the sky for people sitting below trying to read.”

Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom also said she opposed raising the height of buildings along Massachusetts Avenue, making it into a “canyon,” although the raising of building height in Central Square is almost certain to be suggested in a study by city consultant Goody Clancy.

Whatever the Goody Clancy report says, several people protested that the Forest City proposal was on track to being decided before it came out, considering the months-long process and $350,000 that went into it.

“I’ve been saying all along with respect to all the petitions that appeared magically as soon as we started studying the Kendall Square/Central Square area: All the developers needed to get them in before we finished studying because, as we all know, studies should not inform our decisions, rather decisions should inform our studies,” resident Heather Hoffman said to chuckles from the audience.

A class debate also reared its head Monday, as Kendall, Inman and Central Square property owner Patrick Barrett — landlord for Lafayette Square’s Toscanini’s ice cream, Pu Pu Hot Pot restaurant, Cinderella’s Restaurante and above that housing for about 50 people — said he was in favor of the Forest City proposal because he wanted “residents in Central Square, I want market-rate housing in Central Square and I want the inclusionary housing provided by the ordinance in Central Square, but I don’t want you to ever build a low-income housing structure in Central Square ever again. You need to include people of all classes in the projects that you allow. Only by doing so will you be able to correct what you all well know are the ills of the square, the ills of Area IV, the ills of East Cambridge, the ills of Cambridgeport. Only then will those communities be communities.”

In response, resident Bill Cunningham made a point of identifying himself as being from “the projects, low-income development” before indicating Barrett had little to fear from the rules dictating that developers must turn over 15 percent of their buildings to inclusionary housing. He also complained to the council of developers and officials who “want to redevelop the city for people who aren’t here yet,” when many actual residents of the city “don’t want this change.”