Planning Board says to wait for consultants’ study, but study may say ‘build high’
Development-wary residents around Central Square who felt they lost Monday before one city board could feel Tuesday that they won before another one: The Planning Board rejected a plan by developer Forest City, voting to recommend that the City Council not act on the company’s zoning petition until a consultant’s study of the area is done.
The decision reflected the wishes of many residents who’ve been signing petitions and speaking during public comment periods at meetings, including many whose attempt at a “downzoning” to block what they saw as a Forest City request for “upzoning” fell victim to council timing restrictions and couldn’t be voted on Monday.
“There is a process in place,” said Esther Hanig, a resident who’s served on the Central Square Advisory Committee and Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square. “It’s important that all development be looked at within that context, whether it’s the Forest City development or the downzoning.”
The council doesn’t have to follow the Planning Board’s recommendation, but there are already members speaking along the same lines.
Councillor Ken Reeves, who led the 16-month red ribbon commission and pushed for the continuation of its work with a consultant for Central and Kendall squares, said as much Monday.
“We are in the midst of several processes. The whole hope is that all that would come together and that we as a council would ingest and digest and determine what it is we should offer from the best of all,” Reeves said.
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.
But the results of the Central Square process led by consultant Goody Clancy, who was hired in April 2011 for $350,000, have no set deadline and are by all accounts still some months away.
Housing: On and off the table
The next step in the so-called K2C2 process is a Central Square Advisory Committee meeting today from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Cambridge Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Ave., where the committee plans to talk about how to achieve middle-income housing, retail affordability and public space — suddenly hot-button topics when seen in the context of what Forest City was trying to accomplish.
Its zoning petition would have brought a 725,000-square-foot building of life-science offices and lab space, as well as ground-floor retail and restaurants, to Massachusetts Avenue between Central Square and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — the face of the Forest City-built University Park commercial area extending down into the Cambridgeport neighborhood. Until a council meeting June 11, it was supposed to be 840,000 square feet with a nearby 14-story tower of 130 apartments and more ground-floor restaurant space, but that structure would have taken away much of a small park on the avenue. The council voted 6-3 to take the apartments off the table until there was more discussion with the community.
Goody Clancy documents suggest it will champion the density brought on by “upzoning” that many residents of the area oppose. One slide in a presentation shown at an April 11 meeting describes “special opportunities” for around Jill Brown-Rhone Park — the Lafayette Square area where Forest City expects to build — as adding retail, diversifying housing types “with special opportunity for taller buildings and views” such as what Forest City proposed and a “transition to greater scale toward MIT.”
While the consultant stressed that its projections show “a potential development scenario not intended to represent a specific plan or design intent for specific sites,” those images show a large residential structure and larger commercial building behind the Lafayette Square firehouse at 378 Massachusetts Ave. and at 300 Massachusetts Ave., the same spots on the avenue where Forest City wants to build. Current zoning could take between 1,000 and 1,100 new housing units, Goody Clancy research shows, but one scenario the consultant envisions adds between 1,800 and 2,000 units — and the Forest City residential site is included in the drawing of that possible upzoning.
“We added significant density and height”
Goody Clancy’s work in Asheville, N.C., is one model for a future Central Square, and David Dixon, leader of its team, said that to accomplish the revamp “in some cases we added significant density and height,” in part because taller buildings supports new retail. Current zoning could support between 13 percent and 18 percent more retail; he sees potential for adding 25 percent to 30 percent more retail if “infill” of the area adds anywhere between 1,800 and 2,400 more housing units.
But in all cases, Dixon and other Goody Clancy officials described the bigger buildings as being distinctly in Central Square, rather than in the area heading toward Area IV, where residents are organizing against development such as what Forest City proposed.
“We get a range of reaction to taller buildings. We used to say it looks like poor people live there, and now they look like rich people live there,” Dixon said. “It’s probably our single best chance to create housing for artists and middle-income families.”
By designing towers that step back at a certain height — a technique Goody Clancy also proposes for Kendall Square — you can build taller without making height oppressive, said Ben Carlson, an associate at the company. That scale supports a subsidy for business and public spaces, but the buildings get lower and smaller as you head north toward Area IV.
“A lot of folks could come live here, but it’s a big challenge. Big buildings are hard to blend in,” Dixon said. “But Mass. Ave. can take a lot more height and presence, and it should be a place where you can make noise at 3 a.m. because you’re having fun. When you have taller buildings, you don’t mind that. But there’s a world of difference from what should happen on Bishop Allen Drive, and on Bishop Allen Drive, you do.”