Friday, May 24, 2024

A rendering shows how a life sciences building might look at 300 Massachusetts Ave., near Central Square. The rezoning that would allow the building comes to a vote Monday. (Image: Forest City)

The City Council votes Monday on Forest City’s development proposal for Central Square, and it should vote against it.

Or, if not that, the council should think about doing pretty much anything to show it can follow through on a promise and make developers do the same.

Despite all the money developers can make on housing in Cambridge, they can make more on office and lab space, which results in housing disappearing repeatedly from developers’ plans while office and lab space goes up. And up. And up. Boston Properties has done this to the city three times; Forest City is doing it now. If the council wants housing, it’s time to vote like it.

Here’s some history:

In June the council heard Forest City’s plans for office and lab space at 300 Massachusetts Ave. and a 14-story apartment tower at Green and Sidney streets. City councillor David Maher, speaking for Forest City, suggested separating the issues — setting aside housing for further discussion so the vote on the commercial building could go forward Monday.

Councillor Leland Cheung didn’t like splitting the two. “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,”  he 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.”

But Maher assured him discussion of housing would be “very related” to the commercial building getting a vote.

By a 6-3 vote, the council agreed to this, with Cheung, Craig Kelley and Minka vanBeuzekom being the three showing appropriate skepticism.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s ordinance committee, the bargain failed. There was no linking of housing to the commercial building. Maher, chairman of the committee, explained at the start of the meeting that “We’ve taken the housing out because it seemed very controversial …We decided to separate the issue but would like to continue the dialogue.”

Fortunately, from Maher’s perspective, there “seems a willingness from Forest City to look at housing.”

Meaningless mush, Part I

Look at? What does “look at” mean?

Here’s Forest City executive Peter Calkins giving a perfectly meaningless nonpromise to “explore” the concept of housing that as recently as last month was “very related” to the commercial building getting a vote:

We clearly have stated that we are quite interested … in housing. We certainly would be willing to put that commitment — a commitment to look and evaluate and try to figure out if there’s a way to accomplish [housing] — into writing in some way, shape or form in a way that makes sense to the city. Where that takes us is something we’ll all have to explore over time, but it’s a goal we have and a commitment we’d be willing to make: to explore that.

Here’s the slightly shorter paraphrase of what Calkins said: “Forest City is willing to commit to, over time, exploring trying to figure out if there’s a way to accomplish housing in some way, shape or form.”

If you were on the City Council, is that a promise you could approve?

Try it this way. Take it out of a municipal context and put it into a personal one; say you were giving someone something they wanted and in return they were “willing to commit to, over time, exploring trying to figure out if there’s a way to accomplish what you want in some way, shape or form.” Is that a deal you’d approve?

This weak mush of weasel words isn’t Forest City’s fault. It’s a for-profit company that simply wants a commercial building more than it does a residential building, and it’s okay that the form in which it offered to build an apartment tower was quite likely designed to be so offensive as to be rejected — leaving it free to put up commercial space without the hassle. Now that the City Council has fallen for the trick and the Forest City zoning petition is hurtling toward expiration in mid-August (after the sole summer council meeting), of course its executives are going to nod solemnly and utter complete nonsense long enough to see its proposal through.

If pressed, Calkins or other Forest City representatives would no doubt say with equal solemnity that the company proposed its housing in good faith. Its executives had absolutely no idea residents would balk at a plan resulting in the loss of 77 percent of a park, because when have Cambridge residents ever cared about open space?

Again, it’s not Forest City’s fault. But it is the City Council’s responsibility, supported by the Community Development Department and others in city staff and government, to counter these shenanigans and do what’s right for the city and its citizens.

Panic for a proposal

The council and a recent editorial in the Cambridge Chronicle make the same mistake of panicking to accept a plan for fear of what will happen if the deal isn’t taken. The council scrambles to please Google by okaying improvements, forgetting that Google moved to Cambridge in the first place very deliberately. And the Chronicle, looking at the Forest City plan, worries the same way about the biotech company Millennium and says:

Waiting isn’t an option is because Forest City already has a tenant lined up for this property. Waiting would put that in jeopardy and Cambridge would be left with the urban blight that is currently at the site … Another developer wouldn’t have access to the University Park resources and the city would be left with a building that could possibly be done, as-of-right with no retail. As it is now, Forest City could build as-of-right, without the retail element.

Think of this as the dilemma of the prettiest girl in the room being asked to dance. How can she agree to dance with someone when someone else might ask her? But we’ve been to this particular club over and over and over again and know the quality of the people who ask us to dance. There’s no shortage of partners and, frankly, our feet are getting a little tired, and we put out a little too much for every handsome face, if you get the drift. And that reputation gets around.

There’s further circular reasoning in regard to the ground-floor retail. Our partners self-evidently want to maximize profits on their property, which leads to requests for special permits, variances and, clearly, rezoning. And that’s when Cambridge officials invariably demand ground-floor retail in trade.

The Chronicle also believes it’s pointless to wait for the city’s consultant, Goody Clancy, to come out with its months-long study of what Central Square should look like, since “Goody Clancy principal-in-charge David Dixon said the firm recommended passage of the [Forest City] petition. He wouldn’t have said that if the proposal was counter to what is expected to come out of the report.”

But you can’t have it both ways. We also know that the Goody Clancy study wants ground-floor retail. So if 300 Massachusetts Ave. was forced to wait for the Goody Clancy study, it would likely wind up … built as-of-right with ground-floor retail.

Meaningless mush, Part II

Much of what Forest City is doing will sound familiar. The city just went through this with Boston Properties: the loss of open space in return for a commercial real estate deal and the specious promise of housing.

In the case of Boston Properties, though, it’s 40 percent of a rooftop garden that’s being lost as opposed to 77 percent of a Massachusetts Avenue park that was threatened. And the promise related to housing sounds like this:

Within one year after a certificate of occupancy for the [Google] Connector Building, Boston Properties will 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.

Here’s a paraphrase of this “commitment” from Boston Properties: “After we get what we want, we will agree to do something. That something we’re going to agree to do is to think up some ‘conceptual design plans’ — not even actual designs, but ‘conceptual designs’ — that the public can look at.” Period. That’s as far as the “commitment” goes. (This is as cynical a reading of the commitment as possible because Boston Properties has wriggled out of Cambridge housing promises repeatedly; and because it has lawyers on staff to write these things, we must assume the language is this way for a reason.) There are some who would point out that the company faces escalating penalties if it does not build housing, but Saul Tannenbaum looked through Securities and Exchange Commission filings and found cause for thinking the company has reason not to care:

Despite signing a letter of commitment to Cambridge in 2010 stating “Boston Properties will agree to commence construction of a residential project … within seven years after the issuance of a certificate of occupancy for the 2010 Additional GFA Building,” neither its 2010 nor its 2011 10-K submission reflect this commitment. And, while that commitment letter agreed to a series of financial penalties if construction does not commence as scheduled, this future financial risk is not noted.

There is a $2.5 million penalty to Boston Properties if housing on Ames Street is not built, according to City Manager Robert W. Healy at an Oct. 19, 2012, meeting of the City Council’s Government Operations and Rules Committee.

The five (weak) commitments

The vow to agree to draw up plans to show the public (although not to build) was only one of five “commitments” from Boston Properties. So even if that one is a bust, are the four others good enough to make up for it? Let’s see. The others were:

Extending use of open space by the public. Not at all. The law says Boston Properties needs to show, lot by lot or at least block by block, that the properties it owns include a certain amount of open space for use by the public.

Agreeing to make the Marriott Hotel plaza a livelier place by programming events there. Not even a little bit. The trick here is that the company had signed on to do this before the council saw it as a “commitment” to vote on; in fact, Mayor Henrietta Davis agreed right after voting that “They did say they were going to do that anyway.”

Putting $2 million toward design and construction of a pork chop-shaped park at the edge of Kendall Square. Not too impressive. The trick here, if you could call it that, is that in February the company reported quarterly revenues of $452.8 million and last year made total revenues of $1.8 billion. Meanwhile, the city has a budget of $488.2 million and free cash of more than $100 million. Keep in mind that the park is less than 2 acres and ask if a park of less than 2 acres needs $2 million in design and construction, and if it does, does it need to come from Boston Properties? And should we be impressed that a company with annual revenue of $1.8 billion wants to give $2 million? It represents 0.1111 percent of company revenue from last year. Just to make this as clear as possible, if you had $1,800 and gave away 0.1111 percent in exchange for something you really, really wanted that would in fact make you lots more money, you would be temporarily “losing” $1.99. That’s a good investment.

Giving the city $250,000 to improve the intersection of Broadway and Third and Main streets. Again, not so impressive. This sum is 0.01389 percent of Boston Properties’ revenues last year. Even when you add this to the $2 million for the pork-chop park, you’re looking at 0.12499 percent of Boston Properties’ revenues last year, or a whole $2.25 of that theoretical $1,800 you’re paying to reap the benefits of Google’s tenancy and to charge more from the theoretical tenants of a residential tower you might someday be forced to actually build. Meanwhile, the city does this stuff on its own all the time throughout the rest of its 6.43 square miles of land.

But it’s not always about what you get. Sometimes it’s about what you lose.

Tough talk

Because Boston Properties was so obviously playing the council as suckers — or making its members complicit in screwing the public for relative pennies — the 7-2 vote approving its plans for a Google connector building in Kendall Square was the absolute political low point for the current council. Kelley and vanBeuzekom, as the opposing votes, are almost exempt from blame for the sad moment when the council, faced with a chance to ask some real questions and get some real answers, instead rolled over and showed the critical thinking skills of a puppy excited beyond belief to be getting dry food at dinner time. Residents could still wish Kelley and vanBeuzekom did more to convince their peers of the obvious faults in the proposal.

But maybe that’s unfair to them, considering that what made the vote all the more sad was the tough talk from others that accompanied it.

“I hope we could take a lot from how that process was not conducted in the right manner,” Tim Toomey told Boston Properties officials by way of rebuke, as he gave them everything they wanted less than a month after the Google connector proposal was introduced.

“Trying to box the City Council into a position is never smart, because every deal is about the last deal and the future deal,” said Marjorie Decker, assuming precisely the position Boston Properties wanted her in, apparently paying only lip service to making this deal about the last deals.

Now the council has another chance to shows its resolve and intelligence. What will it do with Forest City on Monday?

At this point, given the council’s recent performance, let’s hope it’s surprising.

This post was updated Nov. 18, 2012, with the penalty facing Boston Properties for not building housing on Ames Street.