Sunday, June 23, 2024

University Park zoning could expand to Massachusetts Avenue near Central Square, allowing a 95-foot commercial building, with a Monday vote by the City Council. (Photo: Jonathan Rissmeyer)

The Monday meeting of the City Council — its only meeting of the summer — looks like a monster, with 34 policy orders from councillors, 26 items on the city manager’s agenda, seven committee reports, five applications and petitions and 43 communications from residents who may wish to speak their written feelings during public comment.

Some three dozen of those communications relate in some way to the most daunting part of that monster: a proposal to rezone an area near Central Square and let the developer Forest City build up to 95 feet high (current zoning allows 80) for a building holding office and lab space for the Millennium biotech company. The 246,716-square-foot building at 300 Massachusetts Ave. would also have some 13,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

Plenty of items on the agenda could be voted through without discussion. But for a meeting starting at 5:30 p.m., the Forest City proposal alone nearly guarantees it will last through midnight — especially since there are issues intertwined with it to varying degrees.

Those actually separate issues:

The Area IV Neighborhood Preservation Petition, also known as the Yanow Petition after organizer (and first signer) Susan Yanow, of Norfolk Street, fears “unbridled development” and wants to step back zoning in four areas around Central Square and Area IV; and to create a “municipal parking district” to preserve parking for shoppers, maintain parking lots as a buffer between homes and heavy business uses “and preserve space in these lots for farmers markets, community dance events and existing art installations.” The petition had 38 signers. Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom tried to get it heard June 18 by the council, but it was rejected as a late policy order.

The petition brought opposition in the form of a Wednesday letter signed by 32 residents who said they are against “the downzoning of Central Square [because] we believe that new development plays an important role in protecting the diversity and economic vitality of Cambridge … Higher-density housing serves the varied needs of Cambridge’s diverse households, helping us meet the high demand for market-rate housing while expanding our ability to create affordable three- or four-bedroom apartments for families with children or multiple generations.”

The Keep Cambridge Livable Petition, crafted by a group called the Cambridge Residents Alliance, was posted recently on its website with the goal of winning:

a minimum one-year moratorium on amendments to the zoning ordinance and map in Kendall  Square, Lafayette Square, Central Square and Alewife Brook Overlay Districts until a comprehensive plan assessing the impact of the total construction and traffic increase has been presented to neighborhood associations; their input and evaluation has been received by the council; and the issues have been thoroughly examined before the City Council.

“Private developers are proposing oversized high-rise office and market-rate apartment construction reducing green space and open space at Kendall Square, Lafayette Square, Central Square, Alewife Brook and Northpoint,” the website says. “The increase of tens of thousands of auto, bus and truck trips per day threatens to choke major streets throughout the entire city, to intensify accident hazards to children going to and from school, after­school [programs] and sports and to increase air pollution and its attendant health problems.”

“This overdevelopment will lower the quality of life for current residents, without lowering the cost of housing,” it says, urging the signing of the petition.

Members of the Planning Board have also objected to some current development and the way proposals are sent through the approval process.

In a Cambridge Chronicle story by Erin Baldassari, member William Tibbs is quoted as saying to Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, that he was bothered by “beginning to feel that … we’re a rubber stamper, and we’re left out of the process.”

Unanimously, the board felt the Forest City rezoning should wait until city consultant Goody Clancy released its study of the area, and vice chairman Thomas Anninger is quoted in the Chronicle as saying the developer needed to start over. “Not only do I think the timing is wrong,” Anninger said. “I do not find the zoning parameters that are being proposed persuasive.”

Forest City technically wants more than a commercial building. When the council votes it will be on whether to extend the “Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District” from its sprawling University Park, which starts on Green Street below Massachusetts Avenue and extends as far down as Pacific Street for some two dozen large city blocks — mainly commercial space but including 16 residential buildings, three parking garages, a hotel, Star Market and a central park on Sidney Street called University Park Common.

The council meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.