Rushed additions to deal could sway councillors, but residents still skeptical
With the clock ticking on a deal for a 246,716-square-foot building near Central Square, developer Forest City and city officials have added wrinkles to the City Council’s vote at a Monday special meeting:
The company will keep 150 apartments in its University Park as affordable for as long as it has its lease on the land — through 2064 — even without federal subsidies. (When winning the 75-year lease in 1988, it was required to build 150 affordable units and promised to keep them as affordable housing for 30 years, then look for government help to keep it affordable afterward.) It will also keep 18 units as affordable even though they weren’t demanded even by the 1988 zoning.
Another 20 units of affordable housing will be built by Forest City within a half-mile of its zoning within seven years, a figure based on how much affordable housing would have been built as part of an apartment tower that was stripped two months ago from the final zoning vote. If the 20 units aren’t built, Forest City is to pay $4 million into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust so more units can be built without the company’s involvement.
“We’re saying it would be good if we got those 20 affordable units. Even though you’re not building that project, maybe you’ll build another project and it’ll come in that. Or maybe you’ll just help us to build 20 affordable units,” Mayor Henrietta Davis explained. “So in addition to keeping what we got for a longer period, I’m hoping that we’ll get some additional new affordable units.”
Finally, the company will pay $1.08 million into the housing trust — required separately as part of the city’s incentive zoning ordinance — and give another $1.08 million to the city for community benefits.
The offers are included in a question-and-answer document included the Monday meeting agenda and to be addressed in a presentation before public comment, according to members of the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, a group representing public housing tenants.
The city wrote to Forest City to hash out the plan only Wednesday and explained the plan to alliance representatives the next day. Debate went on over the weekend.
Reasons for reaction
The sweeteners could sway some on the nine-member City Council who fear anything less than a yes vote would result in Forest City building within current zoning, which allows up to 80 feet in height instead of the asked-for 95 and doesn’t require the 13,000 square feet of ground-floor retail seen in the company’s plans. With rejected rezoning, the building could wind up as 138,848 square feet of office and lab space for the Millennium biotech instead of the larger, mixed-use building, and an actual no vote on the part of the council means Forest City couldn’t resubmit its plans for two years; no action on the part of the council would leave the path free for a refiling of the company’s zoning petition when it expires Aug. 13.
Many residents who are already opposed are unlikely to be won over, though, since objections still unaddressed range from having biotech so close to Central Square and the lack of jobs for locals to dodgy assertions about how well University Park parking garages and the area’s public transportation will handle an influx of Millennium workers.
Including the affordable housing as a factor in the vote, in fact, “would be enough to set me against the development petition,” wrote Nita Sembrowich, of Putnam Avenue. “It is an issue that should be addressed separately, not tacked onto a new, large-scale development proposal at the last minute in the middle of summer.”
Even larger issues
And without question the added units of affordable housing don’t address the larger issues of how development and rising market-rate rents in Cambridge distort what can be paid to keep people of all income levels in the city and keep it from becoming a city solely for the rich.
“It is a problem, it’s definitely a problem,” Davis said, noting that it’s also a problem with which economists are grappling without solution. Despite that, “Actually I’d really like to get some new units altogether. Housing is not just affordable housing. I still believe that if you build more market housing there’s less pressure on the affordable housing.”
Representatives of the city’s $350,000 consultant, Goody Clancy, have said repeatedly that a soon to be revealed plan for Kendall Square is to include housing for all income ranges, and a similar plan for Central Square is to follow by several months. The claim suggests Goody Clancy has a solution possible through zoning that has eluded economists.
Residents also remain upset about Davis’ calling of the special meeting. A Forest City zoning vote was scheduled for July 30 before the surprise announcement of Monday’s meeting by Davis — a move controversial enough to draw a citizen revolt forcing suspension of the meeting for an explanation, as well as the presence of a police officer. Davis’ explanation: She wanted to take the week to extract housing concessions from the company. But the move continued to draw fire from residents as the week passed.
“I am truly surprised and disappointed,” Joyce Singer, of Franklin Street, wrote to say. “Actually shocked [that the council] changed the meeting at the last minute, really, when it is summertime and people are away and have rearranged their schedules to come to a meeting.”
The meeting is to be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.