Sunday, April 21, 2024

Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, is surrounded by citizens filled with questions after the surprise end to a Monday special meeting of the City Council. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City councillors let a biotech building proposal for near Central Square die — at least for now — at a special meeting Monday. Technically, the nine-member council took no action, letting the developer’s request expire Aug. 13 for potentially immediate refiling, rather than voting against it and cutting off possible refiling for two years.

The standing-room-only crowd at City Hall, made up largely of opponents, cheered in surprise.

“If you’d asked me at 6:30 p.m., I would have said it was a lock to pass,” said Charles Teague, an opponent of the plan, amid the buzz of conversation after the meeting.

Executives for the developer, Forest City, also seemed surprised. They were silent after the meeting, offering no comment on whether there was an imminent refiling of the zoning petition.

There was even surprise among the councillors; Minka vanBeuzekom said she arrived ready for much more debate.

Instead, after a presentation on the proposal and about an hour and a half of public comment, councillor David Maher — who had shepherded the Forest City request through his ordinance committee — suggested the council take no action. No councillor spoke in favor of forcing a vote.

“We have made a great deal of progress in the discussions on this proposal over these past many months, but it’s also apparent we need to continue this dialogue. I would suggest tonight that we leave the underlying proposal presented by Forest City [as] unfinished business and do not vote on the issue tonight, let the petition expire and let the petitioners refile at a later date,” Maher said.

The meeting was over within minutes of public comment ending.

The history

Forest City wanted to extend the “Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District” zoning won for its University Park in 1988 and put up a 246,716-square-foot building at 300 Massachusetts Ave. for the Millennium biotech company. The building would have 13,000 square feet of street-level retail and office and lab space peaking at 95 feet. Current zoning allows 80 feet.

A proposed 130-apartment tower (rising to 165 feet) was taken off the table June 11 when residents protested it would take away too much of a developer-owned park on Massachusetts Avenue. That left just plans to remake the so-called All Asia block (named for the music club, which hopes to be reborn on nearby Prospect Street). But several residents continued to complain that Central Square needed housing, not biotech, and that development was getting too big too close to the square without offering existing residents enough benefits — including housing costs that could be met by a middle-class family, let alone the jobless or low-income people getting federal housing subsidies.

A Forest City zoning vote was scheduled for July 30 before the surprise announcement of Monday’s meeting by Davis. She wanted to take the extra week and see if she could win concessions from Forest City.

The talks resulted in an offer from the company to keep 150 apartments in its University Park as affordable, even without federal subsidies, through 2064 when its own land lease ends. (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 would also keep 18 units as affordable even though they weren’t demanded even by the 1988 zoning and build another 20 units of affordable housing within seven years or pay $4 million into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust so more units can be built without the company’s involvement.

Finally, the company would 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 business perspective

Proponents also claimed other benefits to the deal.

“We have an urgent need to expand our facilities here in Cambridge. We’re committed to remaining in Cambridge for the long term, but in order to do so we need to be able to grow in close proximity to our current buildings. We have to maintain a continuous campus because of the collaborative way that our company operates,” said Mark Hernon, vice president of operations for Millennium. He said the 19-year-old company, now employing 1,200 people in a handful of buildings scattered across University Park, needed to consolidate and grow at 300 Massachusetts Ave. in part because its parent company as of 2008, Takeda, “sees its global peers like Pfizer, Novartis and Sanofi expanding in Cambridge and wants to be part of this important center for world health care. For us at Millennium, it’s much simpler than that: Cambridge is our home.”

Terrence Smith, director of government affairs for the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, testified that the development would “solidify Forest City and Millennium’s commitment to Cambridge and create or preserve more than 1,500 local jobs.”

Forest City’s local counsel, James Rafferty, noted that the current petition was already a refiling and made the councillors’ choice seem even more stark, telling them, “if the opportunity is lost this evening, there’s no certainty that it will be easily put back together. People shouldn’t take the assurance that this will just continue on. At some point, decisions will be made and priorities need to be reflected.”

Having seen similar deals and heard similar sentiments from other companies and developers, though, some audience members weren’t swayed.

“Even when developers say their latest marquee tenant isn’t going to leave, you can’t hear that. What you hear is, ‘Oh my god, Millennium’s going to leave, Google’s going to leave, the Broad Institute is going to leave,’ and so you’ll do anything, give them anything,” resident Heather Hoffman told councillors. “Why not try calling their bluff just once? As I told councillor [Ken] Reeves once, if you never say no, they won’t know you can.”

But ultimately, councillors said, the decision came down to there simply not being enough time to work through and possibly improve the latest offers. Leland Cheung noted that the council had been pushing for even more housing than Forest City agreed to between meetings.

“It was coming from many different angles,” Maher told constituents after the meeting. “We just felt it made sense [to let the petition expire].”