Revamp of Central Square could fall to Cambridge Redevelopment Authority
Even as the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s decades of work shaping Kendall Square narrow to a parcel or two, city councillors began talking Wednesday about letting it handle parts of Central Square as well.
They also talked about finding a new way to run discussion about changes coming to Central to keep from dividing the city into factions.
“With so much at stake, we should look for something that perhaps doesn’t aim for one side or the other,” Mayor Henrietta Davis said Wednesday at a City Council Ordinance Committee hearing. “Are you on this side or that side? I don’t think that’s very productive. I welcome the thoughts of the [Community Development Department] staff and others about what else could be more about problem solving.”
What’s at stake is the height and density of construction in the square, where more than two years of work from a red ribbon commission and Central Square Advisory Committee has culminated in the so-called C2 report, half of a “K2C2 process” run by consultant Goody Clancy that looked at Central and Kendall squares and the Osborn Triangle, where the squares meet at Massachusetts Avenue.
“Not enough people”
The height of commercial buildings along the avenue would stay at 80 feet but could rise as high as 140 feet for residential buildings, serving as an incentive to developers and a way to ensure the area has enough population to support stores and restaurants. In the words of Central Square Business Association President Robin Lapidus, added population would “unlock the potential that is Central Square and make the most of this cultural district.”
“The real issue is there is just not enough people here. There are not enough people for The Middle East to open for breakfast – and, really, not enough for Brookline Lunch to open for breakfast,” said Lapidus as examples of a problem found by the advisory group. “We came to the conclusion there aren’t enough people here to make a great outdoor space great.”
Some residents have complained that development citywide has been a boon for developers and wealthy, often transient residents but failed to lower costs for increasingly squeezed low- and moderate-income people and families.
Goody Clancy staff vowed all income levels would be served in its plans, which included a rough formula for how many units of housing must be added in Central – about 1,000 – to support new businesses there, while developers and other experts on the commissions provided the formula defining how high and big apartment and condo towers had to be built.
At current limits, property owners have “no incentive” to develop their parcels or improve their existing buildings, local property owner Patrick Barrett said. The cost is prohibitive at the current height, with construction beginning to look appealing only with the rents attainable as you reach 12 stories or higher.
Meeting fire codes also gets exponentially more expensive as you build higher, which is another reason mid-rise buildings with low return scare off developers but high-rise buildings look feasible, said Randa Ghattas, an architect and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The high rises in the C2 plan can have 10,000-square-foot footprints but would be narrow at the top to avoid creating a monotonous canyon effect along the avenue, Ghattas said. From the 140 feet facing Massachusetts Avenue, heights taper off as structures reach back a block to Franklin Street to the south and Bishop Allen Drive to the north. The maximum height on Bishop Allen Drive is 45 feet, with the maximum height halfway along the block hitting 90 feet.
Davis worried that would seem oppressive to people walking there, but Ghattas assured her “You can never perceive that height.” Various people offered examples of the effectiveness of the stepped approach, which is used in North Cambridge near Trolley Square, in Brattle Square and in cities including Boston and Toronto.
When councillor Leland Cheung asked if the C2 plan’s heights were enough to give developers and property owners incentive to build, Barrett said: “It’s getting there.”
Much of the attention around Central Square’s revamp has focused on the avenue, but on Wednesday councillors’ attention seemed drawn to those neighboring streets. Councillor Ken Reeves – partially in answer to Davis’ concerns – noted that Bishop Allen Drive’s many parking lots, vacant lots, businesses and institutional uses make it “hardly residential” and therefore ripe for development. Ghattas agreed, saying it was “a terrible place … it’s not safe, it’s not nice. If we could just have housing along that, and with retail at the bottom, we might just transform that street.”
“Green Street is 10 times worse – maybe a hundred times worse,” Davis said to laughter from the room. “Loading docks and blank walls and more loading docks and security fences. It’s awful, it’s just one horror after another with one block between Pearl and Brookline with some very nice housing. I always feel bad for those folks, because they live in the midst of this.”
She expressed horror at the Central Square Library as well. After more than an hour of presentation and discussion, when Ghattas suggested amid a general giddiness that descended on the room that the library had to go, Davis’ response was “Yes, yes, yes.”
Residents noted that the city was in a unique position to transform the area because it owned parking lots on both streets, as well as the library land.
“Now is the time”
When councillors pointed back at privately owned property that could be developed, and mentioned a process that could see city lots being replaced in five years, residents pushed right back. City land and neighboring private structures will probably need to be packaged together as lots to entice more developers, they suggested. A site once used by Quest Diagnostics needs to come with the parking lot next to it, architect Mark Boyes-Watson said.
“We should be doing that right now,” he said. “If you want to be a first-class city, with all the green stuff and all the good stuff and we don’t move on these very simple moves now, the development will just go [as] it is now, or nothing will happen. Now is the time, not five years ago, not 10, now.”
That begged the question how, since land disposition, zoning and development can move with ponderous slowness in Cambridge as proposers go from board to board, each with its own review process. Reeves wondered if the city could take an approach similar to the city manager’s events committee, which was formed to give festivals, parades and the like one-stop convenience for permitting, traffic and police issues and myriad other details.
The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority has more flexibility than the city in terms of land disposition, said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development.
A new model
Founded 57 years ago, the authority once worked anywhere in Cambridge where land was blighted and underdeveloped, from the Riverview site on Mount Auburn Street to the Donnelly Field neighborhood. As the authority’s work succeeded, the focus narrowed three decades ago to Kendall Square, robbed of housing the space agency NASA during the transition from the presidency of Massachusetts native John F. Kennedy to Texas native Lyndon Johnson.
In September, with Kendall almost wholly developed and the number of parcels under authority control dwindling, board members hired a consultant to look at the agency’s future – with shutting down completely even reported as an option.
Councillors said adding Central Square to the agency’s shrinking list of responsibilities might make sense.
“We’re trying to build Central Square in a way we don’t typically build something. It does seem to me that something like a CRA-like process that is focused on it, that knows what the end goal is, is savvy about negotiating and can stay on top of all the moving variables” might make sense, Reeves said. “We should have a real good talk about ‘Are we organized currently to best realize these goals in Kendall and Central?’”
But many in the room were conscious that there had to be more outreach, or other more kinds of it, to residents who seemed hostile to denser development.
When Murphy suggested the traditional steps on the way to a final project allowed for plenty of public input, Davis said there should be a different way – albeit one the councillors agreed seemed at odds with the need to act quickly.
“That’s the way we always do this. And I think for something as contentious as this, it’s worth thinking a little differently,” Davis said. “You don’t try to jam it all into one night. You give people an opportunity to really roll around on the height question, roll around with the housing question. Really just slow it down. That seems to me to be more effective.”
A look at the Kendall Square part of the plan is due in late March.