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.
It’s rare these days that I find myself agreeing with Mayor Davis, but damn yes, Henrietta, you don’t jam this kind of massive and dramatic change down people’s throats no matter how much MONEY is at stake.
And it’s not 14-story buildings we’re talking about, but 16 and 18-story buildings, after developers are given their 20 additional feet as a bonus under transferable development rights, also written into this horrible document of neighborhood-killing recommendations.
And what does Randas Ghattas know about Bishop Allen Drive? “It’s not safe, it’s not nice.” Who made him the expert on what’s nice in an environment where tree-lined parking lots, open sky and artistic murals set the stage for a buffer zone that has successfully protected the surrounding community from the noise and excesses of a Square that will only get noisier and more chaotic if the C2 recommendations are followed?
The only thing Bishop Allen Drive is not safe from these days are pro-development idiots who voice opinions that make them feel like experts! Parking Lot #5 is a surprisingly welcoming gateway to Area 4, and deserves to be appreciated for what it is and to be seen as more than a potential customer generator for businesses in the area.
And boy do I feel sympathy for developers and property owners like Mr. Barrett who can’t begin to make an acceptable profit until they’re allowed to cast 16-story shadows on a neighborhood and transform the whole character and personality of the Square.
What is the problem we are fixing here, people? What are we attempting to cure—except maybe insufficient developer profits—that would explain and mitigate such massive change to an area that still has sufficient character and street-level appeal? In my opinion you don’t choose to undergo such dramatic surgery when there isn’t even a trace of cancer. Not unless you’re feeling quite blasé about the possibility of killing off the patient.
And now comes the ultimate suggestion: let’s turn over the C2 development reins to a body unanswerable to anyone but itself. A body that effectively went rogue for no small part of the last ten years, under a rogue director who appeared to approve anything that was put in front of him. A self-salaried executive director not even answerable to the authority’s board, BECAUSE THERE WAS NO BOARD. And now, our city councillors are considering giving up all responsibility and authority to these convenient dictators of zoning excess?
My goodness there must be something so evil and destructive going on in Central Square for the CDD and its siege lord, Brian Murphy, to be so quick to bring in the dynamite and the bulldozers; and for City Council members to abandon and turn over their authority–AND RESPONSIBILITY—to a non-elected body; and for the C2 advisory committee to put an entire neighborhood under shadow and risk of upheaval.
Has anyone told St. Paul’s AME how not-nice and unsafe Bishop Allen Drive is? More to the point, has anyone told its 1,000 parishioners that the city wants to take away the parking lots they use on Sundays so they can pray under the shadows of 16-story residences filled with people of affluence who will eventually elbow them out of Cambridge entirely?
What are we trying to fix in Central Square that we are willing to put it, and our surrounding neighborhoods, at such risk? Have we seen one too many homeless person blighting our view? Are we still smarting from not having enough stylish customers to keep the GAP alive in Central Square? Are we suffering a shortage of noisy, drunk people partying until 2am weekends in the Square?
In medicine they believe the first principle in patient care is DO NO HARM. Apparently in Cambridge, the first principle in caring for our property owners is GO FOR IT!
Any City Councillor that supports such inappropriate up-zoning and the destruction of Central Square as we know it should be given a one-way ticket out of town on the Red Line. Assuming they can find a seat.
Don’t make this so easy for me. First off Randa is a woman. Had you been to any C2 board meeting you’d know this as I’m fairly certain her attendance record was perfect. Secondly, Randa’s opinion is based on her expertise as an architect and designer. However, I would state that her opinion while valid enough for her, may not align with the views of others. I can personally vouch that she meant no harm. Given the limited residential character and mish-mosh of commercial uses along Bishop Allen and open parking lots a plenty, I’d have to agree with her assessment. Its a poorly planned street that needs revision. I would be willing to bet you a Toscanini’s brand Toto Pop that most the commercial and residential interests along Bishop Allen would agree with this juxaposed to the C2 board’s reimagining of what could be. And don’t you go telling people that we plan to build 160′ corridors along these streets. As you’ve already outed yourself as not having attended a single C2 meeting (or at least not paying attention while there) you would know that based on the current zoning bylaws (most of which remain untouched) nothing we have recommended could ever result in such an outcome. If you want to disagree, do it on the merits, not some over inflated hysterical nonsense like you rant posted herein.
Mayor Davis wasn’t suggesting we put the brakes on the future, she simply was asking that we seek alternative means to disceminate our vision, lest fearmongers breed more confusion.
Next item, I appreciate your hammed up sympathy but my responce relative to building heights was an answer to councilor chueng’s inquiry and based entirely on that facts.
I personally don’t feel that we need to memorialize the destruction of 80’+ buildings along Mass Ave due to the greatest economic crash of the past century, but clearly you differ in opinion. However if you want development in Central Square you need to provide a reason. At eighty feet (the current max in the BB zone) you reach a new category in contruction. At this point cost of materials go up exponentially and certain codes become applicable further increasing cost. So in a sense having a height max at eighty feet makes little to no sense at all as no one would ever seek to reach that height, it may as well be 78′. That is the reality of construction costs. There are different ways to skin the financial cat, but if you want to add housing, increase density, and create a stable busniess enviroment, this IS what it takes. Should we do it? I think so and I’ll explain why by answering your question, “What is the problem we are fixing here, people?”
Housing. We need it terribly. There is a housing crisis upon us that over the next two decades will erode the viabilty of the commercial and resdential character you now seem to enjoy so much. One quote Mr. Levy omitted from his slightly slanted news piece was a question posed by Sir Mark Boyes-Watson. “Where are our children going to live?” The question is at the heart of what we are trying to accomplish. As a soon to be father I can’t say the though hasn’t crossed my mind that by the time my son (whoo-hooo!!!) is of age that the price of entry in this city will not just be financially beyond his grasp, but that even if he were to afford housing the stock just isn’t there. So what do we do? We can build affordable housing units, while also creating marketrate to support it (I love when things get paid for). To do this we need more flexibility in the zoning.
News Flash!!!! Central has been downzoned before! Its true, and clearly the 80′ height max is one of the remnants of repeated downzoning initiatives.
So it comes down to what you want sir. I want an addition 1-2.5k housing units in Central Square. I some of those units to provide low income opportunities, but I want the VAST MAJORITY of them to provided middle income and market rate housing to the people wanting to come to Cambridge and who simply have no advocate or option.
Will this create a utopia where houses cost a penny and everyone will have a place to live in Cambridge? Nope. We can diffuse the crunch on larger housing structures in the neighborhood though, buy building lower cost units in denser mid rise structures which will have the effect of lowering rents and housing costs. However it won’t be a 50% cut, it’ll most likely be around 10-20%. I personally love realistic thinking though; especially when it comes to development.
However, I do not wish to see the continuation of a rampant low income building spree in the this city that has left Area IV, Cambridge Port, and East Cambridge with nearly 30-40% total housing stock off limits to people coming here in droves to work in our bio-tech hubs, universities, and startups. I don’t want to turn graduate students away looking for housing options I could easily provide them if only the will and the zoning complied.
So the real question is, what are you really afraid of? It can’t be a conversation? Have you become so PTSD towards development that you’re unable to discern good development fromt he bad?
I love when people site the 131 Harvard location as good development by the way. I like the guys building it don’t get me wrong, but its apples and oranges. One fun fact though, even those guys needed a zone tweak to get their project off the ground. They needed more height and more units (2), because someone (probably not unlike yourself) thought it brilliant to put a maximum height restriction of 29′ on the parcel. So you see, even altruistic low income rental housing developments need relief. Another fun fact! I was at the zoning hearing to endorse the grant of a variance because I’m an abutter (Area IV represent!) and it was the RIGHT THING TO DO. If the land wasn’t deed restricted I’d have lauded for even more housing provided it were marketrate or middle income.
So, why spread fear and lies to vunerable parts of the community simply to foster you goal of keeping Central Square forever locked in the mistakes of depression era thinking? What stock do you have in making sure the conversation about the future dies before we all sit at the table to discuss it? If you can’t win on the merits of your argument or the simple facts, I believe you aught to reassess. Randa has spent a year and half trying to answer some tough questions, as have all who have served on the C2 board. We aren’t “on the take.” We live here. We work here. We raise our children here. And we all carry a glimmer of hope that someday people like you will stop cluttering the arguments with nonsense and fear and that we as a community wil be able to resolve the problems facing us with logic, courage, and the reason.
Patrick – I am so glad to know you. It is so refreshing to hear truth spoken in this city.
I second that R. Winters!!
I appreciate your taking the time to address some of my concerns about the C2 process and recommendations, but I must point out an erroneous assumption on your part.
Though I did not attend all the C2 meetings, I did attend enough of them to see a fixed agenda guiding the process, and a disturbing lack of concern on the part of the committee members who were being spoon fed the pro-development party line. To say the process was flawed is, in my opinion, a gross understatement.
True, I did not pay enough attention to recognize who Randa is and what her gender might be, but my response to her comments as posted in Cambridge Day was a reflection of my antipathy toward this CDD pro-development party line now being taken out into the community and presented as unquestioned fact. The truth is, if you ever walked from Mass Ave down the graffiti corridor into Parking Lot #5, you didn’t enter a world that was “not nice or unsafe” as Ms. Ghattas maintained, but an environment where sky views, and, yes, automobiles, plus community artwork and breathing space combined to form a welcoming gateway to Area IV. Possibly, if it was spring, you also saw flowering trees, which actually create an almost parklike aura, framed as they are by miles of blue sky and a gem of a panoramic community mural. Ms. Ghattas’ comments, I suspect, reflect what happens when CDD and Goody Clancy messaging gets repeated in committee meetings without being questioned, so that assertion eventually becomes truth, and truth ultimately becomes an umbrella to shield the rest of the city from opposing views.
Patrick, I must commend you on keeping your response to me civil and neighborly. However, your assumption that I did not attend any of the C2 meetings was incorrect and far from the mark. It was painful to me, but I sat through, I believe, three C2 meetings wherein you and the rest of your committee were fed misinformation or slanted statistics so palpably geared towards CDD’s pro-development agenda that I was embarrassed for all of you. Patrick, your committee was played like wind instruments. Which should have become obvious to you the moment CDD’s transportation expert quoted the Red Line as having a 40% additional capacity during rush hour, or perhaps when their traffic specialist studied and reported on 9 city intersections that were never problematic, but failed to study 12 that were bottlenecks in previous studies; or perhaps when the transportation expert cited a statistic that still boggles my mind—that 50% of residents living within a 1/4 mile of the subway didn’t own cars, neglecting to mention that she included dorm students in her study population.
Patrick, the process was corrupt because there was only one outcome envisioned from the start. The CDD and Goody Clancy had their eyes on the city parking lots from the beginning. If they hadn’t also cast a covetous eye upon Newtowne Court we might all still be asleep in our apathy, but the die was cast.
But I digress…as I was saying, I went to three C2 meetings, one in which the transportations issues were totally misrepresented, one in which Goody Clancy brought in photos that showed little Parisian-style street scenes with outdoor cafes to illustrate how Central Square will look once we abandon ourselves to their vision of the future; strangely enough there wasn’t a single photo of a 16-story tower. I also went to the C2 meeting where Dr. Bluestone, who clearly had a pro-development bias, naturally spoke in favor of maximizing density. I also went to two CDD public input sessions, but found little interest in any public input that didn’t back the CDD vision already in place. Strangely enough the street scene drawings they showed us to indicate their vision had blue watercolor blotches representing what would ultimately be 14- and 16-story towers in their final recommendations. Perhaps if they suggested re-zoning for 14- and 16-story watercolor blotches we wouldn’t be arguing about their recommendations today.
Patrick, if you’re interested in increased housing and density, the Cambridge Residents Alliance will shortly be presenting an open forum on “Density Without Towers” that might prove of interest. I’d be happy to let you and others know when the time and venue are firmly set.
And lastly, to keep things honest, I never mentioned 16-story corridors. I spoke of towers. Your committee-endorsed recommendations allow for 140 and 160 foot towers, with an additional 20 feet as bonus under transferable development rights, whatever the heck they are! That translates to 16-story residential towers in most of the overlay district, with 18-story towers in the Osborne Triangle. Your overlay map trumpets 35’/45′ buffer zones on Bishop Allen Drive, but neglects to point out that half the street falls under the dictates of the overlay district, and the parking lots will, not surprisingly, be able to boast 140-160 foot towers. Actually, we shouldn’t neglect to add another 20-30 feet to that height to allow for the mechanicals on top of the buildings.
Patrick, I care about housing, and I also care about preserving what is worth preserving in our community. You and I might have different opinions about what those worthy elements are, but we should be at least able to agree on taking small steps towards bringing in change, rather than risk wholesale abandonment of controls and vision. If you care to read my blog on the CCTV site you’ll read about over 18 million square feet of new development that’s projected for Cambridge over the next 20 years. Some of those 18 million feet are made up of the projected development footage from the K2C2 recommendations. All figures come from the city’s own projections, so you can’t hide behind anyone mis-representing the facts.
Patrick, if you and I are serious about being good stewards of Cambridge, there’s a lot we should be doing before we accede to the lustful wishes of the business community and a taxes-hungry city management. We should be asking questions about how we’re going to handle all those new people and businesses and traffic rather than running madly into the future with excessive giveaways to developers that will, in my humble opinion, do more damage than good to the neighborhoods surrounding Central Square, and to Cambridge itself.
Once again, thank you for keeping your comments civil.
Paul Steven Stone