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Clover, a small, Cambridge-based vegetarian chain, is considered "fast food" in local regulations. (Photo: Eleni)

Clover, a small, Cambridge-based vegetarian chain, is considered “fast food” in local regulations. (Photo: Eleni)

The city is headed toward approving a five-fold increase in “fast food” in Kendall Square without having a definition of fast food – or, rather, it has a definition, but not one residents or city councillors understand or want, and when a redefinition is done could be crucial.

The square’s so-called MXD District zoning limits fast-food establishments to three, similar to a cap on how many fast food eateries can open in Central Square. In building a residential tower on Ames Street, developer Boston Properties is asking for zoning changes that, among other things, would call for only half a parking space for each of the 240 to 250 apartments, instead of one each, and would give the square 15 fast-food establishments – eight of which could go in its new “Ames Street District” and its ground-floor retail space.

But the city’s definition of fast food doesn’t just keep out Taco Bells. New, locally owned businesses featuring healthy eating in casual settings are getting caught up.

“We’ve been talking about the fast food ordinance and a representative from [the Community Development Department] was saying the definition of fast food was no longer necessarily appropriate for the times. I think Life Alive was cited as something that under the ordinance is considered fast food, but I don’t think most people would consider it to be,” said councillor Leland Cheung during Monday’s meeting of the City Council, referring to a restaurant near City Hall that has been popular with councillors. “A lot of times when we’re talking about fast food, a lot of times we’re talking about things that are locally owned and independently run.”

It would be good to have a more germane definition of fast food in place with the zoning, Cheung said – especially since raising the cap and redefining fast food afterward could leave the city with exactly the kind of unhealthy, chain restaurants it’s been trying to limit.

No conclusions

The problem isn’t new. When Cheung, councillor Craig Kelley and vice mayor Denise Simmons asked about the definition at a June 2012 meeting of the Ordinance Committee, Director of Community Planning Stuart Dash agreed it was hard for a fast food eatery to open in Cambridge and that CDD was already researching new, more precise language.

But on Monday – nearly a year and a half later – the assistant city manager for Community Development, Brian Murphy, said there had been little progress.

“We haven’t come to conclusions. The language we’ve sort of explored as we’ve looked at this has been somewhat awkward and stilted … in terms of uniform presentation and those sorts of issues, so I don’t think that we felt internally like we’ve come up with a satisfactory answer,” Murphy said.

Cheung asked about redoing the definition before the zoning vote.

“I’m not sure, frankly, that we’re going to be able to resolve that in the next, you know, week,” Murphy said. “But what I expect what one could do would be to – if there were to be a definition that we thought worked – we could certainly revisit this and try to take a look to to see if it works to change it back.”

The Ames Street District zoning petition expires Feb. 5.

The Planning Board has recommended that the council okays the petition, including raising the fast food cap, since its members know the restrictions “have been a hindrance to many local establishments.” But chairman Hugh Russell also said “A more comprehensive approach to resolving issues around fast order food zoning would require more discussion and may better be approached from a citywide perspective.”

That’s exactly what Kelley told Dash in June 2012, accompanied by urging that the work be done quickly.

What qualifies

The zoning also has the recommendation of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, which notes that the district’s current three fast-food licenses are held by Chipotle, a Mexican chain that plays up its healthy and vegetarian options in its marketing, Starbucks and Clover, a Cambridge-based vegetarian chain. (Another four eateries in an MIT Coop food court and a second Starbucks in the Marriott hotel lobby are considered “accessory uses” and not counted under the cap.) The authority’s recommendation suggested fast food establishments be allowed to go anywhere in the district.

“The CRA board would also be interested in future discussions on whether such a fast food cap within the MXD is necessary at all in Kendall Square,” assuming each has to get a special permit anyway, chairwoman Kathleen Born wrote.

Citizens’ commentary showed confusion on the city’s definition of “fast food.”

“If we let it go up to 15, what we’re really saying is that we’re giving up on local, independently owned retail establishments,” said James Williamson during public comment.

“Will they all be Clover-type fast-food establishments, or will one be Clover and the other 14 be McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle and the like?” asked Carol O’Hare in a letter to the council.