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Because it’s outside the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan area, the Foundry building at 101 Rogers St. could be taken on as a “demonstration project.” (Image: Google)

Because it’s outside the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan area, the Foundry building at 101 Rogers St. could be taken on as a “demonstration project.” (Image: Google)

In addition to being the path to a nimbler, more flexible and public-friendly remaking of the empty Foundry building than the city could otherwise expect, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority might with help with the projects’s $25 million-plus cost.

At their Wednesday meeting, which was also the authority’s annual meeting, members of a board that has focused for decades mainly on Kendall Square said repeatedly that they wanted to use the riches coming from development there to give back to the rest of the city.

In addition to considering capital investment and a partnership with the city to remake the Foundry, authority members spent some of the meeting discussing how to set up a community grant or loan fund that – in the current loose, conceptual stage – might give anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 in loans or grants for one-time projects such as rehabilitating buildings, installing renewable energy hardware or a putting up a fence around a community garden.

Up to $400,000 per year for 10 years could go to resident groups who might not be able to get money from banks, but who nonetheless had “skin in the game” on good projects that would benefit the community. Members told intern Chris Colley, a Harvard Graduate School of Design student, to keep working on the project.

In pinning down a strategic plan and setting priorities for the future, the members wanted to be sure they had significant public involvement, starting with good turnout at a meeting tentatively planned for March 12 at the Cambridge Main Library and a $6,000 test contract with the Kendall Square startup CoUrbanize, which creates websites to serve as meeting spaces for community projects and developments.

“This CoUrbanize contract would be terrific if, for instance, the CRA were to get involved in the Foundry project,” chairwoman Kathy Born said, shortly before the five members agreed to the test contract.

Getting involved

With the City Council holding a special meeting March 3 to explore what to finally do with the Foundry, the CRA didn’t have much time to decide whether it would consider getting involved. But its members seemed to like the idea.

“This strikes me as a natural for the CRA, especially the theory of giving the community back some of the benefits of the great development of Kendall Square,” authority member Chris Bator said. “But it should be wonderful, no matter what it is,” and he warned that he didn’t want involvement with the Foundry to become the authority’s only goal for the next few years.

His fellow authority members assured him the Foundry could indeed be wonderful, with architect Barry Zevin rhapsodizing about the design and use potential of a 124-year-old former manufacturing space that, with its soaring ceiling and massive windows, was “basically a church.”

Member Conrad Crawford had similar feelings:

A lot of the conversation we’ve had over the past year has been about the lack of aesthetic pleasure people take in the buildings of Kendall Square, and the nature of the district and how it’s very commercial. If there’s any way for us to be part of something that really adds some taste and texture to the buildings and can basically add some personality to the area that alludes to our industrial past, that would be very nice to see and to contribute to that.

Slow start

The building, at 101 Rogers St., was given to the city in January 2012 in a real estate deal that spelled out that municipal or community uses were preferred for its 53,800 square feet, and that at least 10,000 square feet must be filled with community, educational, cultural or institutional uses. For roughly the first 15 months of city ownership, little happened, but an eventual study of renovation costs had the city looking at up to $11.3 million to get it to the point where it could be occupied again. Exterior work brought the city’s estimate to about $25 million, and that doesn’t include equipment that, depending on what uses are ordered, could push the price tag to $30 million, Deputy City Manager Lisa C. Peterson said – not a dollar of which is accounted for in the city’s plans for the next five years.

Many residents and some city councillors lean toward using the Foundry for rental by nonprofits in the areas of science, technology, engineering, arts and math, including a small theater. Councillor Nadeem Mazen has noted that even at a minuscule $10 per square foot, the nonprofits would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in rent. On Wednesday, officials said the Foundry’s 44-space underground parking lot was another potential source of revenue.

First, though, the Foundry has to be revitalized. To do so the city could keep and manage the property, lease it to a developer for redevelopment and management with possible city capitalization, or turn to the CRA to be its master developer.

CRA flexibility

If the city puts out a request for developers’ proposals based on community goals for the building, it could still feel bound by the so-called Chapter 30B process of state law, Peterson said. The call for bids must be written carefully, because “the challenge is that essentially you’re really not able to negotiate. Once you release your RFP, you do not have discussions with developers [other than] very formal discussion. You’re really not able to negotiate if you like pieces of one proposal and a piece of another one.”

“You really have to have a very well-written RFP,” Peterson said.

The authority, though, doesn’t operate under that state law either through its Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan or when it ventures outside its designated urban renewal area with a “demonstration project.” These projects are usually blighted areas no smaller than a couple of city blocks that a redevelopment authority takes by eminent domain to fix, but CRA counsel Jeffrey Mullan has cited arguments that they can be used to prevent blight.

The authority’s executive redevelopment officer, Tom Evans, said he would work with Mullan over the next week to look at how a Foundry demonstration project would work and send a memo about CRA involvement with the Foundry to the City’s Manager’s Office.

No closed-door decisions

“The CRA is really committed to transparent processes. We would not be doing this project and making any decisions behind closed doors,” Born said, continuing:

I’m a big believer that sometimes good ideas and good opportunities present themselves rather late in the public process, and sometimes too late to take advantage of. We say, ‘Oh, we wish we’d thought of this last year’ … I’m wondering if going through the developer selection process can be an opportunity to solicit some ideas and combination of uses that the city might not have thought of.

Since the authority can decide its own process, Evans said, “we can really craft something with a wonderful outcome.”

Peterson said the city needed the Foundry to be done in the most cost-effective way possible, and “if the CRA was willing and able to put some of its own investment into the building as well, that’s another advantage to the taxpayers.”

In the draft annual report Evans presented Wednesday, the authority ended 2013 with $9.4 million in cash reserves, having taken in $10.8 million in development fees over the past three years while cutting expenses dramatically – 46 percent since 2012.