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061414i FoundryIt’s a good thing East Cambridge’s empty Foundry building is 53,800 square feet, because despite all the number-crunching, consulting and public discussion to come, lines are hardening among city councillors for so-called Steam uses and to set aside space for an early childhood education center.

Opening the building to all things science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics remains the focus of councillors including Dennis Benzan, Nadeem Mazen and Tim Toomey,  with talk of a 200- to 300-seat performance space as a centerpiece but an overall goal of connecting Cambridge kids with the kind of high-paying innovation industry work they see in Kendall Square in businesses that hire largely from outside the city.

But councillor Marc McGovern has insisted on not letting their concept rule the conversation, and his talk of early childhood education won supporting comments Monday from Dennis Carlone and Craig Kelley after alarm at finding only Steam mentioned in a report from the city manager. The city was “trying to refine the development objectives based on what we’ve heard” after months of debate, Assistant City Manager Lisa Peterson said.

“I’m a supporter of Steam-related activities [but] I don’t want people to think they can’t come out and talk about other uses,” McGovern told the city managers. “If you say something and put something in writing enough times, it becomes the reality even if it’s not necessarily the reality. If I were someone who was interested in carving out some of that space for an early childhood center and everything I’ve read says ‘Steam Steam Steam,’ I’m not going to come and advocate for an early childhood center because I’m not even going to believe that’s a possibility.”

Further, he said, “If you court certain groups, you get certain perspectives.”

The building, at 101 Rogers St., was given the city in January 2012 as trade in a rezoning three years earlier that let Alexandria Real Estate Equities build its lab and office space tall and dense along Binney Street. The city did little with the building for the first 15 months, and when then-city manager Robert W. Healy was prodded by the council, he advised selling – despite at least 10,000 square feet of it being required as community, educational, cultural or institutional uses and its entire space recommended for municipal use.

Whatever happens, city managers expect a course for the building to be set by spring 2015, with 2015-16 being a redevelopment phase and 2016 onward being the Foundry’s new operational phase. The council is has affirmed using up to $6 million in city funds for basic repairs and maintenance and making the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Peterson said money had already been spent cleaning the site, fixing a leak and taking care of other immediate needs. Rebuilding costs at the Foundry have been estimated as high as $30 million, none of which is reflected in city budgets or capital planning over the next five years.

The Steam focus goes back to January in councillors’ attempts at policy orders to define the former manufacturing space after some residents identified it months earlier as a likely arts center. McGovern was co-chairman of the 2011 Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education and Care and noted that an Early Education Services Task Force appointed in February with a June 2015 deadline would probably be making its recommendations to the council before major work had been done on the Foundry.

Importance

Early childhood education and universal pre-kindergarten is called important by many because it ensures all kids can thrive in school, despite issues of race and class that still separate Cambridge students after years of work at eliminating the district’s “achievement gap.” In McGovern’s view, it’s more important than the internships and skills that could come by way of an all-Steam Foundry building.

“And I can tell you from having talked about this issue for many years, two of the top things – if not the two top things – in terms of obstacles will be money and space,” McGovern said. “So it would be foolish of us, knowing that space is going to be one the things keeping us from moving forward with universal pre-K, not to at least include that in conversation of a building that fell out of the sky.”

McGovern’s arguments since March about early childhood education space hadn’t yet swayed Steam proponents significantly.

Resistance

Benzan said he was making efforts to include Steam and arts proponents in Foundry conversation and reiterated that he saw more support for those uses, while despite being “a big supporter of early childhood education, I’m not sure this is the right location for it.”

Mazen said he heard the importance of early childhood education and could imagine it blended into the Foundry, but his “intuition” was that the space and security needs might rule out its location there especially as the building’s sole use. His back-of-the-envelope calculation was that an early childhood education magnet center for the entire city would need about 50 percent more space than the Foundry has, and he hoped the task force would look at regional centers instead.

“I’m not talking about the entire building,” McGovern said. “What’s likely to come back form the task force is that we will need multiple locations.”

Community meeting

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority is likely to take on the Foundry as a “demonstration project” allowing it to use a funding and design structure more flexible than the city’s own, and there is a community meeting on Foundry issues set for 6 to 8 p.m. June 24 at the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., East Cambridge. RSVPs are requested here.

Whatever its ultimate use, there was excitement about how the city had seized the possibilities.

“I’m ecstatic at the progress we’ve made. We’ve gone from 10,000 square feet to 53,000 square feet and we’ve gone from talking about selling the building to now talking about investing in it,” councillor Leland Cheung said.

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