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A rendering shows how a proposed hotel might look in Discovery Park bordering Route 2.

A rendering shows how a proposed hotel might look in Discovery Park bordering Route 2. (Image: The Bulfinch Cos.)

There was only mild opposition Tuesday to a plan to bring a 150-room hotel to Route 2, but lots of interest in seeing the developers move the hotel away from the road and back toward the urban wilds reclaimed over the past several years along the Little River.

The proposal by the Needham-based Bulfinch Cos. for its Discovery Park would change zoning adopted in 2001 to remake the former site of the Arthur D. Little consultancy. While the rest of development for the 30-acre site remains focused on parking garages and buildings with office and lab space, Bulfinch president Robert A. Schlager said after a presentation that he considered a hotel something that was wanted and needed in the community.

Members of the Planning Board agreed.

“I’m really excited. I’ve long awaited a [new] hotel in Cambridge,” said board member Ahmed Nur, noting the closing of The Inn at Harvard two years ago and various renovations taking other rooms off the market. “Oftentimes we have families visiting and it’s really been a struggle to find a hotel in Cambridge.”

When 29 people were displaced by a fire on Allston Street in July, some members of the nine families were put up in Cambridge hotel rooms, while intense bookings meant others had to take hotel rooms about seven miles away in Waltham.

Proposal

The Bulfinch proposal, branded in renderings as an AC Hotels by Marriott – the chain’s cool, European-style arm designed to appeal to younger travelers – is described as having meeting rooms, a restaurant and bar, including an outdoor lounge area, a fitness facility and a pool. It would be four stories tall and 82,000 square feet.

That’s significantly smaller than the 120,000-square-foot office and research building it would replace in Bulfinch plans, and also smaller and shorter than the two office and lab buildings proposed for the rear of Discovery Park. (The company is also asking the Planning Board to “decouple” one large building into those two, a proposal board members found agreeable.)

But the board decided nothing Tuesday, instead asking Bulfinch to come back – probably at some date in October – to answer a few concerns and suggestions.

Natural beauty

Despite some residents’ failed appeal to the state Department of Environmental Protection to stop the project after Bulfinch proposed it in October, objections about traffic, construction in a floodplain and even a rule-pushing hotel sign were muted, and board members and residents alike applauded Bulfinch for its faster-than-required removal of paved Arthur D. Little parking lots and return of urban wilds – said to be home to more than 21 species of mammals and 90 kinds of birds. To the south of Discovery Park lies the Silver Maple Forest, Little River and Alewife Reservation, and Bulfinch has returned acres of green space to the existing 115 as well as adding a pocket park amid its existing and proposed buildings and setting up a permanent exhibit honoring the 50-year history of ADL. (Including relocating a time capsule and dated cornerstone from a company building that was torn down.)

Given all that natural beauty contrasted with a likely controversy over the sign drawn high and bright over Route 2, it didn’t make sense to resident Charles Teague during public comment that the small, residential-style hotel was over by the highway and the tall office and lab space was nearer the urban wilds.

“Residential is better for man and beast in that area,” Teague said. “And indoor light does affect the wildlife, and if you have R&D and dry labs, these are 24/7 operations. And people in the hotel and hotel bar and all – you have an opportunity for all that to look at the reservation. It just seems like it would be a lot better … I would much rather the tall building be on Route 2 and have it step down” toward the Little River.

Thankful for public comments

While Nur would later say he considered a hotel also a 24-hour use, Teague’s thought was immediately seconded by resident James Williamson, who further proposed that there be a path through the wilderness and across the Little River to bring people more directly and pleasantly to the Alewife T stop than a walk along the highway – an idea board member Steven Cohen later called “compelling.”

The Bulfinch Cos. has returned paved land to urban wilds and is now asked to consider building a path from its Discovery Park to the Alewife T stop across the Little River. (Image: Bing)

The Bulfinch Cos. has returned paved land to urban wilds and is now asked to consider building a path from its Discovery Park, upper left, to the Alewife T stop, lower right, across the Little River. (Image: Bing)

But it was associate member Catherine Preston Connolly who showed to what degree the citizens’ ideas had caught the attention of the board.

“I was really thankful for the public comments,” she said. “I agree with Ahmed that this use makes a lot of sense here. I’m not sure this layout does.”

Tom Sieniewicz seemed equally intrigued by the idea, in part because it served as an answer to resident complaints about the Alewife area lacking “a sense of place.” The 227-unit Vox on Two high-end apartment complex is next to Discovery Park, and the neighboring Lanes & Games bowling alley and arcade and Cambridge Gateway Inn motel are also bordered by Route 2 to the north and urban wilds to the south.

“That’s the sense of place, is that urban wild which is unique to this part of Boston and this part of Cambridge. How do I make that a better sense of place, what’s the most appropriate way to meet that edge?” Sieniewicz asked. “Wouldn’t that make it a unique hotel, that you would have rooms and views onto that nature and urban wild. What an extraordinary place that could be.”

Chance to respond

Steven Winter thought the relocation could help with marketing the hotel, and vice chairman H. Theodore Cohen said that, as much as he wanted to move things along, he agreed there would be concerns about the facade on Route 2 and wanted the developer to have a chance to respond to the possibilities of moving the hotel back toward nature.

Residents said they also hoped to see more extensive traffic studies, considering the jams endemic to the area on Route 2, the Alewife Brook Parkway and Rindge Avenue.

Schlager was asked by email Wednesday morning to react to the proposals. The replies sent via Bulfinch’s director of marketing, Tina A. Snyder, made a pedestrian path across the river look more likely.

“It would be a great feature and would benefit the community by taking advantage of the reservation and enjoying the pedestrian connections between Cambridge Discovery Park, the Little River, the Alewife T station and the newly constructed Vox apartments,” Snyder said.

But in regard to moving the proposed hotel back toward the urban wilds:

Bulfinch will consider all of the options associated with placing the hotel at the most logical locus. Consideration in placing the hotel along Route 2 was determined after reviewing the newly constructed Vox apartments (the same four-story height), sensitivity to the wildlife with hotel guests turning lights on when they return at the end of the workday and maintaining the urban design guidelines of “street wall frontage” along Acorn Park Drive. There are also other considerations, including, visibility, traffic noise and north-facing elevations, which are better suited to a hotel.

This post was updated Sept. 3, 2014, with replies from The Bulfinch Cos.

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