Planning Board approves CambridgePark units, defers on Harvard Kennedy School
A 254-unit residential development at 88 CambridgePark Drive got the green light Tuesday from the Planning Board, while there was deferred action on a proposed expansion of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a postponement for a discussion of board procedures.
Originally known as 180R CambridgePark Drive, 88 CambridgePark Drive will be on what is now a parking lot between the railroad tracks and the existing 30 CambridgePark Drive. The building is being developed by Richard McKinnon, a principal of The McKinnon Co., which has built other buildings on CambridgePark Drive as well as at NorthPoint.
The board granted a large number of special permits after a fairly hard-fought process. It first heard the case July 8, then Aug. 19, with the final hearing Tuesday night.
In response to concerns from the board about the building’s height and length fitting in with the surrounding neighborhood, McKinnon reduced the proposed height of the building in August from 10 stories to six stories (105 feet to 80 feet). As a consequence, however, the housing was reduced from 378 units to 254 units.
McKinnon’s revision also increases the retail space from 800 square feet to 7,700 square feet.
And, responding amiably to a last-minute request from the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, McKinnon agreed to designate six three-bedroom units as affordable housing, recognizing the need for affordable housing for families. The lack of three-bedroom affordable units in the city was discussed at Monday’s City Council roundtable meeting with the Affordable Housing Trust.
The development at 88 CambridgePark Drive has been one of three in Cambridge that have together formed a flashpoint for controversy. This project, along with 75 New St. (also at Fresh Pond) and the redevelopment of the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse at 40 Thorndike St. in East Cambridge were often cited in discussions surrounding councillor Dennis Carlone’s zoning petition to transfer design review special permit granting authority from the Planning Board to the council. That petition was defeated last month when the council declined to pass it to a second reading.
Public comment at Tuesday’s hearing was fairly limited and generally favorable to the project, given the revisions it has gone through along the way. Jan Devereux of the FPRA praised McKinnon for “being so willing to work with us” and stressed that she felt there was a lot of trust between McKinnon and the neighborhood group.
An inordinate amount of time at the hearing was spent on a technical legal issue of how many parking spaces in the garage needed to be reserved for residents of the building; spaces not reserved will be used for parking at nearby offices. But because of a bookkeeping disagreement between the city and McKinnon’s lawyers, the board was unable to designate precise numbers, and deferred to staff to come to an agreement with the developer while the formal written decision is drafted, sometime in the next month.
Kennedy School of Government
The Planning Board also heard the first formal presentation of a special permit application for design review of an expansion to the campus of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, at the corner of Eliot and JFK streets in Harvard Square.
The project would connect existing buildings, create a winter garden and raise the school’s interior courtyard to street level, relocating some services underground. All this while increasing the open space in the courtyard (by removing parking and loading) and increasing the square footage available to the school for academic purposes.
While the board initially seemed poised to approve the project’s permits, it elected to delay to get better information and improved renderings. Members expressed concern with the way the existing buildings would connect and how two-story bridges connecting buildings might “lose the sky,” in the words of Tom Sieniewicz. Sieniewicz also questioned whether it was necessary to connect the buildings in a complete ring, noting that without one of the two bridges, all buildings would still be connected. Board members also expressed concern about Harvard’s proposal to add a fence or gate to the courtyard, which was not shown in the submitted plan and renderings, and asked for more detail on when the gate would be open and closed.
Harvard is expected to be back before the board Oct. 28.
Board procedure changes
The board was scheduled to discuss procedural changes after the Kennedy School and CambridgePark Drive hearings, but with those hearings ending around 11:30 p.m., the board elected to defer its discussion until Oct. 28, when it was already scheduled to hear public comment on the changes.
But the board was provided with a copy of a Sept. 25 letter from the City Manager Richard C. Rossi saying that “considerable attention is being paid to improve communication, transparency, and involvement of the public in Planning Board special permit review.”
Rossi noted efforts the city’s planning staff has made recently:
“Improve transparency and communication” by ensuring written comments from city departments (in response to special permit applications) are made available on the planning board website before hearings.
There is a “goal of having plans and application materials” on the website two weeks before a public hearing, with written staff comments posted one week before a hearing.
Reserving one board meeting per month for “consideration of continued cases rather than new cases.” Continued cases now may have to wait months for a free slot in a the planning board schedule, which slows down the process.
Rossi also noted three anticipated goals that are “being actively explored”:
“Improvements to the website to make information easier to find and more user-friendly.
“Clearer and more detailed application requirements for developers.
“Clearer and more specific guidance to developers to improve their engagement with community members early in the review process, before appearing at the Planning Board.”