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The former Quest Diagnostics at Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street in Central Square is part of a proposed development by Twining Properties and Normandy Real Estate.(Photo: Bing)

The former Quest Diagnostics at Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street in Central Square is part of a proposed development by Twining Properties and Normandy Real Estate. (Photo: Bing)

After waiting two years to make a proposal to city officials, during which they posted videos, built interactive websites and met with residents, the companies behind a big building project in Central Square came before the City Council on Monday to face rebukes for last-minute surprises and a vague presentation.

“I really kept scratching my head in reading this,” said councillor Dennis Carlone, an architect and urban planner. “One of the things we would ask the development team is to enunciate quite clearly what exactly is being proposed.”

What was once lab and parking space for Quest Diagnostics, most prominently at Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street but stretching back a block to Bishop Allen Drive, is to become apartments called Mass+Main, with retail at the ground floor. Because Twining Properties and Normandy Real Estate want to build taller than current zoning allows – the plan goes up to 70 feet along Bishop Allen Drive and have a tower as high as 195 feet on Massachusetts Avenue – they are asking the city for a special zoning district.

Residences and retail 

The companies are talking about putting in about 230 units, said Mark Roopenian, a principal at Normandy Real Estate Partners. The zoning request says no less than 17 percent of the units would be affordable for low- or moderate-income residents, which is better than the typical big development; at least 10 units would have three bedrooms, which is good for families; and 5 percent may become “Innovation Units” of 500 square feet or less, possibly with combined living and working spaces “and other design features to increase affordability and communication among residents” who would not be allowed to apply to for a residential parking permit – and therefore couldn’t have cars. The zoning asks for there to be around 150 parking spaces, a break from the more common one-car-per-unit rule.

There would be no banks or financial institutions allowed in the retail, which would be at least a quarter “independent and local retailers” and include a proposal for a seasonal public market.

A previous plan for Twining’s 2.3 acres, which cost $32.4 million in December 2012, called for slender residential towers going as high as 285 feet, one at Mass+Main and one intended to define the edge of Central Square proper down Massachusetts Avenue to the west, at Prospect Street.

“In 2013, we had initially proposed taller buildings, but now recognize that those heights were too tall and did not include housing for a sufficiently broad mix of incomes,” the companies said.

Gestures at community process

“The community process is at the heart of our work,” Roopenian said Monday to the council, alluding to the companies’ outreach efforts in person and online.

But the most recent plans under discussion weren’t shown to residents, said councillor Nadeem Mazen, whose disappointment at the surprise resulted in a “present” vote rather than an affirmation as the plans are sent formally on to the Planning Board and council Ordinance Committee for examination – despite his wish to see a good project succeed in a landmark location in Central Square.

“I want to honor the hard work that Alex Twining and associates have put in … All the outreach has been so polite, courteous, forward-looking, great,” Mazen said, while decrying a tendency among developers to fail to present plans to the public before presenting them officially – a major factor in changes being proposed for Planning Board practices amid resident uproar over recent development. “I’m a little bit – ‘crestfallen’ is too strong, but I just don’t think this is the way to do something this big and this important.”

He didn’t see “real back and forth” with residents despite “a lot of gestures in that direction,” Mazen said.

Details wanted

Carlone, meanwhile, said he’d been over the plans without really seeing the companies detail how their proposed numbers expanded on current zoning.

“I believe they have all these documents to show us, [but] we can’t really understand what this means unless there’s very detailed drawings and models,” Carlone said.

On Tuesday, company representatives were asked directly to clarify the project, but declined. A representative for the developers said the developers “are not looking for any additional height beyond what the existing zoning allows on Bishop Allen” but didn’t respond when asked to clarify zoning language that seemed to ask for just that, and Roopenian said in an email:

While it’s not appropriate to include building specifics in a zoning petition, we do plan to share more specifics with our abutters and nearby neighbors within the next few weeks.

A few of the 435,000

Despite lacking details, residents who spoke Monday were generally in favor of the Twining project. Carolyn Fuller led off, calling the tower and 230 units a step toward the 435,000 new units officials say are needed in Greater Boston by 2040 to house new workers and aging boomers and keep the economy humming. She supported the project “despite the fact our house is in the shadow of the proposed building” but wanted as many affordable and moderate-income units as possible, as well as open space.

Bill McAvinney also supported units being built, since he could already look out his window and see massive Novartis and Takeda projects under construction. “If we sit by and do nothing to provide housing for these new workers, what will happen?” McAvinney said. “We will inadvertently destroy our neighborhoods” with competition from the highly paid pharmaceutical workers.

Residents skeptical of the project included James Williamson and Lee Farris, who said 17 percent of units being set aside as affordable wasn’t “a good tradeoff” for the increased density.

Next story: Builders up affordable units to 20 percent of Central Square’s proposed Mass+Main