Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, at a 2011 meeting of the Planning Board. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, at a 2011 meeting of the Planning Board. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Surprising many of the city’s most savvy watchers of development, the Community Development Department long ago decided on its own to introduce proposals from the 18-month, $350,000 studies of Kendall and Central squares piecemeal, parcel by parcel as developers came forward with projects, said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development.

“It’s happening, but in segments rather than in one fell swoop,” Murphy said Monday of the so-called K2C2 process. “It’s easier to wrap your head around it [that way], and some reasons have to do with timing.”

“It’s just a decision that was made as the most effective way to do it,” he said.

Murphy said he couldn’t remember a specific conversation when “within the CDD staff we looked at it [and] said we’d do it this way,” but recalled that the city planners decided the 26-acre plan put forward by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its eastern campus in Kendall Square – proposed in the spring of 2011 and approved April 8, 2013, by the City Council – was the start of the city’s approval of the Kendall portion.

“It made sense as a first-mover piece,” Murphy said.

It means developers design projects following K2C2 guidelines, and if those projects are approved they mark effective approval of the guidelines as zoning law.

View from Planning Board

Hugh Russell, chairman of the Planning Board, confirmed Murphy’s plan, but with two differences: He gave his board credit for the approach, rather than Murphy’s department; and he said it applied only to Kendall Square, and not to Central Square.

In fact, he hoped to find out at a Monday roundtable between the board and City Council how the completed C2 process fit into the coming creation of a citywide development master plan. “The strategy of C2 is a little unclear to me,” he said. “It’s very unclear how C2 fits in. K2 is, in my mind, different.”

In an example of how differently he saw the squares’ zoning approaches, Russell referred at the roundtable to a Central Square proposal called Mass+Main by Twining Properties and Normandy Real Estate and wondered whether the city would keep it and zoning “on the back burner for three years” while a master plan was written. “What do we tell a developer who wants to go forward?” he asked.

Began in 2011

Click here to read Goody Clancy’s report on Kendall Square.

Click here to read Goody Clancy’s report on Kendall Square.

In response to the council, the city began looking for consultants in January 2011 for a study of the two squares, although there had already been a red ribbon commission in place examining Central Square and its future. In April 2011 the city awarded a contract to Goody Clancy, a 100-person Boston firm with experience in Cambridge. At the time, Murphy said the consultant would “not  just hit the ground running, but sprinting at breakneck speed.” Goody Clancy’s reports on Kendall and Central were released by his department in December 2013.

In May, Murphy identified MIT’s project, referred to as PUD-5, as “really the first zoning that really by and large followed the K2 recommendations, albeit with some minor adjustments and tweaks in terms of what the distribution was of community benefits … The difference between the K2 recommendations and what the council adopted were quite minor.”

Volpe is “crucial”

Next up in Kendall is a proposal for the 14-acre John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, owned by the government but central to plans for a future, more active and entertaining Kendall Square. Goody Clancy saw the space becoming a block-sized park accompanied across the square by 2,000 to 2,500 new housing units, up to 3 million square feet of office and research space and, at ground level, between 200,000 and 250,000 square feet of retail. The park was described as being a focal point and crossroads for the community, and Russell still calls it “crucial” to the future of the square.

Murphy expected to see Volpe recommendations within the first two months of 2015, and Russell said he knew the de facto developer of the site – the federal agency known as the U.S. General Services Administration Office of Real Property Utilization & Disposal – is “anxious to see how the city has adopted some revised zoning.”

The problem with that, based on what Murphy and Russell himself said about their approach to adopting K2 principles, is that there will be no adopted revised zoning until the government proposes it for its Volpe land.

But Russell said the GSA could just request proposals based on K2’s proposed zoning that “could be evaluated and accepted based on a public process.”

Central Square taking longer

Click here to read Goody Clancy’s report on Central Square.

Click here to read Goody Clancy’s report on Central Square.

Central, although its process started long before Kendall’s, is taking longer to develop.

In January, Murphy told the Planning Board that an economic consultant had been hired to look at economic assumptions made for Central Square and was “working on a report now. We hope to be [before] the Planning Board with that in the near future … sort of be testing some of the underlying assumptions and whether or not it actually makes sense and to try to come back in with K2 and C2 Zonings for discussions.”

Some 11 months later, the report is not yet final, Murphy said, with $17,339 already paid to consultant Sarah Woodworth on a total $24,950 contract. He expected the final report to be completed by January, because “some of the research informing the analysis, such as interviews with relevant parties, took longer than expected.”

Surprised citizens, councillor

Alerted to Murphy’s piece-by-piece approach to zoning in Kendall and Central squares, councillor Dennis Carlone asked about it at the Monday roundtable, saying it creates “a mess.”

But Carlone – elected to the council only a year ago, but an expert in architecture and urban planning who has focused on development and zoning while in office – hadn’t been aware of the approach before Monday.

“That’s not the way you do planning,” Carlone said. “That’s the opposite of planning.”

Steve Kaiser, a former state government transportation expert who watches development and traffic issues in the city, was also surprised when hearing of Murphy’s approach. “This is sort of the first time I’ve heard that,” he said.

Barbara Broussard, president of the East Cambridge Planning Team, was another surprised city development expert.

“I’m surprised,” Broussard said. “Is this the best approach for getting the perfect, viable square?”

At Monday’s roundtable and in complaints by residents dating back months, the Planning Board has been rebuked for an approach that looks at development project by project rather than as an aggregate or with an overall view.

“Yeah, it’s being done in segments,” Murphy said. “But I don’t think it’s had a dramatic impact on what has happened.”

This post was updated Nov. 13, 2015, to clarify that numbers of housing units, square footage for retail and the like were intended for throughout Kendall Square, not associated only with the Volpe space.