Monday, May 20, 2024
Renovation costs to bring East Cambridge’s Foundry building up to code put the price tag at $11.3 million for the inside alone. (Photo: Cambridge Redevelopment Authority)

Renovation costs to bring East Cambridge’s Foundry building up to code put the price tag at $11.3 million for the inside alone. (Photo: Cambridge Redevelopment Authority)

Years of planning for the Foundry building redevelopment have led to little more than bad feelings for groups involved in the project, including East Cambridge residents and city councillors dissatisfied with current plans and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and developers bearing the brunt of growing ire.

Tensions bubbled over during discussion of the project at an East Cambridge Planning Team meeting Wednesday. Although the City Council set aside discussion of the project two days earlier to give the ECPT a chance to talk, its meeting ended with uncertainty rather than a vote or consensus.

“We know this can’t work if it’s divisive,” said Jesse Baerkahn, president of retail development firm Graffito SP, part of Foundry developers Kendall Square Foundry Development Partners. “We actually don’t want to be working on a project that at the start becomes something that feels like a zoning petition.”

The group was the lone bidder for the Foundry project, and councillor Jan Devereux pointedly asked whether the CRA knew why only one team submitted after six had signaled interest.

The window for the request for proposals was even extended in the hopes of soliciting more submissions, said Tom Evans, executive director of the agency, but one development partnership collapsed and others moved onto projects that looked cheaper to complete or were subject to less regulatory review.

Failure in funding

Councillor Nadeem Mazen described the selection process as “a thorough failure,” and suggested that more public funding could have made the project more attractive to developers. “I think the council’s been clear that funding shouldn’t be the thing that holds this back, and right now I think it’s so evident that it is,” he said.

“Certainly how we financed it did not make it possible for the applicants to make a good application. The type of synergy I talked about between uses [of community space and commercial space] isn’t seen here,” Mazen said.

The Foundry Building was given to the city by Alexandria Real Estate in February 2009 in exchange for a rezoning on land in Kendall Square. The deed was transmitted to the city in January 2012, but it was only in May 2015 that city planners asked the council to set aside $6 million for redevelopment – though an August 2013 look into renovation costs to bring the building up to code put the price tag at $11.3 million for the inside alone, with additional work on the exterior raising the total to around $25 million.

In the Development Partners approach, the building would be expanded to 86,936 square feet from 53,000, with start-up companies’ market-rate rent to the Cambridge Innovation Center upstairs subsidizing a complicated formula “equivalent” to 16,766 square feet of community benefits downstairs, including shared use of makerspace, a kitchen and discounted “pods” for artists and nonprofits.

“My sticking point with this is the revenue generation part,” councillor Craig Kelly said. “It is being driven to serve the debt that is being incurred to provide this, and the council, I thought, was super clear in saying ‘Build a good project, and if there’s not enough city money on the table, come back and we’ll give you more.’”

The entire building

But the original zoning deal, struck between the city and Alexandria Real Estate suggests the entire building be used for community purposes:

“Any final development plan shall provide for the transfer of ownership to the City of Cambridge of the existing building and lot identified as 101 Rogers St. (also known as 117 Rogers St. and as the Foundry building), with a preference for its use for municipal or community uses … at least 10,000 square feet of which shall be devoted to educational, cultural or institutional uses … at a time and in a form acceptable to the city.”

Planning has fixated on the 10,000-square-foot figure, moving the project toward the model proposed by the Development Partners.

Heather Hoffman, a resident of East Cambridge, has made a habit of reminding councillors and others of the zoning agreement’s original emphasis.

“We should not talk about 10,000 square feet. Stop it! The whole building, the zoning says, is for community use,” she said Wednesday, having made a comment to similar effect two days earlier at a City Council meeting.

Residents’ role

Despite the council delaying conversation to allow time for the ECPT to talk, members of the community said they felt left out of decision-making for the project. Chris Matthews, an executive board member of the group, drew attention to the community’s critical role in bringing the Foundry property to the city in the first place. “We would not be having this conversation if the East Cambridge Planning Team had not worked hard to negotiate that deal with Alexandria. It wouldn’t be an issue, because the idea wouldn’t have even come up,” he said.

Community members at the meeting clamored for greater involvement, suggesting the creation of a working committee of team members to give feedback as the project advances.

Baerkahn acknowledged the concerns raised at the meeting. “I’m aware of the zoning. And the goal is not to make this all community benefit space – the obligation is to do that,” he said. “We viewed this as being the beginning of a community engagement process, not the end, for us.”