Mass+Main development in Central Square likely to survive an attempt at downzoning
School Committee member Richard Harding and former city councillor and mayor Kenneth E. Reeves have filed a downzoning petition intended to block Twining Properties’ Mass+Main development in Central Square. The zoning petition appeared on Monday’s City Council agenda; the council must by law refer it to the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board for hearings, although on Monday it was tabled by councillor Tim Toomey.
The downzoning would take seven council votes to pass – votes that do not appear to be there, based on Monday’s debate.
Further, on Tuesday the Planning Board approved a special permit for the Mass+Main development – a 283-unit, 195-foot residential tower overlooking Jill Brown-Rhone Park with ground-floor retail – after four years of discussion that began with a zoning change to raise the height limit from 80 feet. The zoning change was justified, the developers said, because office and lab were financially viable at 80 feet, but housing needed more height to make the numbers work.
The Harding petition seeks to reduce the project’s height to 150 feet and increase its affordable housing requirement to 25 percent from 20 percent (a requirement unique to this project negotiated with the council that breaks down to 17 percent of units for low and moderate incomes, and 3 percent for middle incomes).
“If passed, [the petition] will kill the project and leave the existing landscape in place for years to come,” said Mark Barer of Twining, addressing the council Monday. “For us, this is not a discussion about less height or more affordable units. This is a discussion about the fate of the project.”
Reeves said the Mass+Main proposal was just too tall and “incongruous” with the rest of Central Square. “What is the benefit of this project to this square? What is the benefit of this to the abutters like St. Paul [African Methodist Episcopal Church]? They’re going to be overwhelmed and dwarfed … A 200-foot building does not belong in Central Square.”
Reeves said the council’s vote to approve Mass+Main’s zoning in May 2015 was “an unfortunate and political fluke. They got a very good advocate to line up a number of parties to say yes.”
“I don’t care if it doesn’t get built,” he said. “I would almost argue any height but this one. The proposed uses in the meetings that I have gone to are things like gourmet dog biscuit shops and a men’s clothier like Drinkwater’s. If you go to Drinkwater’s and you get a custom-made blazer you will have spent $1,700. Does that sound like what goes on in Central Square?”
“I think we’re not getting enough benefit for the height,” said Harding, the drafter of the petition, arguing that the developer’s commitment specifically for low- and moderate-income units wasn’t high enough. “Why does Twining get away with not having 20 percent? If you and I build a building, we’re going to be obligated to build 20 percent.”
At Monday’s council meeting, only Nadeem Mazen argued in favor of the petition, saying “this building may stand as a hallmark of a Kendallization to come – the Kendallization that we were afraid of … I feel totally hoodwinked by almost every part of this project.”
Vice mayor Marc McGovern disagreed, saying the development was really about affordable housing, and that “it’s really easy to say, ‘I support affordable housing but it’s too tall.’ It’s easy to say, ‘I support affordable housing but this or that.’” McGovern said that if the council was willing to change the development rules “at eleven fifty-nine” in response to Harding’s petition, then “Why would anyone do business here?”
Councillors Dennis Carlone and Jan Devereux expressed deep reservations about the height of the tower, but did not appear prepared to support the downzoning petition.
At Tuesday’s Planning Board hearing, public comment went 15-to-two in favor of the development project. Unusually, board members departed from their technical review of the proposal to praise it before the vote.
“I think we need the housing, I think we need the retail. I think we need to improve Central Square and really give it a shot in the arm,” said H Theodore Cohen, chairman of the Planning Board, speaking in favor of the proposal.