Thursday, April 18, 2024

The long-closed retail portion of the city-owned First Street Garage in East Cambridge, seen in February, got little attention at a Tuesday meeting on garage lease options. (Photo: Marc Levy)

An overflow crowd of East Cambridge community members voiced concerns Tuesday about a proposal to lease out 420 parking spaces and 9,000 square feet of retail space in a city-owned parking garage – with the parking going to an unpopular plan for a mixed-use building at a redeveloped Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse, which lost its courts around a decade ago.

Apologizing for space constraints at the Multicultural Arts Center that left some 20 people – including city councillor Tim Toomey – straining to hear from the hallway, Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson promised a second public meeting on the proposal before a report to the City Council is completed.

After a brief opening by City Manager Louis A. DePasquale and a presentation on current and past parking trends at the First Street Garage, Peterson fielded questions and comments for the majority of the two-hour meeting.

The Multicultural Arts Center meeting space was crowded beyond capacity at a Tuesday meeting. (Photo: Tim C. Devine)

Conversation on possible uses for the retail space in question was limited. While four years ago courthouse redeveloper Leggat McCall Properties had proposed a 12,000-square-foot grocery store, Peterson said some of the total retail space in the building would be reserved for use by the city as a sign shop, leaving 7,000 square feet for a new retail use; it was possible the sign shop could be relocated and more space made available, she said. City councillor Quinton Zondervan expressed an interest in the original concept – using the retail space for a grocery store, though with affordable prices. Broadway Marketplace and H Mart were used as comparisons, with gross areas of 23,240 and 30,708 square feet respectively.

The majority of speakers were opposed to the proposal to lease public parking spaces. Two speakers were in favor, but “the other voice in favor got heckled for his opinion,” said Joseph “Slugs” Aiello, an East Cambridge resident.

The majority of comments centered on the question of parking and a perceived shortage of parking spaces in the neighborhood. Several people said street parking was scarce and it was difficult to consistently find parking even in the garage, so leasing nearly 40 percent of its spaces to Leggat McCall Properties would be unwelcome news to neighborhood car owners. Other factors that might make parking in East Cambridge harder were raised, including elimination of parking at the CambridgeSide mall, rising costs for space at other garages, future parking needs at the soon-to-open Foundry community building, changes to public transit and population growth.

East Cambridge Planning Team member Fabrizio Gentili tweeted out links to videos Tuesday – this is a screen capture from one – suggesting that the First Street Garage had no spaces to spare to a lease arrangement. (Photo: Fabrizio Gentili via Twitter and YouTube)

Others raised questions about process. Chris Matthews, of the East Cambridge Planning Team, said that community group voted unanimously “in opposition to and in condemnation of the process for the disposition of 420 public parking spaces in the city’s First Street Garage.” Chuck Hinds, the group’s president, said he received 2,000 emails on the topic.

One speaker, who withheld his name because his employer contracts with the state and he fears retaliation at work, likened the proposal to building a private house in a public park. Resident Heather Hoffman characterized the proposed leasehold as a “bailout” of Leggat McCall and the process as the “cart pulling the horse.”

In a letter to city officials dated Saturday, the Cambridge Residents Alliance also opposed the leasing of parking spaces and urged the withdrawal of the bidding document, called a request for proposals.

Michael Hawley, one of four Cambridge residents to unsuccessfully challenge the legality of plans to redevelop the courthouse, called the document “clearly designed for one and only one bidder,” meaning Leggat McCall, in an email; at the meeting he asked why the city issued it before soliciting public comment.

The deputy city manager disagreed with Hawley’s premise of improper process, saying the city is “following exactly” the process outlined in city and state law.

No date was set for a second meeting. Peterson estimated a report will be delivered in early 2019 to the City Council, where the proposal would require a two-thirds majority for approval.

And if the council rejects the proposal?

Among opponents of the leasehold was state Rep. Mike Connolly, who represents East Cambridge and parts of Somerville.“If the city were to decide to just say no to this parking thing,” Connolly said, he would look to restart the state disposition process for the courthouse site.

This post was updated Oct. 31, 2018, to correct that the retail space would be for a shop for making street signs, not a store for sales, and to make the voices of opposition to the plan a majority, rather than universally opposed.