Sunday, June 16, 2024

The recent closing of a 120,000-square-foot Sears is a sign of the times at the CambridgeSide mall in East Cambridge. Mall trustees are seeking to radically remake the space with new zoning. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A proposal to rezone and radically redevelop the CambridgeSide mall has been withdrawn after a Tuesday meeting of the Planning Board so the owners can rethink their plans, city councillor Dennis Carlone said Wednesday.

“The discussion was quite challenging,” Carlone said of the Planning Board dialogue, explaining why a Thursday meeting of the Ordinance Committee he co-chairs with councillor Craig Kelley had been canceled before carrying on more talks about the proposal. “They realized they had to do a lot of work revising” the plans.

The Cambridge Side Galleria Trust and New England Development, led by Stephen Karp, sought a redo via a zoning petition asking to create a “Planned Unit Development,” which is how the largest developments are managed – and this one would have been large. Mall trustees wanted to hang on to some retail but add 600,000 square feet of primarily office and lab space, more than doubling the mall in size to around 1.7 million square feet. There would also have been places for people to live in planned buildings of up to 10 and 12 stories in height, but reporting by John Hawkinson on Twitter said that Planning Board members wanted more residential “and more compensation to offset New England Development’s gains.”

Mall trustees had already been talking about more art, a seasonal farmers market and a contribution to the city’s struggling efforts to keep and increase tree canopy as sweeteners for the plan, which they described as vital to the mall’s long-term survival. 

“Like most malls across the country, CambridgeSide has seen a decline in retail rental demand and customer traffic in recent years as e-commerce threatens bricks-and-mortar retail. Despite consistent efforts to attract new tenants, including a recent multimillion-dollar interior renovation and an application to expand permitted office use,” mall owner trustee Stephen Karp said in the initial zoning request, “the long-term success of CambridgeSide as a mixed-use center requires a more comprehensive redevelopment.”

Critics of the plan have questioned whether survival merits breaking current zoning. “There is no financial justification for the requested building heights [in a plan that] will result in significant costs for all Cambridge residents,” economist Rafi Mohammed wrote in a Cambridge Day essay published Friday.

After the Planning Board hearing and withdrawal of the petition, Mohammed said he was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. “This was the first time that I’ve been involved with a public hearing on a local issue and absolutely commend the City of Cambridge leadership for caring and listening to its citizens,” he said.

A statement emailed Friday from New England Development officials confirmed the delay:

“Feedback we received was overwhelmingly supportive of finding ways to ensure CambridgeSide’s success for the next 30 years and maintain CambridgeSide as a strong community partner to the East Cambridge neighborhood and the City of Cambridge overall. At this time, our project team is fine-tuning the plan, incorporating many of those suggestions, including those we received from the Planning Board at our last hearing. All of this input will inform a more responsive zoning petition that we plan to file this summer.”

Carlone expected to see the mall petition return in July with modifications.

“I thunk they are trying to make it work, and trying to listen,” Carlone said. “They did the right thing. This proposal was not ready.”