Sunday, June 16, 2024

As a lifelong resident of our city and a graduate of its public schools, I write in support of CambridgeSide and a proposal by New England Development to transform the mall into a beautifully designed, mixed-use retail center that respects where it is. The connections to Canal Park and the Charles are there for residents. These connections to our city and its people run even deeper.

In 1968, one of my first jobs was working for the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, and I traveled extensively through East Cambridge with the authority’s executive director, planning rehabilitation projects and city parks. I learned firsthand what makes the city vital.

CambridgeSide has always been more than a place to shop. It is a place to meet, bring our kids and relax with friends and family. It is vital. When our students from the high school meet there, we know they are safe and respected. If you lived here as long as I have, you get to know our nonprofits – Little Leagues, individual families under stress and more. The support so many get from New England Development is remarkable. This is a community resource and always has been.

But we are not oblivious to the challenges CambridgeSide faces. As a central element of the 1978 East Cambridge Riverfront Plan, it opened in 1990 when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Berlin Wall was tumbling down, the World Wide Web had just been invented and e-commerce was about to begin. It was a different time. Original anchor stores Lechmere, Sears and Filenes are all gone today – testimony to a drastically changing retail market as we fast forward to the advent of online shopping: Last year a documented 145 million square feet of retail space closed and this year the closings have accelerated, like falling dominos. What were once magnets for shoppers, traditional shopping malls and centers have instead become challenged and threatened.

It’s just different now.

CambridgeSide is adapting, and rezoning of the site is essential to long-term success of a mixed-use course correction. This impressive redevelopment, an initiative in sound planning, will enhance retail dramatically, create complimentary commercial space, provide much-needed affordable housing and generate additional revenues for the city, as well as providing ongoing contributions to community groups.

In revitalizing CambridgeSide wholly, rezoning ensures its future as a vibrant retail center, providing restaurant, commercial and residential uses and significantly increasing revenues paid to the city – and contributions to community groups:

bullet-gray-small$1 million to the East Cambridge Scholarship Fund;
bullet-gray-small$500,000 to the Cambridge Arts Initiative;
bullet-gray-small$500,000 to the tree fund;
bullet-gray-smallMore than $6.5 million to the Affordable Housing Trust;
bullet-gray-smallMore than 80 units of developer-subsidized housing for low-income and middle-income residents;
bullet-gray-smallRestoration of the DCR Boathouse, providing public dock space and landscaping;
bullet-gray-smallEnhanced access to the Charles River;
bullet-gray-smallRegarding tax revenues, CambridgeSide has paid more than $4 million a year in real estate taxes, or about $45 million over the past 10 years;
bullet-gray-smallCambridgeSide has contributed regularly to local nonprofits and charities for about $100,000 per year – a commitment that will continue and increase upon completion of the new project;
bullet-gray-smallUpon completion of the full buildout, real estate taxes are estimated to increase to more than $7 million a year; totaling an additional $30 million in incremental tax revenue for 10 years following completion of construction;
Regarding job creation, redevelopment is anticipated to create in excess of 7,000 construction jobs over the next eight to 10 years;
bullet-gray-smallRedevelopment is anticipated to create more than 2,500 permanent jobs at varying income and skill levels in addition to the more than 2,000 existing jobs at CambridgeSide that will be maintained throughout construction.

This is a far better scenario than the reality of vacant space, which diminishes property values and ultimately lessens revenues to the city and contributions to the community, and that makes this a project worthy of serious consideration. There’s an old axiom that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you – inaccurately. Let the facts here, not hyperbole or inaccuracies, speak for themselves.

After a career in civil rights and diversity, I hope I’ve developed a good ear for the genuine. CambridgeSide is a special place that doesn’t go through the motions, not at all. Steve Karp understood something the day some 30 years ago that he prepared to open the doors at CambridgeSide: He was stepping into our city and wanted to become part of its heartbeat. We can’t be careless when a place like this needs our support.

CambridgeSide has been an integral part of the Cambridge community for three decades, and seeks to continue that legacy.

James E. Spencer, Hancock Street


James Spencer is a retired civil rights and diversity officer.