The Urbanist: If we got a real estate transfer fee, dream would be funding housing design contest
The biggest business in town might be real estate. Across the river in Boston, the former Landmark Center, at Brookline Avenue near Fenway, was sold for $1.5 billion. I remember my first visit there when it was still a barely heated Sears outlet store, selling what looked like damaged goods to very poor people.
Later it became a group of movie theaters, an REI store and a now-hibernating Time Out food hall. But it’s now known as lab space, which in the newest version of Boston is more valuable than first-class office space. The building’s proximity to the Harvard Medical Area makes it quite valuable too.
Across the river, here in Cambridge, the University Park development was sold for $3.5 billion with the former Forest City (a national development company out of Cleveland, sold to a bigger company called Brookfield and now sold to Blackstone, a New York financial firm).
University Park, the development along Sidney Street, was once known as the Simplex Wire site. Years ago MIT Police removed homeless people from the Tent City encampment to go forward with the development. It was designed by Fred Koetter, once the head of Yale’s architecture program and co-author of the well-regarded “Collage City,” which advocated contextualism in city design.
In February 2016 the City Council proposed a real estate transfer fee or tax on transactions such as the Brookfield-Blackstone sale. Had the feee been passed within those four years, Cambridge might have received $68 million as a result.
If there was money coming to the city from the sale, I would have proposed it be used to support an architectural and planning competition to build more and better affordable housing.
And I think the way the city should spend it would be to investigate two places not usually considered together: Columbus, Indiana; and Berlin. Berlin has had a famous competition to build architecturally distinguished housing for workers (a term I like), while Columbus is full of buildings by famous architects because Cummins Engines, which is based there, subsidizes the architecture fees.
The money could be used for actual construction, or it could be used for design. Cambridge has two famous schools of architecture at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and many well-known architecture firms. The Berlin model offers the promise of spirited, informed discussions and disputes as to what kind of housing should be built and where.
Overall, planning has been fitful and opaque here, with developers nurturing political connections to city councillors in exchange for approval of projects on an ad hoc basis. In 2017, Christian de Portzamparc, the French architect and planner, famous for his own focus on contextualism, said: “No one but an architect can solve the problems of the contemporary city.”
Gus Rancatore has lived and eaten in Cambridge since 1973. He and his sister own Toscanini’s ice cream on First Street and soon to return to Lafayette Square.