Despite bristles over a request for no conditions, and design issues, Kendall tower wins approval
Though there are design details to be worked out, Cambridge’s next tallest building – a 38-story residential tower proposed for 135 Broadway, Kendall Square – won general approval from the Planning Board and Cambridge Redevelopment Authority last week. That lets developer Boston Properties and Eversource move forward on a complicated site that will include a new electrical power substation, what one executive described as “a massive Swiss watch with multiple third parties.”
Though members of the board and CRA largely admired the proposed tower at their joint Tuesday meeting, calling it “impressive” and “architecturally significant,” the urgency described by Boston Properties and Eversource nearly undid a clearly all-but-certain approval.
So far rendered as a bronze and glass tower, the tower would add around 455 homes from studios to three-bedroom units, 91 of which would be kept affordable under the city’s inclusionary rule and 23 of which would be for middle-income earners – 20 percent and 5 percent, respectively. There will be 1,130 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 4,500 square feet of outdoor terrace for tenants, the developers say. This 420,000-square-foot building to be built at the southern end of what is now a (soon to be demolished) six-level parking garage is allowed by zoning to rise to 400 feet because the occupied floors above the 250-foot mark are only residential. It would become Cambridge’s tallest building, beating a 29-story, 315-foot, copper-hued MIT graduate dorm called Building 4 that went up in Kendall Square in 2019-2020.
The project came about as a way to keep Eversource from building a power substation on Fulkerson Street in residential East Cambridge, with the Kennedy-Longfellow elementary school and John A. Ahern field right across the street. When news of the Fulkerson Street substation plan emerged in 2019, residents and officials went looking for an alternative – which became moving the substation into Kendall Square, where Boston Properties’ Blue Garage now stands. Residents had already expected the garage to be topped with apartments and condominiums; Boston Properties, by taking on the substation, got a more radical change with the bonus of 800,000 more square feet of development space. Two proposed commercial buildings that are part of the deal are set to be reviewed Tuesday in another Planning Board-CRA meeting.
Call for urgency
As the board and CRA praised the project overall but homed in on questions about details of lighting, entryways, landscaping, a water feature and children’s playground, Boston Properties vice president for development Michael Tilford interjected with concern.
“Because this is a massive Swiss watch with multiple third parties and time is beyond of the essence, we would very much ask for an approval this evening without conditions or further requirements of coming back for review process,” Tilford said, citing recent Boston Properties projects as earning “a degree of faith in our commitment to making urban design better.”
An Eversource representative agreed that time was of the essence to make sure that state approvals for the substation were in place to bring facilities online to meet the projected power demands in 2028 or 2029. Site constraints include the location of the electrical substation and having to navigate a “spaghetti” of electrical transmission lines that “presented an enormous challenge to the design team,” said Louis Kraft, of Stantec, the architecture firm working on the project with Boston Properties.
Though Planning Board member Hugh Russell said it was “inconceivable” that Boston Properties couldn’t be trusted to work on design improvements despite getting approval, the request rubbed other members the wrong way. “It seemed to me that maybe 10 or 15 minutes ago, we were at the point where I thought we could vote on something – until the representatives from Boston Properties” asked for no conditions, H. Theodore Cohen said. Chair Catherine Preston Connolly walked a line, assuring the developers that “we get the urgency. We are trying to find a solution here in real time that respects our process and our obligations as well as the ones that you have.”
The conflict was resolved with Connolly clarifying that design review would continue after a general approval, though it’s the CRA process that city staff considers to have more teeth to keep the building on track toward the city’s wishes.
Areas of concern
Planning Board members had several concerns that Connolly itemized for updates on an ongoing basis, among them the design of the plaza in front of the building; whether the entryways were subtle and minimalistic, or merely underwhelming and lacking distinction; if a children’s play area will be too small for the number expected to live in the building; whether the tower lighting “is getting to be a little Vegas,” in the words of Lou Bacci; if the building’s crown, as the feature that would stand out on the skyline, felt finished and connected with the rest of the building; about bike storage; the design of benches; and on the site’s plantings.
For the CRA, the concerns were similar, including for the plaza, play area, lighting and entryway.
A proposed water feature also drew discussion, as members wondered if it was worth it in a region with such extreme winter weather (Planning Board associate member Alan Price mused that it could be a public skating rink in the winter). And the number of proposed balconies was noted: 32, or going on around one-third of the building’s 90 expected corner units by alternating floors. “Some tenants are interested in these spaces, others are much more interested in natural light,” Kraft said, but members of the public and Planning Board mentioned wanting additional balconies in a building with 455 units.
Still, “all of those things are secondary to the fact that yes, we like the building,” Cohen said.
CRA member and architect Barry Zevin praised the presented project as having “a rarely achieved level of design” and worried that “tweaking it and messing with it is only going to send it downhill. I would be very happy to leave this thing completely as is as presented and get it built.”