Saturday, June 22, 2024

A building for the life-sciences company Moderna goes up Aug. 20 on Binney Street in Kendall Square, where smaller biotechs are typically priced out. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Powerful forces lined up to oppose limits proposed Monday on where labs could be built in Cambridge.

Representatives of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kendall Square Association and Chamber of Commerce fired warning shots responding to a proposal by city councillor Quinton Zondervan to talk about limiting labs to the city’s industrial zones, taking away developers’ right to put them in areas zoned for offices and other businesses. (Labs are already barred from open space and residential areas.)

“The petition would ban labs in much of Central Square, Harvard Square and on Cambridge Street,” said Sarah Gallop, co-director at MIT’s Office of Government and Community Relations, during public comment. “What are we trying to achieve? What problems are we trying to solve? … We can simply make adjustments to [existing] overlay districts rather than take such a broad and sweeping approach.”

Nancy Donohue, director of government affairs with the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, warned that “efforts to curtail or limit groundbreaking innovation would be detrimental to the city in the long term. The life-science industry has had a profound economic impact in Cambridge, and has proven to be a valuable partner to the city.”

“We understand that this is being presented in the context of needing more housing and retail and by no means do we see this as a zero-sum game. Future lab growth should not and cannot impede other emergency priorities – in fact, the economic value of our city’s labs is essential to preserving and creating more of what keeps our community so culturally rich,” said B. Kimmerman, director of government and community relations at the Kendall Square Association.

All urged more discussion on the restrictions – a theme in the text of Zondervan’s order and in comments by councillors later – but the comments highlight the growing tensions over development as Kendall Square has been squeezed beyond capacity. With the “most innovative square mile on the planet” packed full, labs have spread toward Central Square and into East Cambridge, leaped the border into Somerville at Assembly Square and emerged as the next overwhelming wave of construction in the Alewife area. The council voted in May to freeze work on new labs and offices in the Alewife Quadrangle until balanced zoning is adopted.

Another illustration of the issue came late in August in Porter Square, where just across the Somerville line a developer proposed a four-story laboratory office building topped by a fifth floor of mechanicals that would sit aside homes to overlook a grocery store and other shops.

Similar proposal

Councillor Dennis Carlone has been working since March 2021 on zoning to limit labs and some technical offices from being built near low-density housing, but his zoning proposal had little support under former city manager Louis A. DePasquale. Zondervan’s order, which looks initially more restrictive than Carlone’s, was filed knowing that Carlone would try again next month in timing suggested by city staff, Carlone said.

“There’s overlap,” Carlone said Monday after the council meeting. “I don’t want labs in the squares either. But I did it in a different way, talking about special permits with very strict guidelines.”

Zondervan said his order was written after conversation with some of the city’s smaller labs operators – the kind that can’t find or afford space in Kendall Square – and was written so they would be “minimally impacted” if they’re in areas that would get new restrictions, including by considering them conforming uses until 2050. “The conversation continues,” Zondervan said. “As it says in the announcement, the goal of this petition really is to start a conversation, and I’m hoping that we will have a good one and get some more feedback – we got some even today.”

Conversation before the conversation

There was no expectation that the order would pass as is, Zondervan and cosponsor Marc McGovern said Monday. McGovern said his own tour of smaller labs on Cambridge Street left him with “very little issue with those types of labs being in squares and certain areas.”

Still, even the start of a formal process around the order will have to wait at least a week, as councillor Paul Toner used his “charter right” to give himself time to have some conversations before the conversations.

While he didn’t want “biohazards next to our residences,” he stopped a vote on Zondervan’s order to use the next week to tweak the language the work starts with. “I want to avoid having a bludgeon and work for with some sort of nuanced ability to allow the appropriate types of labs to operate in different neighborhoods,” Toner said.