Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Noise escaping from events at Starlight Square, seen Monday, bothered neighbors in the surrounding Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A fourth season of the outdoor entertainment complex Starlight Square was rejected Thursday by Cambridge’s Board of Zoning Appeal, promising change to the landscape of Central Square and the city culturally as well as physically. The colorful scaffold-and-scrim structure has been a destination since Aug. 8, 2020, for everything from improv comedy to public school events.

Renewal got three out of five members’ votes, when four were needed to pass. 

In a wry coincidence, one of the events scheduled if Starlight was approved to open was a summit on the role of public space in the city – an event that now needs to find another home.

“While we’re devastated, our organization has always rallied in a crisis. This is another moment for us to do so on behalf of the Cultural District,” said Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District, in a Friday press release. There were no details available on what the BID would do to recover from the vote and loss of Starlight.

Though the conclusion shocked some in attendance, the reasons behind the votes against were not new: Those living nearest Starlight Square complain that the noise from it is disruptive, though it was acknowledged that the attraction had not otherwise changed the nature of Central Square, such as by adding traffic.

Starlight is behind the H Mart grocery store, with access via Graffiti Alley from Massachusetts Avenue and borders defined by Norfolk Street and Bishop Allen Drive.

Board vote

Board member Slater Anderson captured the conflict in his remarks: “I’m not interested in approving this indefinitely. I still I feel like we’re getting the same complaints that we’ve had for three years from the immediate abutters.” 

Yet Anderson wound up being a vote in favor of keeping Starlight with chair Brendan Sullivan and member Andrea Hickey. Vice chair Jim Monteverde and associate member Wendy Leiserson were opposed. 

For them, noise complaints outweighed significant support from city councillors, the mayor and city manager and state representatives, as well as a slew of callers and letter writers, and a new promise by the BID to look at a mitigation fund for people suffering from Starlight Square noise.

“We could soundproof windows [and buy] air conditioners if folks couldn’t open their windows to have a breeze come in. Through dialogue, we would be able to better understand what those one-on-one fixes might be,” Monestime told the board. Though his organization had reached out to neighbors to make these assessments, “no one has taken us up on it.”

Public comment

The handful of complaints were extreme, including a resident who identified herself only as Emily and said Starlight Square had ruined summers for her and gave her panic attacks. “I’m about to get one now, to be honest,” she said, referring to the first year of events as “torture.”

Another said it was hard to put their young children to sleep during events. Resident Michael James said that “because events are so late we can’t rest after work. We can’t be productive. We are even denied the opportunity to invite guests over the weekend because every weekend, there are events going on. And they’re going on until very late.” Starlight has been licensed until 9 p.m.

Others either questioned the noise complaints or found the tradeoff worthwhile, like Tony Clark, cofounder and co-president of My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, and legislative aide Dan Totten. Former city councillor Nadeem Mazen, a longtime Central Square resident who said street noise and traffic was as loud as Starlight. “Some of the things I’ve heard in public comment. I’m just not on the same planet as these people,” Mazen said. “It would really behoove them to engage the organizers and look at sound mitigation.”

Dawning of Starlight

The complex opened during the Covid pandemic, when open-air events were the only safe way to gather. The initiative was led by the BID under the leadership of Monestime and had the help of the city in transforming its Municipal Parking Lot 5 to provide space for entertainment, gatherings such as school events and shopping. That included a Popportunity market made of small, local vendors – five out more than 100 of which graduated into their own bricks-and-mortar shops after the pandemic “forced 13 businesses to close,” Monestime said. 

Events at Starlight are free to attend, subsidized by city government. The BID had paid out more than a quarter-million dollars to artists and organizers creating the free programming, Monestime said.

In 2021, it sounded like Starlight could be a permanent fixture of Central Square. Financial supporter Charlotte Wagner, of the Boston-based Wagner Foundation, said she hoped it “will be embedded in Central Square for many, many years to come.” Then-city manager Louis A. DePasquale said he was “committed to continue to work with the BID and with Michael to make sure that we preserve Starlight in our cultural district here or somewhere else. This is too important to give up.”

New conditions

A year ago, though, as Starlight Square sought to move from operating under a pandemic-era emergency order to more traditional permitting, the board decided against granting a full season, from May 1 to Oct. 31. Instead, it granted a half-season that gave operators until August to work with neighbors to address their concerns about noise. In July, they won a second half of a season after ending all programming at 9 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday; holding only two music events per week;  monitoring sound levels; and installing drum shields.  

In new conditions voted by the board. live music would be limited to the weekends – and drum circle performances be allowed only until 5 p.m. and live acoustic music to Fridays at 7 p.m. or Saturdays at 9 p.m.

That wasn’t enough to keep neighbors from complaining again this year about noise, even as acknowledged quality and public service component of Starlight’s events.

When board members voted, it was straight up or down, and the 3-2 vote missed the needed supermajority for a renewed permit.

Reactions to the decision

One resident attending the meeting, James Williamson, said he was surprised at the outcome – and that there wasn’t more effort to spare Starlight as a whole with more limits on hours and kinds of events, noting that the end of Starlight was a blow to the Popportunity markets. “It was shocking,” Williamson said of the outcome.

State Rep. Mike Connolly, who submitted a letter to the board in support of Starlight, said Friday that he too was surprised. 

“I frankly never imagined they would deny the permit for season four of Starlight Square. I’m sad and disappointed the BZA couldn’t agree to a compromise,” Connolly said.

The full statement released Friday by Monestime:

Last night, Starlight Square was denied a special permit by the Board of Zoning Appeal. Two of the five members of the board chose to vote against issuing a special permit despite overwhelming public support, the support of the majority of city councillors and the city manager. This was Starlight’s third public hearing; it was heard and approved for the same special permit in March 2022 and again in July 2022.

For three years, throughout a pandemic, Starlight has been home to the best of the Cultural District, the public square that generations of Central Square residents have imagined and recommended through city planning. It has been a site of regeneration for the entire district, opening doors for artists, community organizers and local entrepreneurs while so many other spaces are closing – the Sound Museum, most recently.

Someone should spend time examining a system that empowers members of an unelected board to shut down a community benefit project which has the support of the mayor, vice mayor, city councillors, state representatives, community leaders and residents. That is not ours to do.

Our priority is to inform the growing community of people for whom Starlight is essential: the 80-plus programming applicants, the 60-plus Popportunity entrepreneurs, the steering committee and our other partners who invest time and energy year-round to offer free, public programming. Among upcoming events were a summit on the role of public space in the city; a fundraiser for humanitarian relief after the earthquakes in Turkey; the Cambridge Families of Color’s third annual Juneteenth celebration; a Cambridge Youth Council gathering; and much, much more.

We appreciate all of the people who spoke in support – it was a beautiful outpouring of what Starlight has made possible and for whom – and while we’re devastated, our organization has always rallied in a crisis. This is another moment for us to do so on behalf of the Cultural District.