Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, left, stands with city councillor Patty Nolan at Starlight Square at their Jan. 3, 2022, inauguration. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Two approaches to saving Starlight Square are on the agenda for the City Council on Monday, including the possibility of the open-air entertainment complex becoming a permanent building instead of its current structure of scaffolding and scrim.

Starlight Square began operating in August 2020 as a project of the Central Square Business Improvement District, offering an outdoor gathering place when indoor entertainment was banned to prevent spread of coronavirus. It filled Municipal Parking Lot 5 in Central Square, providing space for entertainment, gatherings such as school events and shopping, including a Popportunity market made of small, local vendors. Some of them graduated into becoming bricks-and-mortar shops.

Some neighbors complained of the noise from Starlight Square making their lives miserable, though. Board of Zoning Appeal approval for a May-to-November season was conditional in 2022 on noise abatement measures and a midterm check-in; on May 9, the board rejected a 2023 season on a 3-2 vote. Four votes were needed to overcome cited issues of “nuisance or hazard” and adverse effect on adjacent uses.

That happened despite letters of support from city councillors, state representatives and city managers past and present – but some of those councillors are sponsoring a policy order for the city manager to step in to save the season and make Starlight Square a permanent replacement for the parking lot.

The city would “provide a license agreement, as well as direct financial and regulatory support for the continued and uninterrupted operation of the temporary installation,” the order says,  as well as “urgently pursue the establishment of the permanent building on Lot 5.” The order suggests that one-time federal Covid relief funds be used to pay for a study.

A citizen zoning petition led by Central Square BID president Michael Monestime asks that the city’s table of uses be changed to include “outdoor recreation facilities” such as Starlight Square in the area by right, meaning its ability to operate would be the default. Authority would move to the Planning Board, which could approve such projects if members are “able to find the proposed use has been designed and located to minimize the impact on neighboring uses.”

The policy order, written by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, needs a majority of councillors in favor to move to the city manager for action  but six of the nine councillors sent letters of support for Starlight Square to the zoning board.

The zoning petition must move to the council’s Ordinance Committee and Planning Board for hearings.