Thursday, June 20, 2024

Starlight Square hosts a Jan. 3, 2022, Cambridge City Council inauguration. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Two efforts to keep Starlight Square open in Cambridge’s Central Square advanced Monday with barely a voice raised in opposition. It was just March 9 that members of the Board of Zoning Appeal moved to have the outdoor entertainment and municipal-event complex – born during the Covid pandemic – shut down as a noise nuisance to neighbors.

In a motion that could make that judgment moot, city councillors voted 9-0 to send to the city manager a request that he “provide a license agreement, as well as direct financial and regulatory support for the continued and uninterrupted operation of the temporary installation.” 

The city manager was asked to “urgently pursue” turning the scaffolding and scrim into a permanent building on its home at Municipal Parking Lot 5 between Massachusetts Avenue and Bishop Allen Drive.

Also passing with enthusiasm was a citizen zoning petition to make “outdoor recreation facilities” such as Starlight Square be allowed in the area by default. The petition was led by Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District that put up Starlight Square with city help. One of the signers was state Rep. Mike Connolly.

During public comment, more than 30 residents and vendors at Starlight Square’s Popportunity market spoke, all avidly pro-Starlight and supportive of its free events save for a single note of sympathy for the neighbors sounded by James Williamson. The BZA members voting down the complex’s 2023 season “were raising important, legitimate concerns,” Williamson said. “We ought to find a way to respond to those neighbors – to keep Starlight certainly through the rest of the season, but in a way that takes seriously the concerns of the immediate neighbors. I think we can do that without changing the zoning.”

Programming hours and restrictions tightened at Starlight in 2022 to be more sensitive to the nearest unhappy residents. During the March 9 board hearing, Monestime said no person still complaining had responded to his organization’s offers to resolve noise issues with such measures as soundproofed windows and free air conditioners.

Monestime addressed the council Monday. “We are in front of this body because the council holds the true power to approve Starlight,” he said. “If granted the zoning and given the opportunity for multiple seasons, the BID and Starlight staff will continue to work with neighbors and city staff and lessen any impacts, to be good stewards for the city and our cultural district.”

Supporting him were voices that includes Tony Clark, co-founder and co-president of My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, who said the venue “helps to empower Central Square to get folks to think more creatively currently, but also think about the future”; and former city councillors Ken Reeves and Nadeem Mazen.

Solid Starlight

After an hour of virtually nonstop praise Monday for what Starlight Square had offered the community since August 2020, and no appearance by the unhappy neighbors, councillors paid the noise issues little attention.

“There were concerns of abutters, and they deserve to be heard – they were heard. Accommodations were actually made,” councillor Patty Nolan said. “And since the BZA meeting, I’m sure all of us have heard from people how critically important this is to what has been dubbed the soul of Central Square.”

Remaking Starlight as a permanent structure, with solid walls instead of the current, porous materials would reduce noise further, councillor Dennis Caroline noted. Though technically the zoning petition would allow Starlight to be anywhere within the Central Square overlay district, councillors said seeing its home become parking again would be depressing.

A study of a permanent Starlight Square was approved in July to use $500,000 from an American Rescue Plan Act grant, a onetime disbursement of federal Covid recovery money, said Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, author of the policy order.

A delight of Central Square

Starlight Square fulfilled the promise of 2011’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Concerns and Delights of Central Square, councillor E. Denise Simmons said.

“There have been extraordinary efforts over the years to really make Central Square the robust center of our city. Starlight has done that,” Simmons said to Siddiqui. “It’s not only been an opportunity for women of color and small-business owners to to to sell their wares, but it’s been a meeting-and-greeting place. I’ve gone to roller-skating parties and concerts. Madame mayor, you had a fantastic Bollywood moment. We’ve had graduations and proms. It’s just a wonder to have it.”

This policy order to make Starlight permanent is “trying to promote what Central Square can and should be,” Simmons said.

The order now moves to the City Manager’s Office for consideration, while the zoning petition got a rote vote that sends it to the Planning Board and the council’s Ordinance Committee.

One or both measures may have to move quickly: The Starlight season is May 1 to Oct. 31.