Saturday, June 22, 2024

Starlight Square under construction July 30, 2020, in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Starlight Square is most likely on track to begin its fourth season of programming this summer, though Planning Board members voted Tuesday to abstain from submitting a recommendation to the City Council on a zoning amendment to allow operation by right.

The board decided to send along neither a positive nor negative recommendation to the council, which chair Mary Flynn predicted would vote in favor of allowing Starlight to return as an open-air event venue in a parking lot at Norfolk Street and Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square.

Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District, filed the zoning petition to allow “outdoor recreation facilities” to operate by default. Central Square is Cambridge’s only official cultural district, and Monestime wants to highlight that with Starlight.

“This is not a carte blanche permission to have rock concerts on every street corner,” Monestime said at Tuesday’s meeting. “There are a robust suite of existing ordinances such as the noise ordinance and systems of oversight such as the License Commission that ensure neighbors both commercial and residential are considered.”

Monestime argued that “people choose to live and choose to travel here because of Central’s civic and public life,” and Starlight has become one of the “fundamental establishments who embody the cultural spirit of Central Square, showcasing it through food, beverage, music, dance, social services and much, much more.”

Public comment at the meeting included support for the entertainment venue, which also hosts pop-up retail events, continuing to bring life to Central Square. Opponents reminded Planning Board members of the ongoing noise issues Starlight causes for neighbors, who are mostly low-income individuals and families in affordable housing, and disputed a narrative of the Central Square BID that it was responsive to noise complaints or to neighbors.

A resident of Norfolk Street, Michael James, said that the noise at the height of the season, with events on multiple weekdays, has had a “severe impact.” The timing of events overlaps with “some of our most intimate times, when we try to have dinner together and communicate with each other,” James said. “And we’re unable to do that because the sound is quite overwhelming and we can’t hear each other.” 

Several attempts to communicate with the BID never brought follow-up, James said – the flip side of Monestime telling the Board of Zoning Appeal in March that neighbors didn’t take the organization up on offers of fixes such as soundproofed windows.

A former member of the Central Square Advisory Committee also spoke positively of Starlight’s cultural impact but opposed the petition, as Starlight is in commercial-to-residential transitional zone where uses should be turning down the volume. Boston’s open-air Hatch Memorial Shell is intentionally removed from a dense urban neighborhood because of its potential for disruption, Randa Ghattas said.

“Starlight Square is a great example of tactical urbanism – trying something temporary to see if it works and what needs to be done to make it work,” Ghattas said, as Starlight was created to fill the gap left by the Covid pandemic. “If this were proposed in the front- or backyards of any people advocating for this, they would be opposed to it.”

The Planning Board was split — two were in favor of the petition, two opposed and three had mixed feelings. From there, members chose to pass along their thoughts on the noise issues and potential relocation or reimagining of the venue.

“I don’t think that this zoning petition and the process is the appropriate way to address this,” Flynn said. “I don’t necessarily feel like the noise recommendations are a zoning matter per se, but they clearly are pertinent to this matter.”

If the council approves the petition, Starlight’s season is set to begin in May.