Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Starlight Square prepares to open Aug. 7, 2020, surrounded by residences in Cambridge’s Central Square and The Port neighborhood. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Starlight Square was cleared to begin its season of open-air event programming in an emergency vote Monday by the City Council. The vote was 8-0-1, meaning no councillor was opposed but vice mayor Alanna Mallon was absent from the meeting.

Concerns over noise almost scuttled an imminent fourth Starlight season. The Board of Zoning Appeal voted March 9 to deny the special permit that the Central Square Business Improvement District needed to continue operating Starlight. 

The sound of nightly cultural events from May to November has been disruptive and at times excruciating, the BZA heard from some neighbors. The nearest homes are directly across the street from the scaffold-and-scrim structure at Municipal Parking Lot 5 between Massachusetts Avenue and Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square.

Zoning filed after the BZA vote by Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District, called for by-right “outdoor recreation facilities” in Central Square and won council support in an Ordinance Committee hearing April 13 that was repeated Monday. That was despite the Planning Board being less enthusiastic Tuesday and abstaining from a recommendation. 

Councillors, though supportive of Starlight Square and its mission, had misgivings about the “emergency” basis on which the zoning passed – in the boilerplate language allowing passage in a single night, a crisis affecting the “health or safety of the people of Cambridge or their property.”

“I don’t see it,” councillor Dennis Carlone said.

Instead of focusing on the health-or-safety part, councillor Quinton Zondervan advised councillors to look at concerns about property.

Discomfort at “emergency”

A similar “emergency” zoning vote has been taken by the council around cannabis sellers, noted councillors Burhan Azeem and Paul Toner in explaining their reluctant votes in favor.

“I think all of us would have preferred this was done in a way that is not this vote,” councillor Patty Nolan said, joining the chorus calling for ways to avoid the language in the future. “It’s somewhat uncomfortable, even though we all totally support Starlight.”

The least hesitant voters were Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who noted the number of people employed by the Central Square Business Improvement District at Starlight and the organizations waiting to hold events there, and councillor Marc McGovern, who expressed confidence in the BID’s work to reduce noise complaints.

“For some folks in the neighborhood, this has been a challenge, but I feel that that the BID has and will continue to make efforts. They’ve already reduced the hours for music and activity and have offered to reduce the number of days. They’ve offered to work with people,” McGovern said.

Other opportunities

The zoning covering the Central Square Cultural District isn’t limited to Starlight Square, and McGovern said he was supportive also “for the other opportunities it will bring” for outdoor uses.

A calendar for the season wasn’t live late Monday after the council ruling; a note for last season said it began May 20. A later email showed the season starting at noon June 6.

There was a second Starlight measure advanced by councillors March 20, the same night that Monestime’s zoning arrived: They 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 Starlight into a permanent building. That could mean acoustics and soundproofing designed to bother neighbors less.