Sunday, July 21, 2024

The doors at 105 Windsor St., in The Port neighborhood of Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A city staff pattern of unfulfilled promises and repeated studies was called out by two city councillors at their sole summer meeting, Aug. 7, though in this case the City Council had a role in the practice.

“This is not my first time at the rodeo,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said. “I feel like we are right back at the same place that we are so often – we’d rather have a process than do something.”

It’s been a theme in Cambridge called out by civic groups as dating back to 1979, often around major planning efforts such as the C2 and K2 studies and Envision master plan, with holistic debate and adoption never taking place, and city planners using parts on a more or less ad hoc basis. In this case, it concerns a specific building at 105 Windsor St. in The Port for which money was allocated.

The concerns surfaced during the discussion of a Central Square Municipal Property Needs Assessment and Planning Study.

The study is designed to hear community needs and assess how vacant city-owned spaces can serve them. In policy orders provided in November 2022, there was a call for affordable housing; arts and cultural amenities; human services, municipal office and public gathering space; infrastructure needs; community facilities; and municipal functions. The city has identified 13 underutilized or underdeveloped properties that could be renovated to fit these needs. Some of these properties, such as the lot at 35 Cherry St., have planned uses – in that case, affordable housing. In the case of the Cherry Street lot, a call for a developer has already gone out, said Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development.

Since beginning the overall Central Square project in June, city staff have conducted research on properties, gathered information about the condition, use and potential of each space and planned a community engagement phase, expected to be the largest part of the study. Starting in October, the city aims to begin developing plans for the properties to present to the City Council in November.

The process is expected to end by January, with a report that month, Farooq said.

“Processing ourselves into paralysis”

While Simmons said she saw the need for the project and respected the thoroughness of the process, this discussion triggered déjà vu – all the way back to the council’s 2011 Red Ribbon Commission on Central Square, a “lovely, printed” study that has not been acted on.

“What concerns me, however, is the possibility of processing ourselves into paralysis,” Simmons said. “We are getting weary of having processes.”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan expressed concern about the vacant 105 Windsor St. Over the past 150 years, it has served as a recreation center, veterans hall and neighborhood family care center. Now the building has been vacant for more than a decade, which Zondervan attributed to “municipal neglect.” Last summer, interns out of Zondervan’s office spoke to more than 200 people in the surrounding neighborhood about what they wanted the city to do with the building. Daniel Totten, a former aide to Zondervan and now a council candidate, said the consensus was to make the site a multipurpose community space to be filled using neighborhood input.

The council allocated $4.5 million at an Aug. 1, 2022, meeting primarily for the design of the property, and then-acting city manager Owen O’Riordan – now deputy city manager – assured there would be community engagement on specific property. A year later, no progress has been made, and the property reappeared folded into the larger Central Square study.

Seeking a separate track

Totten argued that the site “needs to be on a separate track because this neighborhood was promised that [work]. They don’t want to admit that, they don’t want to talk about it, but it’s a sleight of hand that’s going back on a promise to this neighborhood, which is one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in the entire city,” Totten said.

“Everyone wants the community to truly have a say for once,” and the survey shows residents don’t want “a single-use like city offices or a museum.”

An inventory of vacant or underused city property out of the City Manager’s Office dated Nov. 16 identified the 13,000-square-foot property as needing “substantial interior and exterior renovations” before a next use, possibly functioning as a history museum; art gallery; community kitchen; meeting space; social services; economic enrichment; or preschool “but not city offices,” with the word “not” underlined in the report.

Still, Zondervan said he was disappointed by the lack of action. “Combined with all the other visible signs of neglect, it just continues to undermine the people who live there and their enjoyment of their neighborhood and their sense of progress and prosperous future,” he said.

Simmons said she’s concerned that if the pattern of inaction continues, community members will become reluctant to engage with the city at all. “We talk about having a robust community process, but at some point, people are going to say, ‘Why should I bother?’” Simmons said. “It’s like we have an Etch A Sketch. We shake it, and we start all over again. Start all over from scratch. I do think we need to stop being afraid of making decisions and then actually committing to them.”

Accepted by council

The councillors were reminded by O’Riordan that the inclusion of 105 Windsor in a comprehensive study of municipal needs was discussed Nov. 21 in a memo that folded together three council orders dating back to November 2020, March 2018 and December 2016 – calls for an update on vacant city-owned property and on the potential for building below-market rentals on municipal parking lots on Bishop Allen Drive. It was then that the councillors also approved $200,000 to be used for a consultant for the Central Square planning study “given the concentration of the city’s vacant and underutilized property assets” there.

“Rather than having significant battles around one particular property when it came to one particular use, we felt that it would be best to think about a comprehensive set of issues or needs across all the various properties,” O’Riordan said. After a preliminary assessment of all needs the city can “identify those that could be best accommodated” in each space, including a more detailed discussion about 105 Windsor St.

A note in the November inventory said a “robust community process will listen to and consider a wide variety of potential uses,” and councillors accepted the report and placed it on file Dec. 5 without complaint.