Saturday, June 22, 2024

The parking lot at 41 Bellis Circle on Wednesday, after the City Council voted to buy it. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The $8.3 million asked to buy a parking lot in Neighborhood 9 near Fresh Pond was released Wednesday in a special meeting of Cambridge’s City Council with some talk of building affordable housing there and even more focus on the needs of the city’s Department of Public Works.

With the money freed by a 7-0 vote of the council (two members were absent) and another vote taken immediately to remove the possibility of reconsideration, the friendly land-taking of 41 Bellis Circle should be done within the next week, deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said. 

After the purchase will come a community process to determine the best use of the 0.9 acres that until recently belonged to the Cambridge Montessori School but in January was sold to developer William Senne for $6.4 million. The friendly eminent domain process will be negotiated with Senne. That raised suspicions from speakers during a public comment period, along with questions about the timing of a 2 p.m. meeting with little notice and some remarks opposing the site for affordable housing.

“This land could be valuable to many of our goals,” City Manager Yi-An Huang said during the special meeting. “I can hear a lot of uncertainty, but we are committed to a conversation to work through [the options] together.”

There was some chiding from city councillors too about a lack of communication around the deal. The city managers thanked the council for putting together the meeting on short notice, and O’Riordan explained that the city had not known in January that the school was selling. (City councillor Quinton Zondervan added that he knew the school did not think of contacting the city as a buyer.)

The current price is a good one worth acting on before the opportunity is lost, O’Riordan said. “The price we were initially quoted was much higher,” he said. “And if we thought this was unreasonable, we’d walk away.”

The DPW, which O’Riordan once led and still oversees as deputy city manager, has 2.8 acres at 147 Hampshire St., Wellington-Harrington, that is in poor shape and unable to keep up with the city’s needs, he said. As a result, the department has satellite space leased around the city from various property owners, including the state, under arrangements that will expire soon.

The department has been looking for a long-term solution property for years, last proposing in May that $14.4 million be spent on 0.8 acres between Inman and Union squares as a depot for Public Works equipment, only for the council to balk at the price and say the better use in that area was affordable housing. A question was left Wednesday with a city spokesperson on the status of the land.

“Whether we’re talking about affordable housing or the DPW, we’re trying to accumulate land because property is getting more expensive,” councillor Paul Toner said. “If we don’t do something soon, we’ll be bringing in our DPW from Billerica.”

If the city doesn’t buy the land at Bellis Circle, it’s likely to wind up as a private residential development that is even bigger than what the city might build after a public process, Toner said. 

It’s also likely to cost the city a chance to use the site for storm water management, which O’Riordan said could be done whether the land was used for Public Works or affordable housing. The area is prone to flooding, and the effects of climate change are expected to make the problem more dire.

There were several public speakers such as Eugene Harris who felt Bellis Circle wasn’t a good site for affordable housing because traffic and parking in the area are “already problematic, and this could be catastrophic.” Others, such as Levi Tofias, welcomed the idea – and Tofias suggested that with Fitchburg line train tracks running alongside, this would be a good spot for a new commuter rail stop.