Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A community garden at 3 Emily St., Cambridgeport, is a city-owned lot expected to keep its use. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In studying the future of city-owned lots and properties in and around Central Square, four have uses already set as affordable housing and open space, while 10 – five buildings and five empty lots – need more discussion.

Three of the largest are “the hardest nuts to crack,” including the space that holds the outdoor event complex Starlight Square, a consultant on the Central Square City Lots Survey told city councillors at a Monday roundtable.

For two of the three, much of the conversation centered around moving Central Square’s branch library to the newly acquired 689 Massachusetts Ave. a handsome, circa-1904 beaux-arts style building just steps from City Hall. That could leave the library’s space to become high-density affordable housing, fitting 200 units into a 15-story building even while keeping a parking garage. In another approach, 689 Massachusetts Ave. could be ground-floor public use with offices above while the library stays put at 260 Green St./45 Pearl St. in a mixed-use affordable-housing building.

“The Central Square library is sort of hidden, and there have been some social problems associated with that. But the beauty of having the library on Mass Avenue,” councillor Dennis Carlone said, “it becomes an obvious jewel.”

There is “a lot of appetite to move the library to a more visible location,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said.

Starlight Square

The role of a permanent cultural space in Central Square was also discussed. Siddiqui suggested keeping one at the parking lot at 84 Bishop Allen Drive – now the home of Starlight Square, which is open during warm weather for farmers markets, small-business pop-ups and arts and municipal events.

That could be a ground-floor cultural space with housing or offices above, councillors said.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t agree that it needs to be leveled up. If we’re really thinking about it as a cultural space, it should be available 12 months out of the year – it should be inside,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said.

Councillor Marc McGovern suggested the cultural space could have an outdoor piece as well that could be used not only in warm months, such as a public ice skating rink.

The survey looking at the future of the 14 lots ran pop-up events, open houses and focus groups to gather opinions and feedback from community members on what they want to see more of in Central Square.

“I think it’s safe to say we all know what the community wants – affordable housing, public space, affordable commercial, a lively public realm – so really what this study is about is figuring out where those things make sense, and what could be fit on which sites,” said Melissa Peters, director of community planning for Cambridge.

Four with certainty

The four properties where future uses are set: 139 Bishop Allen Drive, the Vail Court lot that has been mired in legal proceedings since an eminent domain land taking in 2016, which is expected to be affordable, senior and/or transitional housing; 35 Cherry St., a long-empty lot given to the city by MIT that is set to become affordable housing; 89 Brookline St., which has become a simple corner park and is expected to stay open space; and a community garden at 3 Emily St., another use expected to remain.

At other sites, the properties have been sorted into three categories: those that can leverage the potential of large city-owned sites, bring new life to existing buildings and activate and infill existing lots.

“We started this process by really digging into each site and each building and collecting and compiling all of the available data to really understand the zoning, the building use, what’s possible there,” said Brie Hensold, principal and co-founder of consultant Agency Landscape + Planning.

“At the top is creating more affordable housing – everyone really wants to see that – as well as expanding parks, playgrounds, community gardens and plazas,” Hensold said. Other suggestions, from most frequently to least frequently raised, were flexible arts and market spaces and areas for performances; expanding cultural amenities, spaces and museums; improving the library branch and community meeting and learning spaces; creating a destination for supportive social services; creating small-business incubators; providing municipal offices and city meeting spaces; and expanding parking.

Emerging direction for seven sites

There’s a fair degree of confidence around expected uses for seven sites based on community feedback and conversations with staff about constraints and needs, Hensold said.

They include 3 Bigelow St., on a largely residential street across from City Hall, as municipal offices; the 96 Bishop Allen Drive parking lot as affordable housing; the parking lot at 375 Green St. and 9 Pleasant St. as a land-banked reserve space with possible temporary activation as a park; a former health clinic at 205 Western Ave. as adaptive reuse for supportive housing; 105 Windsor St. as a mixed-use community center; and 38 Bishop Allen Drive as a park, additional stormwater storage or to continue its use as a parking lot.

Discussion of housing going above the current branch library site hinted at the complexity that would follow.

“That whole area is just ripe for high-density housing,” Siddiqui said.

Specifically senior housing could open up more homes for families, Mallon said, as “right now we’ve got seniors just staying in their homes because they have no place to go.”

The library address shares a plaza with the Frank J. Manning Apartments, a public housing complex for seniors and people with disabilities, and the square overall is stocked with social service agencies that can make the area feel overwhelmed with people in need. McGovern advised the council and city planners to keep in mind the potential for more challenges.

“I just want to make sure that we’re not losing sight of our responsibility to those who are more vulnerable in our community and who need the services in Central Square,” McGovern said.

Next steps

While there was a feeling of urgency among councillors for developing the 14 lots, the staff presentation tempered that with a reference to changes taking place over “10-plus years.”

“The reality is we can’t get everything done yesterday, but we can start moving toward a more prioritized set of actions and show where we have to make decisions and when things will happen,” City Manager Yi-An Huang said.

The study will be wrapped up by the end of the year, with staff adding input from the roundtable, assistant city manager Iram Farooq said.

“It is important to see this as a step in a continuum,” Farooq said. “It requires city staff, city manager and City Council to be working together to be making some of those prioritization decisions and those moves around which project moves forward fastest and how that is all getting incorporated into the capital plan.”