Friday, July 12, 2024

Cambridge’s Central Square has seen five studies since 2011. (Photo: Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism via Flickr)

Cambridge is getting ready to implement a plan for Central Square … from 13 years ago.

It’s also preparing to act on one from 11 years ago. And six years ago. And on the Envision report from five years ago.

All plans for Central Square back to 2011’s Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square are being taken off the shelf for consideration in what will suddenly seem like a fast-moving process: a description due in late February or early March; an update in the summer; and ordinance language in the fall, City Manager Yi-An Huang told city councillors at their Monday meeting.

“When we come back with the process we can sort of kick the tires on whether we think there’s any additional speed we can move at,” Huang said. “Obviously we do want to have enough deliberation with both the community and with the council to ensure that we land in the right place.”

A seven-month process sounded good to city officials watching worries over the square only grow since a study was considered necessary more than a dozen years ago, though councillor Patty Nolan couldn’t resist nudging Huang: “I would love it if it was even sooner.”

Not another Alewife

The underlying policy order led by councillor Burhan Azeem that was heard Monday noted the potential for much-needed housing in Central as well as a wish to see it remain a “center of civic life, cultural district and vibrant heart of local business.” Azeem’s order was itself the culmination of a conversation from September making the same point about unused study processes from the Red Ribbon through C2 and up to an ongoing study of underused city-owned lots in and around Central.

Those underused parcels could be used to fulfill priorities identified in the studies.

“There’s a lot of benefit to be doing this together,” Huang said, referring to the lots study asked for in 2018 (Huang has been city manager for less than two years) that was given an emphasis last year on Central Square. The lots study is estimated by deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan to be back within four to six weeks.

Nolan still had concerns that Central Square would follow a pattern set at Alewife, another neighborhood that had seen “study after study” without getting firm zoning. The council lobbied in 2014 for Alewife to be moved to the front of a citywide planning process called Envision – the biggest study that hasn’t been assessed and enacted comprehensively since its final report in 2019 – but the council still had to enact a moratorium in 2021 on the construction of labs to get planning underway. “That took a whole year to ensure that there was community process,” Nolan said.

“We have a lot to work off of in terms of previous studies,” Huang said.

Not just building height

The first word back on a Central Square process was targeted for Feb. 26 by Azeem. The city manager warned that it might instead be March 4.

A final note of concern – and optimism – was sounded by vice mayor Marc McGovern, who wanted to be sure the full scope of the previous studies was taken into account.

“There’s obviously a lot of talk about zoning and heights and density, and we’ve got the lots conversation,” McGovern said. “There are also a lot of other things in there, like how to make Central Square more vibrant. Central Square is really our commercial district, and as someone who lives there, I want it to be this vibrant, exciting, multicultural draw for people. Let’s make sure that we’re also looking at that in addition to the height and density and all the other stuff that we typically look at.”