Thursday, July 18, 2024

A dance party held Aug. 4 at the open-air Starlight Square in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Presentation of plans for 10 city-owned parcels in and around Central Square went poorly Monday, with city councillors dismayed by lackluster public engagement by city staff that left them skeptical of a report’s conclusions. Both sides were blindsided by the Central Square Business Improvement District announcing the end of its open-air Starlight Square complex.

“We have decided this year will be Starlight Square’s last on Lot 5,” said the letter from the BID, led by president Michael Monestime. Lot 5 is at 84 Bishop Allen Drive, a parking lot that was transformed with scaffolding and scrim during the Covid pandemic to host entertainment, retail and civic gatherings.

The announcement came despite the Central Square Lots Study Report saying that planners envisioned keeping the Starlight Square uses in a permanent structure while adding housing.

“We have made the difficult decision to refocus our resources on finding a permanent home for Starlight. Its energy, not its temporary physical form, is its most precious asset,” the letter said, noting that in 2022, the project was awarded federal Covid-relief funds from then-city manager Louis A. Depasquale “to present a path to permanence … last week, that award was rescinded, because it was deemed no longer necessary, given the findings” of the lots study.

Monestime was unavailable for comment because of a family emergency.

The city’s handling of American Rescue Plan funds has drawn some of the sharpest criticism of City Manager Yi-An Huang and his staff, including the surprise withdrawal of promised funds not just to Starlight but from a study of an expanded Jerry’s Pond reclamation project in North Cambridge. Questions have dogged staff over a uniquely bewildering rollout of post-Covid aid to  nonprofits that continued into Monday, when Huang acknowledged “there was a bit of a desert in communication.” A Finance Committee meeting takes another look at the aid funds March 26.

That desert extended into Central Square over the past week, as the BID’s announced shutdown at the end of its current license agreement in July – making its fifth season a half-season – was a revelation to city staff.

“I went to the BID,” Huang said. “I said the city is here to be a partner – come to us with a vision of what you want the future of Starlight to be on Lot 5 or anywhere else. We know that Lot 5 will be available for many more seasons to come. That’s why I was so surprised to see this, because we were saying, ‘What is the plan for 2025-2026 and beyond? We are open to it.’”

That includes the possibility of closing Norfolk Street to car traffic on Starlight Square’s east border, Huang said, making more room for a Starlight that could have indoor and outdoor gathering places and entertainment – noise to the closest neighbors has been a problem for the past couple of seasons – as well as underground parking, retail space and affordable housing overhead.

Skeptical councillors

An overhead shot of Central Square from the Central Square Lots Study Report. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

Councillors were in a skeptical mood, though, led off by Sumbul Siddiqui’s concern about a “disconnect” between staff and the BID over a yearslong wait for the Covid funds and sudden deletion. “That award was first given I think in late 2021?” she said. “There’s just been so much time gap. It really makes me disappointed.”

Siddiqui and vice mayor Marc McGovern shared a concern that a clumsy municipal process would just remove a beloved amenity despite good intentions for the vision described in the city’s report. “It would be really upsetting to a lot of people in the community if we lose Starlight and we’re 10 years out before we see anything actually built on that lot,” McGovern said.

In the study from city staff, two of the 10 parcels are eyed for open space; one for community use; one for office space; one for six to 10 units of supportive housing such as for older adults and people with disabilities; and the rest for mixed uses, such as 689 Massachusetts Ave. being turned into offices and a relocated library branch. 

Public outreach

Just as the council was nearly unanimous in its discomfort over the shock of the Starlight news, a study that in other circumstances could have been seen as exciting seemed to be greeted largely with mistrust after a look at the study’s accounting of public engagement over the past seven months: “more than 15 interviews were done with staff”; there were more than 75 comments at pop-up events, more than 90 online responses; and more than 250 meeting attendees.

“You’re going to move the library based on 75 Post-its?” resident James Williamson asked during public comment.

He wasn’t the only one taken aback. 

“Two hundred and fifty is a very, very low number,” councillor Ayesha Wilson said. “For four to six months especially during the campaign season, we could tell you – we knock at thousands, thousands, thousands of doors right during that period, and we touch a lot of people across our city.”

Holding her temper

Mayor E. Denise Simmons was one of the sharpest critics during the meeting of staff efforts, expressing exasperation by putting up a slide showing that Central Square has had 24 studies dating back more than four decades to 1980 – “How long do we have to wait to see something happen?” Simmons said. “You’re trying to sell it and I can’t buy it” – while noting also that she was disappointed in efforts to capture the will of the people on changes: “250 people clearly does not represent the depth of the people that are in Central Square,” Simmons said, noting that there were churches in the square with Sunday congregations that exceeded 200.

When Huang replied that her message was contradictory – that she was simultaneously asking for more reliance on existing studies and more outreach – Simmons had to control her temper, beginning at a yell and then modulating. “I’m going to try to be my better self,” she said. “We thought that the community engagement was lacking. As we go forward, I want it to look better. That’s what I thought I heard, and that’s how I feel. I don’t want to start anything over.”

Looking ahead

The Central Square study is expected to go out as a “request for information” to the developer community within the next four to six weeks, said Melissa Peters, director of community planning for Cambridge. That two-month response period will be used to take things to the next step, issuing a request for developer proposals. The information will help the city “get a better sense of our options in terms of development, economics and business models so that we can have a clear RFP that lists what outcomes we are looking at – X number of housing units, affordability requirements, affordable commercial space, civic space, parking and really what we think is financially feasible,” Peters said.

The requests were expected to feed into an ongoing rezoning of Central Square, but the intersecting timelines for developing the lots and rezoning the entire area – what Peters called parallel processes – proved confusing.

“When the zoning is done, will that change what we’re seeing here in the fit study? I would think what you’re looking at now is based on current zoning,” councillor Joan Pickett said.

It’s true, Peters said, and the RFP for the city’s 10 lots will wait until after the zoning is done – which itself would mean “going back to the community” for input, but probably not something as formal as putting together a working group such as the one looking at changes on Massachusetts Avenue from Cambridge Common into North Cambridge. A working group is “certainly something that we can consider,” Peters said. “It might extend the deadline.”