Friday, July 19, 2024

The Starlight Square complex under construction in Cambridge’s Central Square on July 30, 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After four years at the heart of Central Square, the community market and event space Starlight Square closes this weekend, announced in March after the city clawed back promised federal aid money.

The closing comes as the city considers redevelopment of the parking lot Starlight Square stands on, at 84 Bishop Allen Drive. At Monday’s meeting of the City Council, its last until August, councillors and the community debated the future of the lot after a peek at the preliminary invitation for discussion with developers – called a request for information – prepared by the Community Development Department.

The department suggests dense affordable housing for the site, up to 14 stories, along with a ground-floor community space akin to a permanent Starlight Square. While the city intends to retain ownership of the land, the CDD is looking for a public-private partnership for the project atop it.

“Central Square itself is a public-private partnership – when done correctly, it can be a great form of achieving what might be beyond our municipality’s capacity,” said Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District, which runs Starlight Square. “This is also a way for us to build a permanent Starlight.”

Despite Monestime’s optimism, the approach brought sharp criticism from some members of the community. Local property owner Patrick Barrett and former council candidate Dan Totten said the city’s request for information “looks like it was written by a sixth grader.”

“This is a publicly owned piece of land,” Totten said. “This is one of the greatest potential resources we have in Central Square, it’s one of the only places in the square where building 15 stories of affordable housing actually makes sense.”

Totten argued that development of Starlight Square should be part of a municipal capital plan rather than bound for private development. He asked that the city seek community input from the local neighborhood.

“I am asking you, begging you, to hold a community meeting in my neighborhood on this project,” Totten said. “Hold it. Are you afraid to do it? Are you afraid of what you’re going to hear?”

Following up on Starlight later in the meeting, councillor Ayesha Wilson asked whether there was any possibility of getting to 100 percent affordable housing in a new building on the site instead of the standard 20 percent from “inclusionary” zoning or slightly more from a community benefits deal. City Manager Yi-An Huang said that given the scale of the site, it’s unlikely the city would get financing without some market-rate housing, especially if the ground floor becomes community space.

While the city has reached out to local nonprofit affordable housing developers, putting up a larger building with a mix of income levels could bring more total affordable housing than what a smaller 100 percent affordable building could provide, said both assistant city manager for community development Iram Farooq and vice mayor Marc McGovern.

The Starlight lot, and a smaller partner site at 96 Bishop Allen Drive, are pieces of the Central Square City Lots Study, which looked at the city’s options for 10 publicly owned parcels in the area.

After the city gets responses to its request for information, CDD will use the responses to craft a specific request for proposals from developers.

Moving a library branch

Another key parcel in the study, the Green Street parking garage and Central Square library branch, drew contentious remarks from residents of the Manning Apartments affordable housing building next door at the June 17 and Monday council meetings.

A city study suggests building up to 15 stories of affordable housing on top of a new parking garage and a public community space there. The library branch would move to another city property, the recently bought circa-1904 beaux-arts style building at 689 Massachusetts Ave. near City Hall.

A number of residents at Manning Apartments, the senior and disabled housing complex attached to the garage, submitted a petition to the council opposing the idea.

“We at Manning are mostly concerned about our current neighborhood,” resident Ed Henley said at the June 17 meeting. “We don’t want it to become Manhattan. I am not a snob for wanting our community … to be the best that it can be.”

Henley, speaking again at the Monday meeting, said parking is a big concern already, and more units will only add to the problem.

For Manning resident Emmett Sheehan, the neighborhood already has the “appropriate amount of people,” and he believes Central Square should be developed in a way that “considers density and distribution.”

“The people at Manning, they’re being left out of this process,” said James Williamson, a frequent speaker on issues related to public housing. “And I think they deserve special attention because they actually live right in the middle of what I really see as … ground zero for these proposals.”

At a Planning Board meeting on June 18, staff listed Green Street as a “longer-term vision” for Central Square, and said the library would be moved before redevelopment. The day before, the council had approved a late policy order to engage in a community process about the library and Green Street garage.

Rezoning with input

Separately but simultaneously, the city is gathering community input for a Central Square rezoning process that will begin in earnest in the fall. At their Monday meeting, councillors and community members asked why the Central Square process has not been further expedited, with some support from the public – Barrett, in particular, arguing that Central could get “4,000 apartments there tomorrow and no one would notice a difference.” 

“We’ve had 40 years of discussion around Central Square and community engagement, community outreach and reports,” councillor Patty Nolan said.

“Central Square can no longer be an afterthought, or easily pushed aside, when it comes to getting the work done,” said Mayor E. Denise Simmons. “All I can say is figure it out.”

Staff have had to navigate a rocky path in prioritizing zoning work asked for by the council and gauging the amount of community input its members expect. A presentation of plans for the city-owned parcels in and around Central Square on March 4 went poorly in part because of criticisms that there was too little involvement from the public to legitimize the approach. When Huang said the council seemed to be asking simultaneously for more reliance on existing studies and more outreach, Simmons had to control her temper to say “We thought that the community engagement was lacking.”

On Monday, she was new aggrieved and conducted a 13-minute grilling of staff on outreach efforts because “the strength of anything that we do is going to be based on our community engagement.”