Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A condo and retail project for North Cambridge comes before the Planning Board on Tuesday. (Image: North Cambridge Partners)

A proposal for two six-story buildings with 56 homes, ground-floor retail and 67 belowground parking spaces was approved Tuesday by the Planning Board, embraced by neighbors of 2400 Massachusetts Ave. in North Cambridge and board members. 

The project presentation for North Cambridge Partners LLC described a long process of neighborhood engagement since a previous attempt at developing the parcel was shot down in 2022 for getting ahead of a larger zoning process.

“I don’t think in all of the years that I’ve been on the board that I’ve seen such a great collaboration between the developer team, the neighborhood and the city,” board chair Mary Flynn said before a vote. The board approved the project as a whole and left follow-up detail work to staff. 

There would be a total 94,867 square feet of gross floor area on a 27,786-square-foot lot that’s now a parking lot and a two-story retail building plus offices. The project, rendered with an industrial corrugated feel – like a series of shipping containers in green – would have different roof heights on different sides to respect the character of the neighborhood and avoid a high-rise approach: very low on Cedar Street, about 35 feet high on Alberta Terrace and moving up to different heights in the 50- to 68-foot range, with the tallest parts of the building being just under 70 feet tall. The building’s grounds will have grass and plantings, as well as patio space, though one reason for seeking a special permit from the board was to reduce the required green roof area.

Residents will own their homes, and “I haven’t seen too many ownership products come down the line,” said Patrick Barrett, a lawyer representing North Cambridge Partners LLC, to the board. “Part of why we brought this before you is that the need for housing in Cambridge is very significant.”

While a unit mix has yet to be determined, developers are interested in having some larger homes that would appeal to families, according to a presentation.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority will write down the purchase of 4,000 square feet of the building’s residential area – about three or four units – to be affordable to middle-income households earning in the range of 100 percent to 120 percent of the area median income, said Tom Evans, the CRA’s executive director. This puts the project above the number required to be affordable under inclusionary housing laws, which means about 24 percent of units will be below market rate.

It’s part of a citywide initiative by the CRA to help deliver below-market homeownership, Evans said.

Potential retail destination too

There would also be some 7,161 square feet of retail on Massachusetts Avenue and in a corridor between structures that could remake the area as a commercial destination. 

“The Mass Ave retail quarter itself right now is not very strong, and we believe needs an anchor,” Barrett said. He expressed confidence in being able to rent out the spaces based on consulting work his group has done at Market Central in Central Square, a complex at Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street that he said struggled at first to find the right mix of businesses. 

Developers can’t predict what sort of businesses will move into their retail space, Barrett said. But they’ve committed to keep the building free of lab space, the result of nearly 10 public meetings in which neighbors voiced their preference. “Everything that we’ve done is a reflection of those conversations with the community,” Barrett said – including moving the residential lobby to Alberta Terrace and away from the commercial presence on Massachusetts Avenue.

The mix of retail would begin with the building’s occupants and neighbors in mind. “We look at these spaces as amenities for the building and for the community, and that’s why the spaces are designed the way they are for some flexibility,” Barrett said. There are large spaces, but “we also are showing them broken up as micro units” similar to what you would see at Bow Market, the retail complex in Somerville’s Union Square. It has longtime tenants as well as pop-ups and incubating business concepts.

The new buildings would also likely have an amenity space for residents’ parties and meetings, and a co-working space.

Brooke McKenna, Transportation Commissioner, said the developer will either build bike lanes or pay for the city to do it.

Approving neighbors

Another view of the project as imagined by Merge Architects. (Image: North Cambridge Partners)

Abutters spoke with approval about the proposal, with some concerns about traffic and parking. 

Brooke Mohnkern, who has lived on Cedar Street for 22 years, said he and his family are leery of the construction that will be required but excited that the parcel will no longer be an industrial parking lot. “We’ve endured dumpster fires, unbelievable graffiti, mass riots and fights too innumerable to count,” he said. 

Eric Johnson, who lives on Alberta Terrace, says he approves of the new building design. He has been heavily involved with the community outreach process since 2022 and doubts additional traffic will be a large concern in a neighborhood by Massachusetts Avenue. His primary issue is keeping a garage entrance on Harvey Street so it will not face Alberta Terrace homes – because they can already hear the warning beeper from the nearby Trolley Square apartment building. 

In addition to the public comment, the project arrived with several letters of support from neighbors, and “it’s very rare when you have so many folks coming in supporting projects that are right next to their house that will represent a disruption to them,” Barrett said.

Excited board members

Elizabeth Whittaker, the founder and principal of Merge Architects, said the site presented an “extraordinary” shape, but her firm stepped up to the challenge of working with it. “We’re trying to do an extraordinary building and not a big, banal building,” she said.

The effort paid off in board comments as well as in a final vote of approval.

“This is one of the few projects that has really excited me over the last few years,” member Ashley Tan said, citing the importance of the proposed color and texture. “I love the balconies and terraces. That’s important in the urban context.”

Member Mary Lydecker agreed, saying she “loved” the Cedar Street side of the project as “one of the most beautiful kind of sculptural housing. It’s one of the most really thoughtful and context sensitive developments that I’ve seen.” Member Diego Macias said he “was really in awe. I thought it was a beautiful project. I was excited to see this in Cambridge.”