MIT and Forest City, the developers of University Park, are poised to receive approval to construct a new life sciences building at 300 Massachusetts Avenue, immediately north of Random Hall.
In a surprise move on Monday, Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis rescheduled the city council’s discussion and vote to next Monday, Aug. 6.
The new building will demolish most of the block, from the long-shuttered Cambridgeport Saloon, through Thailand Cafe and up to All Asia, and construct a seven-story new building for Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Millennium will lease the building for fifteen years.
Random Hall will remain untouched, as will the gas station and the New England School of English dormitory behind Random facing Green Street. Demolition could start late this year, if the proposal is approved.
Although MIT owns much of the property for the proposed development, it has been silent in the zoning amendment process. Forest City Enterprises has leased MIT’s land for purposes of this building, and has also leased the remainder of the block that is owned by the Hollisian family. It is Forest City that has brought its proposals before Cambridge’s planning board and city council.
Local resident opposition
There has been substantial community opposition to the building proposal from local residents; Forest City is seeking a number of zoning changes, like allowing more height and building in more square feet than is currently allowed.
If built without either a special permit from the planning board or a zoning change from the city council, the building would be limited to 139,000 square feet, and to 65 feet in height of occupied space (with additional mechanical penthouses and rooftop mechanicals that are not in the regulation). With a special permit from the planning board, the building could go to 80 feet of occupied height. Forest City seeks a zoning change that gives them an additional 108,000 square feet, for a total of 247,000 square feet, and 94 feet of occupied height.
According to Forest City, the penthouse of the building would reach up to 128 feet high, with most portions at 123 feet. By comparison, the Novartis building to the south (the former NECCO factory) has a 97 foot roof and a 120 foot penthouse.
Community opposition has centered around the height and the lack of housing associated with the proposal. Local residents are concerned that Forest City is not proposing to build housing, and also that they wish to exceed the allowable height for the parcel, which was set during a hard-won zoning fight decades ago.
But Forest City’s original proposal for the building, in December 2010, requested no increase in height — it was the full 80 feet that the planning board can grant. But the planning board, in 2011, asked Forest City to adjust their design to add articulation: making some parts of the building taller and some shorter. They did so.
The planning board also asked Forest City to work with the city’s Community Development department to add housing. Forest City came back this year with a proposal that included a 14-story residential building near the firehouse. But local residents expressed concern that the proposed building would cast shadows on Jill Brown Rhone Park in Lafayette Square. As a result, the city council amended the proposal on June 11 to remove the housing.
Forest City’s proposal also includes a $1.1 million “community benefit” contribution to the city, contingent on the building being built. They have also committed to ground floor retail, and have hired the same retail consultant who led to Flour and Central Bottle at Novartis, two blocks south. They will have about three times much retail space as Novartis now has.
Monday’s council meeting
The city council typically meets only once over the summer, and about thirty protesters stood in front of City Hall with large signs prior to the meeting, which ended up lasting six hours.
About 100 people had signed up to speak at the public comment portion of the meeting. Comments are limited to three minutes, suggesting as much as five hours of public comment.
But at the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Henrietta Davis announced that the Forest City petition would be postponed for one week until a special meeting of the City Council at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 6. She was loudly booed and derided by many members of the crowd, who filled the city council chambers.
Many people who had planned to speak left, but public comment still lasted three-and-a-half-hours.
Two-and-a-half hours into public comment, Cambridge resident Cathy Hoffmann demanded an explanation for the mayor’s actions, expressing the palpable frustration of the room: that many residents had invested a lot of effort to be present at the meeting, including rearranging vacation plans. Hoffman stated her intention to not leave the microphone until Davis explained. Scores of residents rose to their feet in her support.
After a contentious discussion and a brief recess, the council voted to suspend the rules and allow the mayor to respond during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Davis explained that the delay was about housing. About 150 units of affordable housing within University Park are threatened with expiry, meaning they will no longer be reserved for affordable housing, Davis said.
Davis and the council became aware of this issue late last week, and “it suddenly became an opportunity in the negotiations/discussions around the Forest City petition,” Davis said.
As a result, Davis unilaterally chose to defer consideration of the Forest City petition until a special meeting next week.
Davis had no response to why there was no advance notice of the change to the meeting’s agenda.
In many ways, the lack of notice and transparency has been typical of the city council’s process on this petition. There was no advance notice that the housing tower would be removed from the proposal by the council in June. At an ordinance committee meeting on July 25, Forest City presented additional materials that had not been seen prior to the meeting, causing confusion among some members of the council and the public.