The City’s yearlong, $350,000 analysis of the future of Kendall and Central Squares is drawing to a close, but what does it have to show for it?
The Central Square committee met for the penultimate time last night; its final pair of meetings will be on Nov. 27 and 28, when it will finalize its recommendations.
After that, the city’s Community Development Department and the K2C2 consultants, Goody Clancy & Associates, will work to produce zoning language that can be adopted by the planning board and the city council.
The $350,000 study began in April 2011 and was divided into two pieces, focusing on Kendall Square first, followed by Central Square. Each section had its own advisory committee filled by members of the public including local residents, developers, and property owners. Half of the study’s cost came from a one-time $175,000 payment in-lieu of taxes from MIT; the other from Boston Properties, the real estate developer and owner of the Cambridge Center properties.
The Central Square committee has met 21 times from November 2011 through last night. With two more meeting to go, the committee finally seems to understand the issues of height and density that it is being asked to make decisions about.
At the same time, members of the public seem uncertain about the process, and continue to express strategic concerns with the project. There is substantial fear that the committee’s recommendations will lead to taller buildings, but at the same time there are complaints that they are not solving the cost of housing in Cambridge. Unfortunately those two concerns are diametrically opposed — tall dense housing is one of the few ways to help with Cambridge’s housing crisis.
Nancy Ryan of the Cambridge Residents Alliance submitted a written response to the Committee’s preliminary recommendations, saying in part:
“We believe the C2 planning mechanism has been flawed, fueled by inaccuracies and insufficient data, dominatedby representatives of business and development interests and led by a Community Development Department more biased towards the needs of developers than the city’s residents.”
Ryan said that the Alliance would be proposing a one-year citywide moratorium on “up-zoning” changes. That proposal would come on the heels of the Susan Yanow petition for downzoning in the Central Square area, which was recently reviewed unfavorably by the planning board and the city council.
There hasn’t been widespread agreement within the committee on how to achieve it’s goals. At last night’s meeting, though, Iram Farooq, who leads the K2C2 process for the city, managed to put forward several recommendations and reach a consensus on them. Previously the committee had stalled over the minutia of small details, and unification seemed far away.
For density, the committee agreed on an incentive for residential construction, increasing the allowed Floor Area Ratio by 30 percent. FAR limits how much gross floor area can be constructed on a parcel of land.
“In the heart of central square, we’ve changed the FAR from 3 to 4 which is enormous; and allowed housing to go up [in height]” said Stuart Dash MCP’89, who is the director of community planning for city. “It’s a very strong incentive for someone to build housing,” he said.
The committee’s recommendation would permit residential buildings to go up to 140 feet of occupied height, and would require both inclusionary housing and a component of middle-income housing. The current height limit is 80 feet, which would continue to apply for non-residential buildings.
Residents want to take steps to stem the rising cost of housing in Cambridge, but are afraid that permitting developers to build market-rate housing in Central Square will only push rates up. However, supply-and-demand suggests that more housing units can only help to lower the cost of housing.
The committee had difficulty finding agreement on middle-income housing restrictions, though. Patrick D. Rowe, the MIT Investment Management Company’s representative on the committee, expressed concern that proposed changes would limit MIT’s ability to develop commercial properties within the Osborne Triangle, the area bounded by Massachusetts Avenue, Main Street, and Osborne and Albany Streets.
Most of the committee’s recommendations are structured as incentives that permit additional development beyond what is currently permitted. But the draft recommendations limit construction over 100 feet within the Osborne Triangle to residential. Currently commercial construction is permitted in parts of that area up to 120 feet.
Parking remains an ever-present question. The city has several open-air parking lots that the committee could recommend a use for. Those lots could be sold in exchange for things the city wants to see built (such as housing), could be developed by the city, could be preserved for open-air farmers markets, as well as other options.
But the committee cannot seem to agree that the parking lots are a valuable resource to put into play. Currently the committee is expected to discuss those parking lots at its final meeting on Nov. 28.
The Kendall committee met 23 times from April 2011 through June 2012. As a result of those meetings, city staff and consultants produced 20 pages of recommendations for the city’s planning board, which still need to be turned into detailed zoning language.
But though the language has been presented to the board, it is also waiting to hear what MIT’s zoning proposal is for its substantial undeveloped land in the Kendall Square areas, especially the parking lots between Carleton and Hayward Streets.
The board had originally chosen to discuss MIT’s sub-district of Kendall first, because it is the least built-out portion of Kendall Square, and thus has the most potential.
City waiting for MIT
The city’s wait for MIT about Kendall may be protracted. In September, the planning board repeatedly asked MIT, “When will you be ready?”; meanwhile the Kochan Task Force was diligently working to produce its report on faculty reaction to MIT’s plans for Kendall Square. On Oct. 17 that report was released, characterizing MIT’s recent zoning attempts as falling short of aspirations.
On Oct. 30, Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy told to the planning board that MIT would make a presentation at the Nov. 20 board meeting on the status of its proposal. But that appearance was cancelled when the agenda was released this week Tuesday. MIT was not ready, city staff said.
Iram Farooq, who has spearheaded the K2C2 process from the city’s side, will be out of the country during the month of December, so it’s unlikely the planning board will hear from MIT before January.
On the other hand, a discussion of area-wide zoning provisions for Kendall is on the agenda for the Nov. 20 meeting.
One of the big questions about MIT’s plans for Kendall involves the potential landmark status of buildings E38 (MIT Press), E39, and E48, all adjacent to the Kendall Square MBTA stop in the heart of Kendall Square. The city’s Historical Commission would like to see those buildings designated as landmarks. But doing so would severely constrain the possibility of replacing those buildings with what the Kochan report called “an east gateway to MIT worthy of MIT and its aspirations, missions, and excellence.”
By letter to the Historical Commission in late September, MIT asked the commission to defer a recommendation on the landmark status through January 8, 2013 so it could continue to “evaluate the feasibility of preserving the three buildings as we balance the competing needs and objectives of all the stakeholders.”
The Historical Commission followed MIT’s request and voted to extend its study period at its Oct. 4 meeting.
MIT is expected to provide more information on this issue in the next two months.
The Historical Commission’s recommendation is hardly the final word on landmark designation; the City Council could vote on any recommendation they might offer, and there is no reason to think they would blindly accept the commission’s recommendation.