Housing drops out of plan for Central Square, adding to residents’ ire

Following is by Mark Levy of Cambridge Day

Plenty of resident opposition comes attached to a Central Square building proposal nearing a Monday vote by the City Council. But no housing does.

Developer Forest City’s plan for a building to host the Millennium biotech company got a public update Wednesday with the council’s ordinance committee, and 22 of the 25 speakers during an hour and a half of public comment were against the plan.

Several residents complained that Central Square needed housing, while biotech was best directed toward the city’s Kendall Square, Alewife or NorthPoint neighborhoods, but even the 130-apartment tower the developer had proposed to accompany the Millennium building was taken off the table when residents protested that it would take away some 77 percent of a developer-owned park on Massachusetts Avenue.

Councillor David Maher, who runs the ordinance committee, assured the councillors repeatedly in June when the tower aspect was removed that it was his “belief” that discussion of housing would again be “very related” to the commercial building getting a vote this month — the city calendar listing for Wednesday’s meeting, in fact, referred directly to the housing. But at the start of the meeting Maher confirmed there would be no formal discussion of its details.

That left just plans for a 246,716-square-foot building at 300 Massachusetts Ave., on the so-called All Asia block (named for the music club, which hopes to move to nearby Prospect Street) with 13,000 square feet of street-level retail and office and lab space peaking at 95 feet. Current zoning allows a height of 80 feet, and when the council votes it will be on whether to extend the “Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District” to Massachusetts Avenue to allow the building to go up.

There “seems a willingness”

“We’ve taken the housing out because it seemed very controversial,” Maher said in response to councillor Leland Cheung, who brought up the issue and asked if it could be included in the developer’s commitment letter to be voted on Monday. “We decided to separate the issue but would like to continue the dialogue.”

“There were many of us very interested and intrigued by the housing prospect here,” Maher said of the councillors, but there also “seems a willingness from Forest City to look at housing.”

Forest City executive Peter Calkins confirmed that, but the language he used was tentative and did not relate housing to the Millennium building as Maher suggested it would.

Calkins said:

We clearly have stated that we are quite interested … in housing. We certainly would be willing to put that commitment — a commitment to look and evaluate and try to figure out if there’s a way to accomplish [housing] — into writing in some way, shape or form in a way that makes sense to the city. Where that takes us is something we’ll all have to explore over time, but it’s a goal we have and a commitment we’d be willing to make: to explore that.

Even a resident who supported the building in general found the promise weak. “Even if it were on paper, it would not be worth the paper it was written on,” said Carol O’Hare, of Magazine Street. “It’s a nothing commitment. It’s just … nothing.”

The Forest City record

Calkins pointed to Forest City’s past residential development in its sprawling University Park, which starts on Green Street and extends as far down as Pacific Street for some two dozen large city blocks that include 16 residential buildings. The company even converted some commercial space it was granted some decades ago to build residences instead, resulting in 674 units instead of the baseline 400. And while the company was required to make only 15 percent of its units into affordable housing, a full 26 percent was made affordable housing instead of market rate, he said.

That drew some praise from residents, but the fact that the “affordable” aspect of the housing expired after 30 years disturbed some, and those with knowledge of Forest City as a landlord had a more jaundiced view as well, accusing the company of canceling tenant parties, failing to invite them to events on University Park Common and pushing the ability of low-income renters to pay with frequent increases.

“The low income housing is very expensive, and they’ve been raising the rents pretty much every year,” said Sherri Tucker, of Massachusetts Avenue. “An example is that a year ago a one-bedroom was around $2,400 a month. A year later, that apartment has been rent-increased by $250 a month, which is on the very high end of one-bedroom apartment rentals in Cambridge.” (A one-bedroom apartment can be had for less than $1,400 a month in Porter Square.)

“It means they’re not really providing that much of a benefit to Cambridge,” Tucker said. “They’re  making money from these high rentals. It’s making conditions in Cambridge worse by other landlords following the example they’re setting.”

Public benefits questioned

In fact, the most questioned aspect of what Forest City proposed was the “public benefits” calculated from plans for the Millennium Building.

The company would pay a voluntary $1.08 million into the city’s affordable housing trust, Calkins said, following the example of similar recent corporate projects that volunteered community benefit contributions with a $10-per-square-foot formula. That would come atop the $4.44 per square foot “incentive zoning payment” the company is obliged to pay into the affordable housing trust by the zoning ordinance. Ultimately the money would go into building low- and moderate-income housing.

But by residents’ calculations, a $1 million contribution in four installments over the building’s initial 15-year term lease to Millennium wasn’t very impressive.

“If upzoning gives them about $5 million a year in profits and they’re looking to give $1 million over four payments [over 15 years], that’s just extremely negligible,” said Julian Cassa, of Windsor Street, who proposed instead that the developer devotes 1 percent to 2 percent of income from the newly zoned building to transportation improvements and local community groups. “One percent of that growth, of that upzoning, could not possibly hurt their bottom line, however, it would do wonders for the community.”

A quarter-century ago, $1 million was the amount Stop & Shop was to pay to eliminate a road and become a Super Stop & Shop, recalled Carol O’Hare of Magazine Street. “One million dollars then in inflated dollars is probably 10, 15, 20 million dollars now,” O’Hare said. “So you should wonder about that million dollars. You should really, really, really wonder.”

The way Calkins sees it, that’s a limited way to look the benefits of the plan. The site now generates about $54,000 a year in property taxes, he said, but that’ll shoot up to $2.4 million a year when the building is complete and its prime tenant — officially Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co. — moves in. Over the 15-year lease term, he estimated about $44 million in property taxes would find its way into city coffers, which is “a significant community benefit, you could look at it that way.”

Agreement on retail, anyway

“Millennium’s need for additional space by 2015 is critically important to their mission, and this block of Mass. Ave. is sorely in need of new vitality that our retail space would generate,” Calkins said.

The retail space seemed the sole aspect of the plan that wasn’t controversial, especially when planning officials and the developers agreed it would be best to find at least three local, nonchain retail or restaurant concepts to fill the space (Anna’s Taqueria good, Taco Bell bad, in other words) and that no banks, by the terms of the zoning, would be allowed.

Cheung and councillors Denise Simmons and Minka vanBeuzekom had suggestions and some skepticism as well, but it was mainly residents questioning not just the basis for bringing more biotech to Central Square and why more height was needed, but also statements underpinning the proposal: that the parking garages that would serve the building were 42 percent empty, that car-trip counts on Massachusetts Avenue were at only 60 percent allowed numbers and that the red line subways serving the area were able to absorb current Millennium workers and the projected 1,200 jobs to come.

“They’re estimating 30,000 new auto trips per day, and 30,000 new transit trips … as I see it, as a traffic engineer, I don’t see where those trips are going to go,” said Steve Kaiser, of Hamilton Street. “The biggest problem with the city’s plans for transit is they’re claiming the red line is 40 percent empty at peak hours. This is unfortunately absurd, which is so obvious to anyone who rides the red line.”

As to the parking situation, said Kathy Watkins, a Forest City tenant on Franklin Street, “I don’t know why Forest City says the garages have so much space. I park in one of their garages and they’re full every day. The very top, maybe the seventh level out in the sun, might have some spaces. They’re all full. It’s just not true. You go check it out in the middle of the day on a weekday.”

“I don’t know why you’re listening to their lies,” she said.

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