June 23 – Lesley/Porter Zoning Petition Adopted (reported by John Howard, Porter Square Neighbors Association)
On June 22 the Cambridge City Council voted 8-1 to create a Lesley Porter Overlay District. This new overlay district rezones Lesley University’s Porter Square campus, including the former North Prospect Congregational Church site, to allow Lesley to bring the Arts Institute of Boston to Porter Square. It limits what Lesley could eventually build on the parking lots behind and across Massachusetts Avenue from University Hall, although Lesley has not proposed any specific plans for those sites. It also has provisions to require open space and to encourage ground floor retail.
The City Council also granted landmark status to the church, meaning that any alteration to the church’s exterior, or relocation of the church on its lot, will require approval by the Historical Commission.
Lesley University has submitted a related memorandum of understanding which commits them to working with neighbors on construction mitigation, providing courtesy parking during snow emergencies, ensuring adequate parking during events, contributing to beautification along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter Squares, giving the public access to Lesley facilities such as an art library, and long-term engagement with the neighborhood.
This is the outcome of nearly three years’ negotiation by Lesley University, City of Cambridge planning staff, neighborhood associations including PSNA and Agassiz Baldwin, abutters, and other concerned citizens, to develop an acceptable rezoning plan.
Discussion by the City Council included the usual questions about traffic and parking, impact on immediate abutters, construction mitigation, worry that economic problems could cause the project to be suspended halfway through, retail issues, and open space. Many of these concerns were addressed by amendments worked out in an intensive dialog between Lesley, the City’s planning staff, and neighbors and abutters over the last several weeks. Most of the councillors praised the civil tone of the dialog, the dedication of both supporters and opponents, and the hard work of all participants, and called for continuing engagement of all parties.
The next major step in the process will be for Lesley to develop a specific design for the Arts Institute of Boston project, for submission to a special project review before the Planning Board as well as Historical Commission review. That will take a while. There is lots more coming, but at the moment we can hope for a respite. – John Howard