Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 14, 2012

Some observations for consideration regarding the Forest City proposal

Filed under: Central Square,planning — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 1:35 pm

Some observations for consideration regarding the Forest City proposal
to extend the Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District

written by Bob Simha, May 14, 2012

The rezoning proposed by Forest City for property owned by MIT and Zevart M. Hollisian, trustee of the Garabed Hollisiian Trust raises a number of issues:

The Forest City proposal would build on a little over one half of the "All Asia" block (50,000 sq. ft.). A 221,000 square foot laboratory building of which 13,000 square feet on the ground floor would be for 3-5 retail stores. The building would be 165 feet in height, almost twice the height of the adjacent Novartis (former Necco Building). It would leave undeveloped the remaining half of the block which is occupied by an MIT dormitory, a gas station, a small luncheonette, a one story fabrication shop and a small apartment house. Forest City has stated that it could not secure agreements from the remaining landowners in order to propose the redevelopment of the entire block.

The development of only a portion of the all Asia Block at a new density and height would result in establishing new and higher values for the remaining diverse properties, lowering the possibility that the remainder of the block would be developed in the near future and would run the risk of requests for even higher densities in the future when some developer, most likely MITIMCO, succeeds in assembling the remaining parcels that it does not own in the block.

The proposal also suggests that the construction of a 145 foot high, 14 story, 130 unit rental housing tower would respond to community demands for more housing in Central Square and is in some way a quid pro quo for the ability to build additional commercial space on Mass. Avenue. This proposal eliminates one of three open spaces in the University Park project and claims that the introduction of a smaller landscaped entry way at Mass. Ave. would suffice to balance the loss of existing open space.

There were no community benefits presented by Forest City/MIT in their proposal. All of the developments proposed are revenue generators for Forest City and their development partners. The community is entitled to demand compensation for this additional private development.

Some thoughts for consideration:

The project exceeds the height of all the adjacent buildings most prominently the Novartis/Necco building and even with set backs will create and overwhelming presence on Mass. Avenue when combined with the new Novartis Building being built on land leased from MIT on the east side of Mass. Ave. The character of Mass. Ave. will become quite overbearing. The height of the building should not exceed the Necco Building and should adhere to the current restriction of 80 feet. The current design shows a lobby/corridor through the building connecting Mass. Ave. and Green Street. The developer should be encouraged to develop a ground floor plan that allows for a gallery/arcade of shops that line a passage between these streets thereby offering more smaller retail opportunities to smaller merchants and at the same time encourage more people to use this path to get to the food market and the existing garage. This may generate more revenue for the developer and reduce the amount of dead common area in the evening.

The treatment of Blanche Street as the site for loading docks for this new development will mean that both sides of Blanche will be dominated by large loading docks and be relatively inhospitable to pedestrians…as it is now.

The construction of both the Novartis and the proposed Forest City project would add almost 3/4 of a million square feet to an area whose transportation infrastructure capacity is already overtaxed.

The height of the proposed residential building was not placed in the context of Central Square. We were not told how the height of this building (14 stories) compares to the Cambridge housing authority building between Green and Franklin Street. No shadow studies were presented. The proposal did not point out the important visual impact that this tower building would have on creating an identifying image for Central Square. Visible from both the Mass. Avenue and the Main Street entrances to the city, the quality of the architecture for this building, if it goes forward, should require a much higher standard of design and the developer should be encouraged to retain design services of the same level of quality that Novartis used in the design of its nearby building.

The housing is presented as a response to the community expression of housing needs and as a pseudo gift. One of the goals for more housing in both the Red Ribbon and Goody/Clancy Central Square report was to provide housing that would be accessible to people who work in the Central Square area and any new housing should offer more affordable ownership opportunities. This proposal appears to be aimed at the high rent market that Forest City serves at their developments at Sidney and Landsdowne Street.

The community may prefer to have more ownership rather than rental housing to help introduce more people with a longer term interest in the square. Coop or condo housing on leased land is a very common practice in many American cities and we have such a project on Pleasant Street in Cambridge developed by Harvard University and occupied by both University and non university people. This type of development does not carry land cost in the unit sales and results in lower prices for housing units.

In addition, there are some outstanding needs in the adjacent neighborhoods that could be satisfied in exchange for any additional development potential that is awarded. For example ,the additional FAR they have requested might be dependent on Forest City and MIT completing the assembly of land on Pacific Street Park between Brookline and Sidney in order to complete the Pacific Street park . If the petitioners assemble and donate that land to complete the park the city could permit them to transfer the development rights to a new building ..This is how the existing park was developed…MIT contributed the land to the park in exchange for the transfer of development rights which were used in the development of the Grad Housing on Pacific and Sidney Streets…The same principal could be applied to the Forest City proposal.

Another point that should be raised concerns the displacement of people now using the park space that is proposed for the new housing project. Where will they go? What will be the impact on other parts of Lafayette and Central Square? More people, more need for active and passive open space. – Bob Simha

See also:
Comments on current Forest City zoning petition – by Bob Simha (June 11, 2012)


  1. Forest City’s plan will irreversably destroy the little green that this area has. The park that Forest City had to built as an exchange for permission by the city to go ahead with their building projects 38 Sidney Street and the hotel is now on the table? C’mon , this is FOREST CITY BECOMING THE MONSANTO OF REAL ESTATE!!! Cambridgians, please fight this evil and greedy corporation before it totally destroys the Central Square, turning it into a Cement Desert.
    We already
    * do NOT have enough trees
    * do NOT have enough green places for children
    * do NOT have parking spaces, I have to drive often for 30 minutes to find one
    This “proposal” is only being discussed because a LOT OF MONEY has been paid to CITY officials. Let’s STOP THE CORRUPTION AND SAY NO TO THIS “PROPOSAL”

    Comment by Tom Thomas — May 17, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

  2. Inflamatory rhetoric with non-factual based allegations about the city or city officials is counter productive and not necessary. I am an abutter to this project and I approve of it. To answer Mr. Simha’s query about who uses the park and what is to become of them; I propose we take a trip there together to see who does actually use that park and what kinds of activities should be tolerated. The proposed height for the “all asia” block, is seven stories, not 165′ … that would in fact make it taller than the residential tower. Also, a shadow study has/or is being conducted. I believe that the park sits north easterly to the proposed tower, and a shadow will certainly be cast in the afternoon. I am fine with that, and have submitted a letter stating such. The square needs residential units … it needs a lot of them. If the city doesn’t have the fortitude to populate the square with residential I’m glad Forest City is stepping in. The expansion of the Salvation Army is just one of many injustices the city council has thrust upon the square and its turbulent population of drug users and drunks. They won’t clean up the streets but the ownership class of citizens coming in to the square certainly will. Believe “the children” will thank them for it. Cheers!

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — June 9, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

  3. Another point of reflection: The only “greedy” and “evil” group I see proliferating in Cambridge is the tanked up entitlement class of citizens who have been drugged with low residential taxes. Now if that statement doesn’t keep me out of politics I don’t know what will!

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — June 9, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

  4. Do we know where the individual City Councilors stand on this one? Also, is there some way to get full disclosure of any recent contributions made to individual City Councilors by the developers?

    Comment by Bob Metcalf — June 17, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

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