Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 14, 2012

Comments on current Forest City zoning petition – by Bob Simha

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,planning — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 11:48 pm

Comments on current Forest City zoning petition

written by Bob Simha, June 11, 2012

The Cambridge Planning Board
City Hall Annex
344 Broadway
Cambridge, MA 02139

Dear Members of the Planning Board,

I would like to submit objections to the rezoning proposal submitted by Forest City Enterprises et al for a portion of the block between Landsdowne Street, Green Street, Massachusetts Avenue and Blanche Street. I would also like to add an objection to the elimination of and use of the existing green space adjacent to the Fire House as a site for a 14 story apartment house.

The objections I share with you are based on my long association with the University Park project including a central role the in the development of the original design guidelines for the University Park project prior to Forest City’s selection, a continuing role its development after their selection and a continuing interest in ensuring that the project will in all its elements – physical, social and economic – enhance the quality of life in Cambridge and in particular the vital connection between the neighborhoods that make up Central Square, University Park and the MIT community.

From the outset, the design guidelines that MIT published for the University Park project and that were subsequently enshrined in the special district zoning were clear about holding an 80 to 85 foot height limit along Massachusetts Avenue. The current proposals violate this very important principal proposing a building almost twice that height. The impact of such a building would undermine not only the relationship with adjacent buildings but will certainly have a negative effect on the more respectful scale of the new Novartis Buildings across the street. The Planning Board should not permit this principal to be compromised.

From the outset, all of the planning for University Park anticipated a generous and green opening from Massachusetts Ave into the center of the University Park project welcoming the public as well as tenant populations into the interior of the project. The original plan called for a market building just beyond this entry portal which would have helped to anchor and revive retail offerings in Central Square. One has to wonder how much more congenial the area would have been if Forest City had pressed forward to develop the market building instead of filling the space with a visually unsettling apartment house that offers little in the way of the ground floor space for new retail activity.

To now exacerbate that mistake by filling in this portal area next to the Fire house with a 14 story tower apartment house made up of very small market rate rental units is to add insult to injury. The elimination of one of the painfully few usable open spaces in University Park should not be tolerated. The shadow studies produced by Forest City’s architects only demonstrates how during much of the year the plaza-apron area between the proposed tower and Mass. Ave. would be in shadow for most of the year.

And, more seriously, it would negatively impact the major investment in one of the few new parks in this part of the city. Casting its shadow over Jill Brown-Rhone Park it would be a constant reminder of the callous response Forest City has presented to the objections of its first proposal, namely to consider adding to the housing resources of the area. To both take away an existing dedicated open space and to diminish another would bring new meaning to corporate hubris.

As MIT’s Director of Planning during the period of the evolution of the planning and through much of the development period for University Park we had always planned that the block between Landsdowne and Blanche Street would ultimately be developed as a useful and attractive adjunct to the University Park. As one of the major land owners in this block we knew that it would be in MIT, Forest City and the abutting Cambridge neighborhoods’ interests to develop this part of Mass Ave. with activities that would add new retail services, additional housing and activities that would animate the area and make more safe this dead zone between MIT and Central Square. The expectation was that, notwithstanding the impediments of multiple ownerships it would be possible to come to terms with other owners, and redevelop the entire block as a multipurpose building. The argument that was put forward, at one of the recent presentations made by Forest City that it had not been able to accomplish this goal, only suggests that they did not work hard enough. MIT has planned for many years to relocate the Random House dormitory that occupies a major part of the block in question. The other 4 owners should, with sufficient creativity, be accommodated elsewhere. When the University Park project hung in the balance because MIT needed to resolve the traffic plan the City required, but was held up by the California Paint Company, creative efforts were made to relocate California Paint so that the overall project could go forward. One can only assume that what was done before, can be done again. The advantage to the city of a single redevelopment instead of two or three must be apparent. A more unified multipurpose development that responds to both economic and social goals would be possible. In addition, the increase in value that the current proposal would create would only tend to exacerbate the expectations of current landowners for even a greater return and, thereby, make the next developer ask for even more density and more height.

The development of this site for residential and retail purposes would be a major benefit to the community and based on the success of Forest City’s market rate housing it would generate a reliable and steady revenue stream for both the developer and the City. A quick look at the 203 units Forest City built at 100 Landsdowne Street demonstrates this point vividly. It carries an assessed value of $53,800,000 and is taxed at commercial rates. A comparable development on Mass. Ave. for 300 units plus retail services could add $75 million in value. Something to think about. Finally, this proposal appears to have ignored both the Red Commission’s recommendations for Central Square and appears to ignore the forthcoming results of the Central Square study. For these reasons, as well as those mentioned above, I would respectfully submit that the Planning Board reject this zoning petition.

O. R. Simha
Six Blanchard Road
Cambridge, MA 02138

Note: The zoning petition was amended by the City Council at its June 11 meeting to exclude all parts relating to the residential tower that had been proposed to be built adjacent to the firehouse. The petition, as amended, will be before the Planning Board on June 19.

See also:
Some observations for consideration regarding the Forest City proposal (May 14, 2012)

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