10 Essex trial case for Central Square development

Originally published Feb. 23, 2014 in Banker & Tradesman.

With redevelopment in Cambridge’s Kendall Square nearly complete, developers are inching their way down Massachusetts Avenue towards Central Square. And if the tenure of conversation around a 46-unit residential building is any indication, the future of development in the square will be a battle pitted on generational lines.

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the Cambridge Planning Board voted unanimously to approve a 49,539-square-foot residential building over what is now a surface parking lot at 10 Essex St. The project is the first to be proposed in the area after it took real estate developer Forest City three years to get a 250,000-square-foot lab space approved at 300 Massachusetts Ave.

Until recently, development in Central Square has languished, said Steve Marsh, managing director of real estate for the MIT Investment Management Co., which owns the property at 300 Mass. Ave. Unlike Kendall Square, which started as a near-blank slate of parking lots and abandoned industrial buildings, the historic character of Central Square as a commercial district constrains the possibilities for new projects.

Adam Subber, a principal at commercial real estate brokerage firm, Cresa, said historically, Central Square has been viewed as a less desirable location than other parts of Cambridge. That’s changed dramatically over the past three to five years as more people and businesses look to locate closer to transportation hubs, he said.

The Hip Factor

Startups have long seen Central as a cost alternative to Kendall or Harvard squares, Subber said, but those days are changing.

“Being right in the heart of Central is an attractive location now,” Subber said. “There’s a buzz about it. It has a ‘hip’ factor that’s hard to find elsewhere.”

In December 2012, Twining Properties and New Jersey-based Normandy Real Estate Partners scooped up a suite of buildings and parking lots spread across roughly 2.3 acres of land at the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Main Street. They’re currently soliciting ideas for a proposal to turn the space into mixed-use development.

Last year, the city completed a year-long planning study of Kendall and Central squares, dubbed “K2C2,” which recommended increasing the height and density for projects that flank Mass. Ave. The proposal at 10 Essex St. conforms to the existing zoning, but includes elements of the proposed zoning changes – most notably, a request to reduce one space per housing unit in half.

Members of the public were roughly split between opposition and support for the project, with longtime residents raising concerns about the lack of parking, the need for a wider sidewalk in front of the building, and the lack of public outreach that preceded the application. Nancy Ryan, co-chairwoman of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, a neighborhood group, threatened the developer with legal action at the meeting because she said neighborhood groups were only notified of the project after the special permit applications had already been submitted to the city.

“We decided to hire an attorney to help us understand the implication of the building to make sure it serves the neighborhood and the larger Cambridge community,” Ryan said. “None of the abutters were notified, and our attorney found that was in violation of the city’s zoning codes.”

At the same time however, a new cohort of younger, beard-totting, plaid-wearing residents turned up to show support for the project and present a radically different view of the kind of development they’re looking to see in Central.

“I would like to see a building with zero parking spaces, and twice as high,” said resident Nate Thames. “The terrible lack of housing in Cambridge is driving up prices like crazy…and the only way to fix that is if we build dramatically more housing. I think this is a modest example of what we should be doing, and if we could double it, I think that would be great.”

Assistant City Manager for Cambridge Community Development Brian Murphy said the split – especially when it comes to parking – seems to fall along generational lines and is a likely harbinger for the kind of conversation to come.

“When you look around the room at who’s saying what. The people saying, ‘I don’t drive and I don’t need a car’ are much more of a 20-something, 30-something crowd,” Murphy said. “The people who were opposed to that tended to be from an older generation, more resistant to it.”

Cambridge City Councilor and co-chair of the Ordinance Committee, Dennis Carlone, said the council would be looking to take up the recommendations as early as April. Murphy was a bit more conservative with the timeline, saying the zoning changes would come before the council “sometime in 2014.”

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