Cambridge Redevelopment Authority may have role in Foundry reuse

Originally published March 4, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) may have a role in the future reuse of the Foundry Building, although councilors are no closer to deciding what that use, or mix of uses, will be.

Gifted to the city in 2009 as part of negotiations for a redevelopment deal, the 53,000-square-foot building at 101 Rogers St. comes with the unique stipulation that at least 10,000 square feet be set aside for community use. At a special meeting of the City Council Monday, March 3, councilors continued to throw out ideas for repurposing the building, including using it as a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.) building, center for early childhood education, or space for local non-profits.

Several councilors were amenable to the idea of transferring the property to the CRA, although some said they were concerned about relinquishing control of the project. CRA vice chair, Margaret Drury, said the authority was eager to assist in the building’s reuse and said that any plan would be directed by the City Council and administration.

“We’ve heard and fully support the concept that community uses should be maximized in any future reuse plan and there should be significant public access as well as shared uses of the space,” Drury said. “The City Council and administration would determine the programmatic goals, and through its unique redevelopment tools, the CRA could work together in partnership with the city to meet those goals.”

CRA board member Conrad Crawford said the authority had repeatedly heard from residents living in neighborhoods bordering Kendall Square who do not feel they are able to participate in the area’s robust high-tech and biotechnology industry. Arts, entrepreneurship and education all work together to make the community more dynamic, Crawford said.

“The Foundry Building presents a great opportunity to include the larger community in that process and also to make it a more participatory process,” Crawford said. “That dynamism of Cambridge as a community really contributes to the vitality of Kendall Square as a whole and contributes to the whole success of what we’re seeing in Kendall Square.”

As it stands, the city is constrained in their options for redeveloping the site, City Manager Richard Rossi said. He presented a report to the council Monday detailing the council’s options for redevelopment.

The state’s public land disposition laws, and the city’s own ordinances, require the council first take a vote to declare the land available, which to date, has not yet happened. At that point, the city manager would be authorized to issue a request for proposals from developers or contractors, but they are not allowed to negotiate over pieces of the plan. The city is required to choose the developer with the highest bid price who meets the criteria set forth in the request for proposals, according to the law.

Councilors have long suggested using the space to house non-profits, particularly arts-based groups, who cannot compete for high-market rents. But the state’s Anti-Aid Amendment prohibits public money – or by extension, public space – to be used to favor any private charitable non-profit organization, according to the report. The CRA does not have those restrictions since it operates as a separate legal authority.

CRA Executive Director Tom Evans said the authority could declare the area a “demonstration project,” and then it wouldn’t be subject to the state’s 30B law that governs the disposition of municipal property, nor would it be subject to the city’s own ordinances.

“That does not necessarily mean we shortcut the public process. It doesn’t mean we’re not looking for the best public outcome,” Evans said. “It just means we define a different public process. It could be longer, but it’s just not as prescriptive as a 30B process.”

What that public process would look like is hard to tell, Evans said, since it could be designed however the city administration and council would like.

Councilor Marc McGovern said he would be more amenable to the idea if he knew the council would be able to maintain control over the project, a sentiment shared by Councilor Nadeem Mazen. Mazen suggested incorporating a series of votes into the plan so the council could maintain control.

Divergent ideas

Ultimately, nothing was decided at the Monday night meeting as councilors continued to bounce around ideas for a potential reuse of the building. Despite continued public support to use the space as a S.T.E.M. and arts center, McGovern questioned whether those residents really represented the entire community.

“Forty-five to 50 people on a tour that was promoted by certain groups that were interested in the use of this project is really different than a city-wide discussion about what the possible uses of this building could be,” McGovern said. “I’m not sure that the feedback of 45-50 people should be the driving force behind this building.”

Community Development Department director of community planning, Stuart Dash, said the city had been receiving input about the building since the city began negotiating with Alexandria in 2009. At an earlier meeting of the City Council, East Cambridge Planning Team board member Carole Bellew reminded councilors that the planning team initially fought to secure the building for the city and had wanted to use the building as part start-up space and part community space.

In April last year, the council voted to approve $40,000 for a study on the feasibility of redeveloping the site, and again, community groups weighed in with strong support for a S.T.E.M.-related use. In the summer, arts groups formed a consortium called the Foundry Equation that held an arts exhibit in the space as a way of drumming up support for an arts use there. One of the co-sponsors of the event, Ilan Levy, submitted a petition with 230 signatures urging the council to support arts uses.

At a public brainstorming meeting in October, participants’ comments included S.T.E.M. and arts uses, as well as a nursery, “grandma’s old sitting room” of an informal meeting space, and others, according to a summary drafted by the city. None of the comments related specifically to early childhood education.

To incorporate the wide breadth of ideas, Mazen said the city should hire an architectural firm that would emphasize “to the exclusion of other stakeholders,” the community’s voice. This open-ended process met some resistance from Rossi, who cautioned that such a process could be ineffective.

Councilor Denise Simmons compared the Foundry to the new Alice Wolf Multi-Service Center, a redevelopment of the old Police Station that involved partnering with the Cambridge Housing Authority to finance the renovations, and asked if there wasn’t more room for a public-private partnership. Similarly, Mayor David Maher posed the idea of tapping into the city’s philanthropic institutions and residents, who might be able to help finance a S.T.E.A.M. center.

Maher said, “I know we’re all in a rush and we all want to see it happen. I just don’t want to …” ” “Spend money we don’t have to,” Rossi said, finishing his sentence. Maher nodded in agreement.

Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan proposed a policy order committing the entire 53,000 square feet for S.T.E.A.M.-related uses. His late order never came to the floor, however. He needed two-thirds of the council to suspend its rules and bring the late order forward. That motion failed on a vote of five in favor and four against, but Benzan could bring the motion for a vote at the next council meeting.

The council is scheduled to meet again on Monday, March 17, at 5:30 p.m. in the Sullivan Chambers at City Hall. The March 10 meeting was cancelled.

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