On Monday, the Cambridge City Council is scheduled to consider a zoning petition from developer Forest City that would permit a building of greater height and density to replace the current buildings that make up the so-called "All-Asia block" at 300 Mass. Ave. near Central Square. This petition, first introduced 18 months ago, has drawn belated, fierce opposition from the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA), who cite a range of reasons to oppose this action. But, like most of the continuing campaign of the CRA, taking the actions they advocate - in this case, a rejection of the zoning petition - may not bring the results they wish.
The All-Asia block lies between the Novartis building in the old NECCO factory and Forest City's University Park development's single Mass Ave. frontage, the building that includes The Asgard. Anchored at one end by a gas station and MIT's Random Hall dormitory and filled with closed retail establishments, the block is owned by MIT and a number of family trusts from which Forest City has secured the development rights. The block, as it stands, is under-built for its current zoning, which means that Forest City can, without any zoning approval, demolish the buildings and build office/lab space, space for which they have already secured a tenant.
But, like any developer, Forest City is seeking to maximize the return on the rights they have secured by asking permission to build a bigger building. By requesting such permission, which requires a zoning change, Forest City starts a negotiating process with the City Council who have the power to grant or deny the request. That negotiation, both formal and informal has been going on for 18 months, with Forest City first deferring their request so that the City's Central Square planning process could proceed and then modifying their petition to reflect key elements that are emerging from that process. Thus, the Forest City petition has changed to assure that there will be a mix-used building with the Mass Ave frontage including appropriate retail. Forest City has also agreed to build a building that doesn't appear monolithic, that is, that it will appear from the street as series of smaller building. The last piece of negotiation, which caused Mayor Henrietta Davis to defer this item from the Monday July 30th City Council agenda, is the Council's request to Forest City that it increase the number of affordable housing units in it University Park development and extend the expiration dates for others. None of these elements increase Forest City's return on investment, they cost it money. But these are tradeoffs Forest City will make in order to build a larger building.
The City Council can take three different courses of action on this petition: it can approve it, reject it, or it can take no action and allow it to expire.
If Council approves this petition, Forest City moves forward and builds a building that is in line with what Central Square Advisory Committee is likely to recommend.
If the Council takes no action and the petition expires, Forest City is free to resubmit it.
But what if the Council, as the CRA recommends, votes no? Under Cambridge's rules for zoning, any adverse action - a no vote or a withdrawal of the petition - a petition cannot be resubmitted for two years. If you were Forest City, what would you do? Would you wait two years and risk that - as the CRA predicts - Cambridge turns against development? Or would you build to right, that is, build the building that current zoning permits? And, if you were building to right, would you still include elements that Cambridge has negotiated, or would you eliminate retail that you would have to subsidize? And would you still build a building with a differentiated frontage, or would you build a monolithic frontage, maximizing the internal space of the building?
The CRA campaign against this proposal is an odd stew of fear and irrelevant points. In a widely distributed leaflet, they imply illegality on Forest City's part ("Why is this illegal?"), and talk about the dangers of a lab building in Central Square and ask why Forest City isn't building housing. But the "no" vote they advocate will neither keep a lab out out of Central Square nor force Forest City to build housing on this site.
The best option for housing occurred when Forest City, responding to community pressure and a request from the City, proposed a housing tower on other land they control. Rather than embrace the housing and negotiate on the acceptability of the specific proposal, fierce opposition from the CRA caused the City Council, in a previous consideration of this zoning petition, to delete the housing proposal. A cynic might suggest that this reflexive opposition was just what Forest City was counting on so they get the best of both worlds: proposing housing the community desires but having the Council play the villain in removing it.
Much of the opposition seems rooted in old fights over the development of University Park, when the Simplex Steering Committee engaged in a decade-long struggle to shape the direction of development. Cambridge owes a debt of gratitude to these activists as, for example, the affordable housing which the Council is seeking to extend and protect would not exist without their efforts. But Cambridge is a much different place than it was when University Park was a large vacant lot. As one Cambridge observer noted, those protesting Forest City are looking in the rearview mirror and confusing it with the road ahead. On the road ahead, Forest City will, if it so chooses, build something on the All Asia block. The question Cambridge faces is whether it will choose a path of engagement and shape this development as best it can, or, instead, choose reflexive opposition and permit Forest City to do whatever it thinks best.
The Cambridge City Council will consider the Forest City petition at a special meeting at 7:30 Monday, August 6th. This meeting will follow a 5:30 Public Safety Committee meeting to discuss the MIT Nuclear Reactor, located on Mass Ave., 2 blocks from the proposed Forest City building.
Disclaimer: The author has lived his entire adult life in and around Central Square, is a long term Cambridgeport homeowner, has spoken against the CRA's so-called "Permanent Parking Petition", and is a member of the City's Central Square Advisory Committee.