URBAN CRUSADER While MIT and its partners have plenty of money, and lots of ambitious projects, Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth Reeves isn't confident they know what's best for the city. University Park, he says, isn't "somewhere people want to be."
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Last week, the Central Square Business Association convened local property owners for what Reeves calls "cross-fertilization" — what most would call hobnobbing. The primary aim of the meeting: to introduce property owners to one another, and to representatives from MIT.
"I think they figure that if [the landlords] are in touch, there will be more consensus on what needs to be brought into the square," says Steven Adelson, whose family owns the building that houses his business, Teddy Shoes, as well as the Dance Complex. "They want the landlords working with the city to make sure our tenants are the right tenants. As much as I love banks, how many banks can you have?"
The Cambridge City Council recently received a 42-page report from its Red Ribbon Commission — a consortium of property owners, businesspeople, residents, and academic officials brought together to help determine the best future for Central Square. The commission's report, "Central, Squared: The Mayor's Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square," published in December, spotlights four ways to revitalize the neighborhood. One is a low-cost daycare complex, another a market hall, a third a "creative startup incubator" for "artists, musicians, writers, fashion designers, architects, and media people."
But foremost among the report's recommendations is the construction of middle-class housing: "New middle-class housing in Central Square would add stability to Cambridge's school system and enliven its streets," the commission wrote.
On their own, Adelson says, his family members don't have the funds to do what the city would like them to do with their property, like build apartments on top of their existing space. "The problem is that this is a very old building," he says. "To do that sort of thing would require a lot of money to upgrade."
MIT and its development partners do have the money for ambitious new projects. But Reeves isn't confident that they know what's best. "Forest City [MIT's development partner for University Park] has not demonstrated that it's very good at choosing retail tenants that make interactive first floors," he says, citing failed businesses in the complex of offices, research facilities, green space, and retail that leads from Mass Ave to the MIT campus. "[University Park] has a kind of sterility [because] it was developed as a research park with no first-floor retail to speak of, and there's no reason for someone who's a not a researcher to go into those buildings," he says. "It's not somewhere people want to be."
Forest City chafes at these allegations. "I don't want to take it personally, but it's hard for us because we've worked hard to build these parks that we want people to come and use," says Kathryn Brown, Forest City's vice-president of legal affairs. "We've made them open. We put art in the parks. We put bands in there in the summertime. We have picnics. We have ice-cream socials. We host the Taste of Cambridge. We want people to come and use the parks. We designed them so that the community will come and use them. . . . We have an obligation to have public space in our zoning requirements, but it's something we do across the country whenever we build mixed-use projects."
Although Reeves doesn't want Central Square to someday become an unwelcoming labyrinth of sterile research facilities, that's the scenario that makes the best financial sense for landlords like the Adelsons. According to the commission's findings, biotech companies are the most lucrative tenants in Cambridge by a startlingly large margin. On average, rental rates for new biotech shells net $60 to $75 per square foot. In comparison, office and retail space only go for $24; residential a measly $1.60 to $3.
Of course, another option is to sell. That's what the Hollisian family — who owns several parcels of land on the All Asia block — decided to do. Forest City recently acquired a right to buy the property, and the wrecking-ball crew will come in once the permits go through.