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Cambridge council backs away from Central Square life sciences building proposal

Posted by Brock Parker  August 7, 2012 11:04 AM

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After residents complained that they do not want Central Square to turn into Kendall Square, Cambridge City Councilors took no action Monday night on zoning changes that would have cleared the path for a new life sciences building in the area.

Drawing applause from a crowd of more than 100 people in the Council’s chambers Monday, the council opted to let a petition for the zoning changes expire rather than approve it or turn it down.

As a result, developer Forest City Commercial Group and MIT will have to re-file another petition seeking the zoning changes if they wish to pursue their proposed life sciences building that would be occupied primarily by Millennium, a pharmaceutical company owned by Japan-based Takeda Oncology Company.

“It is apparent through this process that we have made a great deal of progress in the discussions around this proposal over the past many months, but it is also apparent that we need to continue this dialogue,” said City Councilor David Maher.

The Cleveland-based Forest City had been seeking zoning changes to allow for a larger building at 300 Massachusetts Avenue where it is seeking to build a life sciences building with a maximum height of 95 feet and a building with up to 246,000 square feet. Current zoning allows a maximum height of about 80 feet and much less square footage. Most of the building would have been lab space, but the first floor would have been designated for retail space.

Forest City and MIT had petitioned the city with plans for a new life sciences building in the area last year, but city planners asked the developer to see if there was also an opportunity to build housing, as well. Forest City then proposed a residential tower at Massachusetts Avenue and Sidney Street to go along with the life sciences building, but when residents balked at the tower, the proposal was removed from the petition in June, leaving only the life sciences building.

But neighbors also balked at the size of the life sciences building, saying the proposed building looks more like the many high-rises housing bio-tech businesses in Kendall Square.

“Many of us are here because we don’t want Central Square to look like Kendall Square,” said Susan Yanow, who lives on Norfolk Street.

Residents also voiced concerns that Forest City needs to do more to create and maintain affordable housing in Cambridge.

The Cleveland-based Forest City was behind the University Park development and operates 168 affordable housing units in Cambridge. As part of its petition seeking zoning changes, Forest City offered to maintain all 168 units as affordable housing for the duration of its current lease from MIT for University Park. The developer also proposed to create another 20 affordable housing units in the next seven years or pay the city’s affordable housing trust $4 million. Forest City also would have paid more than $2 million to the city for community benefits and affordable housing.

James Rafferty, an attorney representing the developer, urged the council Monday night to approve the zoning changes for the development rather than asking Forest City to resubmit another petition. He said the area has been zoned as a business district for decades, despite the claims by “alarmists” that the life sciences building would forever change the character of the city or Central Square.

Rafferty said the benefits the project would offer the city are not easily created.
“If the opportunity is lost this evening, there is no certainty that it will be easily put back together,” Rafferty said.

Mark Hernon, the vice president of operations for Millennium, said the company already occupies five buildings in Cambridge and is looking to the 300 Massachusetts Ave. location for room to expand its cancer research.

“For us it’s critical, because we’re running out of space,” Hernon said.

But most of the 40 people who addressed the council Monday night spoke against the project, including Jonathan King, the chair of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, who called the proposed building “over-sized.”

Insuring Forest City “profitability at the expense of local residents is not the responsibility of the Cambridge City Council,” King said.

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