Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A conversation about the Abbott building and developers, planning and influence in Cambridge

Recently, someone wrote me in frustration about the Abbott building in Harvard Square that was bought for the outrageous sum of $85 million with the intent of turning it into a shopping emporium of sorts. The writer asked me about this, but also about Wasserstein hall, a behemoth Harvard Law School building designed by Robert A.M. Stern on Mass. Ave, about corruption and about the influences that universities have in communities like Cambridge and Princeton, NJ, another community he mentioned. This is what I wrote in response:

As for the Wasserstein building, I agree, it is not my version of a good piece of urban architecture. It's a bad version of monumental architecture for an institution and it doesn't help the community much and does nothing for that stretch of Mass. Ave.

Having said that, Harvard is allowed to have its own taste when it comes to buildings, hire its own architects and come up with its own design, as long as it complies with the parameters laid out in the zoning code and other city restrictions. While I was not a party to the discussions about Wasserstein, I imagine Harvard worked very hard to comply with all city rules and regulations (height of building, amount of open space required - if any, etc. etc.). In that sense, there is no corruption here. Just a well-heeled institution doing its homework about what the rules do and don't allow and complying with those.

More generally, Harvard is integral to Cambridge. It's an almost exact contemporary of the community itself (1636) and plays a big role in how this community behaves and how it is perceived around the world. I strongly believe that the city's very favorable financial status owes a lot to the presence of the universities that are in our midst. I should add that Harvard is the largest single employer in the city. 

Still, Harvard doesn't own Cambridge and needs to have a symbiotic relationship with the community where it resides. That is especially true in Harvard Square and in the case of properties where it controls the rents. 

As for the Abbott building, I haven't followed it closely, but I gather the building was purchased for $85 million and it's supposed to get a gut rehab. Those kind of economics change a community overnight, and that's in part what's been happening in Harvard Square and throughout Cambridge for a while now. These battles tend to come down to what's allowed under the rules, how far the plans diverge from those allowable uses, and what happens in the public negotiations on these issues. 

Again, that is not corruption so much as it is a developer with deep pockets, a good team and a clear goal in mind. That combination tends to work in favor the proponent/developer -- not because he is breaking the rules, but because he is following the rules. This can be very frustrating to neighborhoods who throw up their hands in disbelief, asking their elected and appointed boards, "how could you allow that to happen?" 

This doesn't mean bad stuff doesn't get built. It does, often. But it's not corruption. It's a tension between a property owners right to change their property in accordance with a set of agree-upon parameters, and a neighborhood's desire to preserve, protect and maintain a certain look and feel in the community. 

When he asked if the City Council had any control over this, and whether I thought people in Cambridge were concerned about this, here is my response ...

There is some hope that the citywide planning effort currently underway will address some of these issues by laying out a template for future development that has broad agreement by the citizens, but also allows for change to occur in the city -- which is a healthy balance between preserving/protecting what we like but not freezing us in time, making us into a historical fossil. I think the planning process will do that. 

The Council does have say over this, at least at the end of the process. It is up to the Council to adopt any zoning changes and put in place both policies and procedures about development. 

The people in Cambridge are certainly aware of the development going on in this city and in some neighborhoods, they are quite concerned about it. I know in Central Square, some neighbors are very worried about new construction there. Equally, in Porter Square, some neighbors have expressed strong concerns, just to name two examples. 

But the issue gets more complicated when we think about our broader need for more housing in Cambridge, both market rate and affordable, as well as the amount of underutilized land near T stops (think of the parking lots near Porter Square and Central Square), and social and environmental benefits that come from having a lively, active street life with commercial activity in close proximity to housing, which encourages pedestrian uses over car use.

The job of the Council will be to sift through the recommendations of the planners and then pass a series of ordinances to govern the behavior and type of development happening in the city. Some of the tension between developers who want to build more and residents who don't is a healthy one, at least because it indicates a city where people want to be. The opposite problem, a city where people don't want to be, is much worse. 

Relating this to the Abbott building requires some good skill and some good luck too. Harvard Square is an odd beast in that it feels very much like a village, but has land values like a major metropolitan area. Striking the right balance there will be difficult and will require some good hard work with a little bit of good fortune.