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Paul McMorrow

Cambridge needs to ditch parking lots to move ahead

CAMBRIDGE HAS been the scene of a bitter development civil war in recent months. A conversation about how to best reshape the city veered sharply into the ditch, and became a serious debate over whether residents should stonewall nearly all future development. Given the recent history, it’s notable that major efforts to remake Central Square and Kendall Square are moving ahead at all. But the Cambridge development plans, which were both advanced last week, really matter not for what they propose to build, but how they propose to build. Both plans hinge on giving incentives to desirable developments, and on converting stagnant parking lots into active buildings that advance broader benefits.

Last week, MIT re-launched a major bid to rezone its Kendall Square holdings, while a citizens’ task force came down strongly in favor of opening up development opportunities in Central Square. Both efforts will leverage private investments to improve shared civic spaces. And both make conscious efforts to build progressive neighborhoods that elevate people over cars.

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Of the two, the MIT development bid had the lower bar to clear. A decade ago, Kendall Square’s neighbors signed on to the bargain Central Square is currently wrestling with: East Cambridge embraced the construction around MIT’s orbit as a way of steering the benefits of new development into their neighborhood. Millions of square feet of new offices and labs have brought in new homes and restaurants and shops. The sidewalks are lively, and traffic has actually decreased. Kendall has been built to recognize the fact that half of Cambridge either walks, bikes, or takes the T to work, and it is thriving.

MIT’s rezoning bid would finish off the job by turning a series of surface parking lots into dynamic new buildings. The school’s new campus plan expands on one it filed, and then abandoned, more than a year and a half ago. It still contemplates building 1 million square feet of commercial space along Main Street and on MIT’s main campus. But now, the school is answering a frequent critique of its East Cambridge neighbors and doubling the amount of housing it plans to build; by putting an apartment tower at the head of Broadway and by asking for permission to construct buildings taller than normally would be allowed in the heart of Kendall in exchange for a commitment to include residences in those buildings, MIT is creating mechanisms for injecting people and vibrancy into a part of the square that badly needs both.

Central Square is taking a bigger step, because the fiercely independent neighborhood is bucking anti-development pressure and agreeing to follow Kendall’s lead. A lengthy Central Square development planning process generated tremendous upheaval, including a bid by a group of residents to down-zone the neighborhood. Seemingly inoffensive projects, like a lab expansion for Millennium Pharmaceuticals, stalled in the crossfire. But in the end, a resident-led task force is recommending a strong pro-growth platform that would raise zoning heights and give additional building height bonuses to developers who commit to building much-needed affordable and middle-income housing. The proposed new zoning would also give favorable treatment to community-oriented retail space.

As with MIT’s Kendall Square bid, the catalysts for the redevelopment of Central Square would be underused surface parking lots that contribute little to their surrounding neighborhoods. They’re wastes of space in the truest sense. Some of these lots are privately owned; they generally produce too much cash now to justify replacing them with active buildings, but would likely be done in by taller building heights. The biggest controversy surrounded surface parking lots the city owns in the neighborhood. Anti-development advocates argued that the lots should remain untouched; instead, the Central Square planning committee said the lots represent opportunities to build affordable and middle-class housing, create new civic space, and strengthen the connections between Central Square’s main commercial drag and the streets surrounding it.

The Central Square development battle weighed heavily on folks far outside the People’s Republic. Cambridge is a key driver of the state’s technology-centric economy. The city is also ground zero for the drive to reshape communities around environmentally conscious smart-growth principles. If a city with a proud leftward bent and extensive subway access couldn’t commit to building dense neighborhoods that lessen residents’ dependence on cars, then there would be little chance of persuading Boston’s suburbs, which place tight controls on new construction, to liberalize their own zoning codes. Instead, the city is taking significant steps to get bigger and livelier, and it’s getting there by jettisoning parking in favor of people.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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