In recent years, Cambridge’s Kendall Square has gone from urban desert to high-tech hot spot, a turnaround driven by local, independent restaurants and retailers. Landlords have enhanced the makeover by giving homegrown businesses breaks on rent, and the Cambridge City Council has approved forward-thinking zoning regulations on building heights. Only recently, however, has the neighborhood begun adding distinctive touches to its architecture. With its boxy towers, wide streets, and bland storefronts, Kendall Square often resembles a suburban office park more than a bustling urban center. More should be done to create a sense of character.
One such opportunity would be the renovation of the Foundry Building in East Cambridge. Originally built in 1885 by the George F. Blake Manufacturing Company, the 52,000-square-foot space at 101 Rogers St. has sat vacant since the city acquired it from Alexandria Real Estate Equities in late 2011. In its fallow state, the property costs taxpayers about $60,000 a year in utilities and other maintenance, according to City Manager Richard Rossi. The easy fix would be to sell it off, especially in light of Kendall Square’s soaring real estate market. Nonetheless, Cambridge would be better off finding a more creative civic use for the neighborhood landmark.
It is, no doubt, a daunting project. A recent study conducted by the city suggested renovations to make the Foundry safe and bring it up to code could cost as much as $12 million. Yet, once completed, the retrofitted building could be leased out for any number of community purposes, including as a shared space for local nonprofits and entrepreneurs.
Most appealing is a proposal to establish the Foundry as a neighborhood arts center. Cambridge’s explosive growth is pricing out many of the city’s smaller arts organizations and independent studios. That’s shortsighted. Under the plan called Foundry Equation, offered by several community activists and local businesses, the city would agree to accept below-market rents, and the Foundry could become a nonprofit home for theater, dance, and the visual arts.
Similar models abound. San Francisco, Seattle, and Baltimore all incubate local artists by setting aside less-expensive housing and studio space. Closer to home, developers of the Watertown Arsenal, a massive World War II-era complex, carved out 30,000 square feet to house two theaters, classrooms, workshops, studios, galleries, and rehearsal rooms. Corporate and community partners supported the project with $6.5 million in donations, which could also serve as a financing model for the Foundry’s renovation.
Cambridge, in many ways, is far ahead of its neighbors, including Boston, in its efforts to grow a diverse, lively civic life. Kendall Square’s revitalization is a great example of that, as its reputation for innovation brings top scientific and technology talent to work there every day. Yet investing in a grander vision that fosters the arts and makes the neighborhood more livable will convince people to stay there, as well.