A star waiting to be born in Kendall Square
If you last visited Kendall Square 10 years ago and returned to the Cambridge neighborhood today, you’d think Jack had sprinkled around a bushel of magic beans. New buildings have sprouted, bars and restaurants have opened, and an East Coast Google campus has been completed. You can even ice skate in the winter or rent a kayak in the summer.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is Glenn KnicKrehm’s empty gravel lot in the heart of the square. The precious acre of property is still surrounded by a chain-link fence, and KnicKrehm is still spinning his vision of building a $300 million arts and culture complex called the Constellation Center.
Glenn KnicKrehm was an early employee of the Boston Consulting Group, and a cofounder of the investment and management firm Bay Resource Corp. in Cambridge. He’s a Mensa member and millionaire who participates in ballroom dancing competitions.
And he has been doing an insane amount of research over the last 18 years about how to create a facility that he says “will accommodate continuing advancements in performance standards, combining architectural splendor with cutting-edge science.”
But KnicKrehm’s Constellation Charitable Foundation, which owns the Kendall Square property, is a nonprofit. So it doesn’t pay property taxes. And that means that many in Cambridge are getting frustrated with the lack of visible action — beyond KnicKrehm’s extensive research into how to create a world-class cluster of performance spaces.
“It’s just a ridiculous missed opportunity,” says Jesse Baerkhan of Graffito SP, a real estate advisory firm that works in Cambridge. “The neighborhood is moving forward, and you have this parcel just sitting there.”
Barbara Broussard, president of the East Cambridge Planning Team, a neighborhood group, says, “You know how some people are planners and other people can execute? I like Glenn, I like the concept, but I’ve lost all faith.”
I first met KnicKrehm in 2008, when I visited his office to learn about the project. He told me that he’d grown up going to the great cinema palaces of Los Angeles, like the Chinese, the El Capitan, and the Egyptian. “These places had two characteristics,” he said. “The architecture and the technology were fantastic.” So in the 1990s, KnicKrehm began exploring the idea of creating a “very high-quality cinema.”
Later, the plan grew to encompass music, dance, live theater, and opera. KnicKrehm referred to it as “a village of art,” likening it to the Barbican Centre in London. During the day, the performance spaces would be used for product launches, company meetings, or conferences.
At the time, he described the construction cost as $100 million, and told me one-third of it had already been committed. The Constellation Center could be open as soon as 2012.
KnicKrehm’s research into how to build the ultimate collection of venues has been exhaustive. In 2008, he told me he had visited 900 performance spaces around the world, selecting 100 “for detailed testing,” which included photographs, architectural analysis, and creating an “acoustic signature” of the hall. When I contacted him this month, he said in an e-mail that he had just returned from Europe, where he had “visited or revisited eight performance venues,” including the opera house at Versailles and the Audiorio Nacional de Musica in Madrid.
But no one is placing any bets on when ground will be broken. Even organizations that Constellation Center lists on its website as supporters tell me that the project “is off everyone’s radar,” in the words of Miguel Rodriguez, executive director of the orchestra Boston Baroque.
Looking at tax filings, KnicKrehm’s Constellation Charitable Foundation hasn’t exactly been the Yo-Yo Ma of fund-raising. Over the last four years, it raised an average of about $331,000 a year, which gets you to KnicKrehm’s current $300 million construction budget in just under a millennium. (Boston’s Symphony Hall, not a terrible place to hear some tunes, was built in about seven years.)
As far as assets, the foundation lists $13.5 million in its most recent filing. The land it owns represents $7.5 million of that total, and another $3.7 million is “preconstruction costs,” money already spent on research and design work. So the foundation is not exactly rolling in dough.
Amazingly, it sounds like there has been some progress, after an initial meeting with Cambridge officials last year, on plans to take down the fence around the property and turn it into a “pop-up park.”
KnicKrehm says he has engaged the Westwood landscape architect Tobias Wolf, and he shared a rendering that includes pathways, landscaping, and granite benches, as well as a sculpture called “The Furies” already on the site.
That would be huge progress. KnicKrehm says he has the money to make it happen as soon as he gains the necessary approvals — perhaps by this spring.
I’d like to see a medium-term plan that includes open-air performances, an outdoor stage, and perhaps a temporary indoor space that could be built for a couple million. Lucy Valena, proprietor of nearby Voltage Coffee & Art, suggests an open air movie theater with “an outrageously good snack bar.”
It might turn out that there is a supportive audience for Hollywood musicals, or modern dance, or Shakespeare’s comedies.
But it would be nice to see what audiences in the neighborhood actually gravitate to, and will pay for, rather than continuing to try to build the ultimate arts complex — and never getting past the blueprint stage.