Housing Added to Mass & Main Project

by Nancy Ryan

NOrmandy_rendering._edited.jpgRemember the Mass & Main fight last year? Many community residents were passionately opposed to the planned 19-story Normandy Twining residential tower filled with 80% luxury-priced units at the intersection of Mass Ave and Main Street on the edge of Central Square.

Developers won that zoning battle decisively, although residents won meaningful improvements. Now the project is moving forward with some changes that may prove beneficial to the surrounding neighborhoods. We in the Cambridge Residents Alliance are trying to keep an open mind, while we continue to push for the best outcomes for affordable housing and retail.

Our Executive Committee met recently with the developers of Mass & Main to discuss the new options being explored for this huge and complicated project. The meeting was part of their community outreach, and we appreciated the opportunity to hear their potential new plans early on. We hope they continue to reach out to the neighborhoods.

Here’s what we learned in summary: The ownership structure has changed, the parking situation may be improving, the amount of housing may increase, and the new ideas for land use along Bishop Allen Drive are intriguing. (These changes, however, do not allay our central concern: that the agreed-upon 20% below-market apartments do not compensate for the increased land prices and rents that inevitably result from 80% luxury-priced units, many of them likely micro-units and studio apartments.)

The Normandy/Twining corporate partnership that received special zoning to create the “Mass and Main Residential Mixed Income Subdistrict” in Central Square has dissolved, but the project is moving forward one year later. Normandy Real Estate Partners has sold most of its interests and Alex Twining of Twining Properties is now the principal owner of the property between McDonalds and Café Luna. He and senior Vice President Bob Flack are presenting revised proposals that hold some promise of improvement.

The Mass & Main project includes a 19-story residential tower on Massachusetts Avenue at the corner of Columbia and five-story apartments along Columbia Street to Bishop Allen Drive. The number of housing units has increased from about 230 in 2015 to about 260 to 275 now with the acquisition of additional property. No tower designs were presented but the owners will be filing plans for design review in July 2016, starting the clock on the process of final approval. They hope to begin construction in Spring 2017, beginning with the lower-rise building.

The agreement signed with the City in May 2015 requires that 17% of total units be affordable to low and moderate income people and 3% be set aside for middle income households. The City agreed to purchase an additional 3 apartments using Affordable Housing Trust funds of a “mutually acceptable value and unit size.” In addition, 10% of all units will have three bedrooms. Controversially, the side letter signed by the City Council allows a “minimum” of 8% of all units to be “residential micro-housing” measuring between 350 and 550 square feet.  We objected to this last-minute change because it does not limit the allowable number of these units that we believe will attract short-term residents and not serve families.

We are pleased that Twining is now proposing to build two levels of underground parking along Mass. Ave. that will accommodate about 95 spaces.  Previously all parking was to be provided on two surface lots and an unsightly above-ground garage, all on the residential side of Bishop Allen Drive. The owner noted some conversations have taken place with City officials about putting public underground parking beneath what is now City Lot #6, making that space available for potential city-developed housing and some open space behind the tower.  Twining will replace the garage with additional luxury-priced housing that also includes 20% below-market units.  If the city reduces the ratio of required parking, according to Twining, one parking lot will no longer be needed and will be deeded to the city for additional city-funded housing.

Twining and Flack are interested in “activating” the retail spaces that will be on the ground floors of the buildings and integrating them with Jill Brown Rhone Park, which has become a very popular destination. They say they are seeking creative small businesses to occupy storefronts on Massachusetts Avenue as well as possibly along one or both of the passageways that will connect the Avenue to Bishop Allen Drive and the current space that is City Parking Lot 6. They are considering concepts including a “maker space” or “maker library” or possibly a new Central Square public library.

Finally, we asked about the configuration of unit sizes throughout the two buildings. Twining responded that except for the required three-bedroom units, they have not developed a plan and are looking to see what sizes are in demand in the “market.” Bob Flack said currently the demand is for studios, 1BRs, and 2BRs, and they are considering roughly equal amounts of each.

We remain uncomfortable with the height and density of the high-rise tower and the impact of 80% luxury-priced apartments on rents and land prices in the surrounding neighborhoods. The immediate abutters of Central Square have been some of the city’s largest communities of people of color, immigrants and individuals and families raising children on modest means. 

We appreciate the owner’s plan to place parking under ground and his interest in getting more affordable housing onto Bishop Allen Drive. We also appreciate the effort to keep the city informed so that the city’s option to construct affordable housing on Lot 6, as the Cambridge Residents Alliance has requested, is still possible. We will let you know about upcoming events where you can learn more about the developers’ plans and express your views.

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