Hard Times for Planners in East Cambridge

KENDALL SQUARE is in the middle of things.

Just down Main Street across the Longfellow Bridge loom the skyscrapers of Boston's Government Center. To the south, the Prudential and Hancock buildings stand starkly against the sky. To the north and west, the Sonesta Hotel and MIT complete the compass of tall modern architecture.

And in the midst lies Kendall Square, 24 controversial acres of barren land in two plots known as the Triangle and Quadrangle. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA), the city's semi-independent urban renewal agency, has plans for the site: offices, luxury apartments, and a motel would occupy the Triangle while the Quadrangle would be reserved for "job-intensive" uses.

But Kendall Square has other neighbors--old, grimy industrial plants once stood on the two sites and many still surround it with their smokestacks, dirty brick walls, dustencrusted windows, and blue collar jobs.

East Cambridge, the city's ethnic stew with its mixture of first and second generation Portuguese, Italians, Irish, and Polish, lies three blocks north of Kendall Square. Factories fill these three blocks. The neighborhood is poor, working class and full of fierce loyalties. Many of the residents work in the nearby plants; unemployment plagues the area.

Community groups like Hard Times and Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee (CTOC) envision Kendall Square as a blue-collar industrial park that would alleviate the neighborhood's economic problems without changing its essential character. They are unimpressed with the CRA's plans.

The site itself consists of an unusually broad expanse of empty land near the heart of metropolitan Boston. A few lone buildings await the bulldozer on the Triangle, which is currently covered by sterile ash-grey dirt, beer cans, auto parts, and other debris. The area has the appearance of being recently bombed out. The suggestion, seriously presented to the City council two months ago, that "victory gardens" be planted on the site while the land lies fallow, seems less than ludicrous.

The CRA proposal for the site contemplates a 400-room motel, a retail shopping center, one million square feet of office space, 400 apartments and townhouses, and a 2800-car garage.

THE ADJACENT Quadrangle appears as though it was bombed out ten years earlier. Weeds creep over most of the site. Actually the CRA did clear the site in the mid-1960s for the construction of a NASA Research Center. Budget cuts forced the space agency to leave the City and the Department of Transportation now occupies the six-building complex that was constructed on half of the Quadrangle.

The urban renewal agency has no specific proposal at present for the remaining 11 acres of the NASA site, but has promised the City Council to develop the land "to create maximum employment opportunities, particularly for Cambridge residents and blue collar workers and to provide new real estate tax revenue."

CRA officials stress that their proposal is not a concrete plan but a "concept" or "procedure for acquiring proposals."

"Our concept plan is based on the best professional judgment of consultants on what sort of land uses are marketable," Robert Remer of the CRA, says. "In the end what gets built is what the developers are interested in and think they can build."

Opponents of the CRA proposal contend that there is a conflict interest in the consultants the renewal agency hired. The head of Gladstone Associates, the planning consultant, is also a trustee of Cabot, Cabot and Forbes, a Boston developer of neighboring Tech Square, the value of which stands to be enhanced by development in the Kendall area.

"It is also true that other consulting firms would take the same position as Gladstone did, since most of them would be oriented toward maximizing tax revenue for the City," Jeff Petrucelly of CTOC admits.

The community groups have also charged that the CRA and City Council forged a "closed-door breakfast deal" at the Sonesta Hotel on April 15 in which seven of the nine councillors allegedly gave their consent to the CRA's Triangle proposal. All the councillors vehemently deny any collusion.

"I will go to any and all meetings on the CRA so I know what's going on," Councillor Alfred E. Velucci promises. "I'll even bug a few offices if I have to."

Ron Thompson, the CRA's director of the Kendall project, says that the Sonesta meeting was initially arranged to inform the councillors of a bill pending in the state legislature which would locate a state office building on the Quadrangle site. According to Thompson, the councillors and CRA representatives also discussed Kendall Square development in general.

After the Sonesta meeting, the Authority revised its two-year old proposal, altering the plan for the Quadrangle from residential to employment uses, and submitted an order to the Council that has sparked the latest round of the controversy. The CRA-sponsored motion would give the renewal agency the power to initiate the preliminary steps for development.

"The proposed order reflects what the CRA understood the wishes of the Council to be," Thompson says.

BUT COMMUNITY groups remain dissatisfied and have jammed the Council chambers and Kennedy School during hearings on the motion. "Don't split the Quadrangle and Triangle--they're one area," JoAnn Allen of Hard Times told the Council. "Before you know it, they'll be back to the original plan and the people will be zonked."

At the hearings, the CRA and community groups have battled over five major issues: taxes, jobs, housing, traffic, and the credibility and public responsibility of the CRA.

* TAXES: Much debate revolves around the project's tax benefit for the city. CRA Executive Director Robert Rowland asserts that such revenue could mean $7.50 off the city's ever rising property tax rate. Others, though, contest the methods by which the CRA calculated the tax benefit. John Brode, Democratic City Committee Chairman, says that the Gladstone Associates used 100 per cent occupancy figures to estimate tax revenue but only 50 to 70 per cent occupancy to calculate city service costs. Thompson refuted Brode's charges.

"Brode bases his claims that Gladstone underestimated occupancy on figures taken from two other developments in the city which average 2.1 people per dwelling unit while Kendall Square is projected to have only 1.3 persons per unit," Thompson replied. "It's like comparing apples and oranges."

To add to the confusion, the city's Planning Department, commissioned by the Council to conduct an independent evaluation of the CRA proposal, says that Gladstone's tax figures are too conservative and underestimate the revenue the City will receive.

Some critics, citing Boston's Prudential Center, argue that the City may have to make tax deals to attract developers which will erase much of the expected revenue. They also point to the $1.5 million in taxes that would have been collected over the past few years if the previous industries in Kendall Square had not been demolished. According to the CRA's Remer, the CRA cannot offer tax breaks to developers, although the City itself may decide to.

Hard Times and CTOC discount the tax argument further by advocating the abolition of the property tax and the institution of a steeply graduated income tax in its place. It is extremely unlikely that the Council will follow their advice.

* JOBS: "It all comes down to a question of whether you are trying to maximize the tax base and revenue in the City or jobs for Cambridge residents--they're not compatible in every instance," City Planning Department Director Robert A. Bowyer '56, said at the first hearing. Under questioning from Councillor Saundra Graham, Bowyer added that the CRA had opted more to raise the tax base in its proposal.

Both the Gladstone Report and the Planning Department's evaluation are dubious about the economic feasibility of manufacturing on the Kendall site. The Planning Department states, "Cambridge cannot compete for firms whose land cost and access priorities require a suburban location."

The consultants did conclude that certain blue-collar industries--printing and publishing, instruments, and electrical machinery--could be attracted to the site, but that only a small proportion of the jobs would be available for Cambridge residents. "If the city opts for a manufacturing use to provide jobs for Cambridge residents, then it must commit itself to aggressive manpower development or jobs will go to residents elsewhere of other cities," the Planning Department report concludes.

The jobs that will be created by the CRA's proposal for the Triangle are largely white-collar, professional, and technical, but Rowland says his agency will seek blue-collar industries for the Quadrangle, "if at all possible."

Community groups, in turn, have little confidence in the CRA's efforts. They point to the 94 businesses and 2750 jobs the Authority has already displaced from the property preparatory to development. "If you go back over the past 15 years and look at what they've done to Kendall Square and the companies they've closed, it shows little commitment to blue collar jobs," Darlene Gondola of Hard Times says.

* HOUSING: Perhaps East Cambridge's greatest fear concerns the "ripple" effect of redevelopment. In this scenario, the new Kendall Square will make the surrounding area attractive to private developers. Housing costs and rents will rise quickly, forcing East Cambridge residents out of their neighborhood.

The CRA contends that it is impossible to predict what effect the Kendall Square proposal will have on the surrounding neighborhood and the Planning Department report likewise laments that there are "too many variables" to consider.

Opponents also criticize the dearth of low-income housing in the Authority's proposal. An alternative plan for the area conceived by the East Cambridge Planning Team would put 250 low-rise, low-density apartments on the site along with various community facilities and hence increase the city's supply of low-income housing.

CRA officials term such a plan impractical and say that developers have not shown any interest in low density housing. "Low-income housing belongs in the neighborhoods, not in a non-residential area like Kendall Square," Remer says.

* TRAFFIC: The East Cambridge groups also pose the question of the environmental effects of additional traffic generated by the offices and businesses that the CRA hopes to locate in Kendall Square and raise the ancient spectre of an Inner Belt through Cambridge.

The Planning Department report also warned of the harm such traffic might inflict on East Cambridge and chided the CRA for ignoring the City's transportation policy, which encourages mass transportation and discourages automobiles.

The CRA has responded that truck traffic from manufacturing uses would be even more debilitating to the neighborhood and that the Inner Belt does not fall within the Authority's province.

* PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY: Opinion at the hearings has run largely against the CRA thus far. Thompson allows that the CTOC and Hard Times represent more than a small minority of the city, but questions whether they speak for the majority of Cambridge's citizens.

While some community groups see the redevelopment authority as a representative of the "banking and development interests" in Cambridge, CRA officials maintain that it is only a facilitator of the City's urban renewal goals and does not have a vested interest in any particular plan. "We don't do anything until the city gives the word," Remer says. "We've always taken our sailing orders from the Council."

THE CRA was born in 1957 when the city took advantage of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 to create a semi-independent agency to govern urban renewal. The Housing Act's original intent was the lofty goal of a "decent, safe, and sanitary" housing for all Americans. The 1949 Council endorsed the Act, foreseeing the opportunity "for Cambridge to replace large parts of its substandard housing with modern planned neighborhoods."

Urban renewal authorities are empowered to assemble parcels of city land which might otherwise be too expensive or time-consuming for a private developer. The Authority then considers bids from various private firms who wish to build on the site and sells property at a discount to those whose plans seem best suited to the City's overall goals.

The City and state subsidize the Authority's property transactions with the Federal government, matching their expenditures, usually two for one. The Authority also undertakes certain improvements on the land--closing or creating streets, demolishing old buildings, improving access, furnishing utility lines, and pursuing zoning alterations to sweeten the site for potential developers.

Cambridge's renewal agency is headed by a five-man board of directors, four of whom are appointed by the City Manager with the Council's consent and one appointed by the Commonwealth. The Authority has the power of eminent domain in taking property. However, no renewal plan receiving Federal assistance can proceed without the final approval of the City Council.

REDEVELOPMENT in the Kendall Square area got off to a smashing start in the summer of 1960 when the City toppled a 125-foot water tower onto a deserted factory in a public ceremony. Thereafter, it proceeded slowly as the CRA con- centrated its limited funds on residential areas such as Riverview and Cambridgeport until 1964 when NASA expressed an interest in building an electronics research center on the Quadrangle.

Since the space agency would remove the entire Quadrangle from the tax rolls, the CRA planned to locate revenue-generating businesses in the Triangle site to compensate for the lost tax revenue.

In 1966, the Authority began to acquire titles to land and buildings in the area and to relocate business firms from the Quadrangle. In that first year eight of ten firms remained in Cambridge, but two years later the Authority was less successful as all but five of 26 firms moved outside the City.

By the middle of 1970, however, Federal budget cuts forced the space agency to abandon its half-constructed research facility. The CRA claimed a breach of contract and the government responded by locating the Department of Transportation, under former Massachusetts Governor John Volpe, in the six-building complex.

With NASA's abrupt withdrawal, development of the Triangle was also sidetracked. Thompson says that the Authority's initial reaction to the NASA departure was to pursue job-intensive development for the remainder of the Quadrangle, but that consultants advised the CRA to seek middle and upper income housing for the site.

After meeting community opposition to its housing proposal for the Quadrangle, the Authority returned to an employment strategy two months ago in its controversial motion to the Council.

Councillor Frank H. Duehay '55, chairman of the Council's sub-committee on economic development and co-chairman of the Kendall Square hearings, hopes to issue a report this week to the Council on the CRA's Kendall Square proposal, but is non-committal about what that report will recommend.

CRA officials likewise refuse to speculate on the Council's decision. The community groups, however, are universally pessimistic. "I don't know how much we can expect to get out of them [the City Council]. I'd say we have at least seven votes against us," Hard Times's Gondola said. "All we managed to do was to delay the demolition and put the plan off a few months."

Even if the Council endorses the CRA proposal, opponents hope to stymie development at later stages. Other motions that the CRA must, bring before the Council, such as zoning changes, street closings, and parking bonds, may require more than the simple majority of the Council that the present motion needs.

CTOC's Petrucelly has also raised the possibility of picketing, rallying, and other "direct actions" by the community groups.

Renewal officials are anxious to move ahead with development since, as Rowland warned at the first hearing, an extended delay could mean the loss of Federal funds for the project.

One trend that has become clear in the Kendall Square dispute is that increased tax revenue and employment opportunities have eclipsed housing as the official purpose of urban renewal. Community groups, however, find the tax arguments unacceptable. Both sides say they are interested in maximizing jobs for Cambridge residents and therein may lie the path to compromise.

"Jobs are near the top of everybody's priorities and desires," Mayor Barbara Ackermann says. "But we have a lot more exploring to do to determine what those jobs might be and how to get them to come here. You have to remember that a motel means jobs, too.