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.