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Central Square Residents Criticize Proposed Development

By Matthew W. Granade and Elizabeth S. Zuckerman

Community leaders who oppose a planned development project in Central Square upbraided the Cambridge City Council at a special summer session on Monday.

Holmes Real Estate Trust proposed to tear down the Carl Barron Plaza building--home to well-known small businesses including Emily Rose Shoppe Inc., the Lucy Parsons Center and Wiener Discount Tobacco--and replace it with an 11-story structure housing residential apartments and retail stores. Holmes has not yet officially filed for permits to begin construction.

Residents who oppose the design said they are concerned about gentrification of the traditionally lower-to-middle income neighborhood.

"We don't need anymore yuppie housing," said Ellen M. Al-Wequan, a Kirkland St. resident and member of a grassroots action group called Save Central Square (SCS).

"Any community has a right to ask a developer in exchange for its approval...What will this change do for us?" said James Williamson, another SCS member.

Most of the speakers during the nearly three-hour public testimony phase of the meeting addressed the Central Square issue.

Concerns over an affordable housing dearth in the wake of the end of rent control peppered the debate as speakers said they fear the development will raise property values and rents in the area.

Residents objected not only to the possibility that the new development would contain primarily pricy housing but also to the structure itself, citing concerns that the building's height is inappropriate for the scale of the Central Square area. The development's proposed height is considerably in excess of the height limit imposed by the area's zoning and would require a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).

But not all residents oppose the Holmes project. Last month, routine elections of the Central Square Neighborhood Coalition (CSNC) devolved into an ongoing leadership dispute when members of SCS attended a CSNC meeting and elected an alternate board of directors. Currently, two groups claim to be the CSNC. The original committee supports the development while the recently elected leadership opposes it.

City government has not remained neutral. On the agenda of this week's meeting was a reaffirmation of support for the "duly elected" original leadership of the CSNC by Mayor Shelia Doyle Russell.

Speakers at the meeting criticized the city for not taking action.

"I don't blame so much the developers and landlords because that's what the law says they can do," William B. Cunningham told the council. "It's not the developers' fault--it's your fault."

The Central Square Advisory Committee (CSAC), a pre-review committee which will make a recommendation to the Planning Board on the project, met Wednesday night for public deliberations.

The CSAC will meet again on the 20th to review a draft of its recommendations, according to Cambridge resident Scott Levitan who serves as Mid-Cambridge representative on the CSAC. Levitan is also Director of University and Commercial Real Estate at Harvard.

Neither officials from Holmes Realty Trust not their attorney, James J. Rafferty, returned repeated phone calls.

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