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Cambridge, Mass., Debating Beal Cos.' Request to Rezone Land Limiting Residential Space

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Officials in Cambridge, Mass., last week began reviewing a request by real estate developer Beal Companies to rezone land north of its One Kendall Square mixed-use complex into a separate project that would feature more laboratory and other commercial uses, and less residential space, than the city currently allows.

The proposal seeks to enable Beal "to target both" smaller and larger potential users for the lab space, Peter Spellios, senior vice president and general counsel for the company, told BioRegion News last week.

Bears must still determine the amount of lab and commercial space it would allot for the land, but the company does know it will all be contained in a six-story building at the northeast corner of Binney Street and Cardinal Medeiros Way.

Project plans also call for reducing the size of an existing seven-level, 1,530-space garage, but maintaining the remainder of that facility; preserving the nine-screen Kendall Square Cinema as a cultural venue; and relocating the Bright Horizons day care center from a basement location to an above-ground space with adjacent outdoor play area.

Spellios said Beal wants to substitute residential space with lab space because the cinema "abuts a residential community, so why put more housing there that would just add more traffic and activity at night and on weekends, when there already is that? Plus, housing doesn’t co-exist very well with a cinema."

The new project would rise north of the nine-building, 676,000-square-foot One Kendall Square, a mixed-use project that includes laboratory space for tenants seeking to be within walking distance of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the nearby cluster of life-sci companies.

At its March 9 meeting, the City Council referred Beal's rezoning petition to its ordinance committee and the city's planning board. Before the routine referral, council members heard from nearly a dozen residents who contended the project would worsen traffic and their quality of life, and who took issue with the height being sought for the building, and what they termed Beal's unresponsiveness to community needs.

Beal wants to build a six-story, 85-foot-tall building, the same height once approved by the council for a residential building planned for the site but never built there. That height is 40 feet higher than the site's height limit for commercial buildings, subject to setbacks of at least 100 feet from Cardinal Medeiros Way, and 20 feet higher than the high end of the 35- to 65-foot limit allowed by current zoning for various residential properties within the neighborhood. When a "penthouse" story for mechanical systems not included in height calculations is accounted for, the building would be 105 feet tall, the residents said.

"There was never any provision to build a huge business complex, such as Beal Cos. is now attempting to gain permission to do," resident Richard St. Clair told the council, according to a webcast of the meeting posted on the City Council's web site.

"Cambridge needs more affordable housing, but it doesn't need one more biotech building, as there are many such buildings already in properly zoned areas of Cambridge," St. Clair added.

St. Clair and other residents urged the council to hold Beal to current height limits, derived from the Eastern Cambridge Planning Study of 2001, saying the proposed height would close in and block sunlight from abutting properties 50 feet away. The residents also urged the developer to step up and improve its outreach to neighbors.

Beal Cos. “have not been working with the neighbors,” Anthony Keeber, a 25-year neighborhood resident, told council members, according to the webcast.

Not so, Beal countered, saying it had held about 40 meetings with neighbors and community groups since June 2008. "We plan to have many more such meetings," Spellios said.

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The developer also said the proposed height of the new building is equal to both the maximum already allowed by the city for residential projects in the neighborhood, as well as the height of the existing Building 1400 at One Kendall Square.

Spellios said the proposed building would also be about half the density and size allowed under existing zoning for a residential building, and would offer 20 percent more open space than required under existing zoning — namely more than 1 acre of green space, including a pedestrian and bike route along the former Grand Junction Rail Line.

"If the community wants to discuss a lower height, the only way we could accommodate that is through a refinement of the setbacks," Spellios said.

He said Beal had shown sensitivity to community needs by including a 2,000-square-foot community room for public use adjacent to the cinema, and by promising to "work with the community to provide useful neighborhood amenities within the building," which would be designed to the silver standard of the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.

The garage will be shrunk in size and reconfigured, and an automated ticketing system will be installed — changes Spellios said that would improve the flow of vehicles in and out of the facility.

Other benefits to the redevelopment, according to Beal, include $3.9 million in new tax revenue for the city, or more than five times the site's current $700,000; and 350 construction jobs and additional permanent full-time jobs.

Beal's rezoning request surfaced about a month after the City Council approved rezoning 15.7 acres of the city's East Cambridge section for a $1 billion, 1.8 million square-foot laboratory development planned by Alexandria Real Estate Equities [BRN, Feb. 17].

Spellios said Beal's redevelopment plans are not a response to Alexandria's project, which won council support despite opposition from neighbors of that project site.

"It was not so long ago that an upzoning proposal like this would have been dead on arrival at the Cambridge City Council," Robert Winters, editor of the online news outlet Cambridge Civic Journal, said in his write-up of the council meeting. "However, in today's climate and with the existing membership of the City Council, it's not out of the question that this proposal or a modified version of it could actually pass based on this Council's unquenchable desire to raise revenue to support its various programs."

If that happens, he said, voters can respond this November when all nine council seats are up for election.

"The timing of this proposed zoning change may likely result in it being voted on not long before this fall's municipal election — and the outcome could be a factor in that election," Winters added.

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