Massive Cambridge biotech project faces zoning hurdle

Jillian Fennimore

Plans to carve out 15.7 acres of East Cambridge to create a biotechnology hub and 24/7 destinations spot is getting a tepid response from prospective neighbors.

During last week’s City Council meeting, residents expressed their concern for the proposal to build a massive lab and office campus along Binney Street. Developers are looking to skirt the current zoning law to construct mixed-use buildings up to nine stories high.

The developer, Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc., a Pasadena-Calif.-based developer known for building life sciences labs, has filed a zoning petition to swap denser and taller buildings with 1.75 acres of already scarce parkland for community use.

Rhoda Fantasia, a Third Street resident, said she is opposed to the change in zoning, particularly when it comes to increasing density near homes.

“They are going to be changing the neighborhood,” Fantasia said. “We need to keep an eye on it.”

City Councilor Tim Toomey, who is also a state representative, wrote in a letter to the Chronicle that the development’s foundation is “proof that Cambridge remains a highly desirable location for life science projects because of our reputation as the premiere destination for biotechnology.”

But Toomey told the Chronicle there are a lot more discussions to be had, and is glad that neighborhood meetings are being held before any approval is made. Zoning adjustments should be considered in order to reduce any neighborhood impact and move the project forward to become more pedestrian friendly and benefit the city’s nightlife. 

“I hope people are listening to each other’s concerns,” Toomey said.

Betty Lee Saccoccio told councilors last week that she feared the safety of her elderly mother in the chance that a lab accident might occur.

Tom Andrews, the senior vice president and regional marketing director for Alexandria, said Cambridge has a “very long and successful history” of regulating biotech uses and a track record of safety.

“There have been no incidents where a neighbor has been harmed,” he said.

The proposal also calls for energy-efficient buildings; the preservation of several historic buildings; underground parking; space for bus and cab stops; and bike racks and rentals. Ground-floor retail components could include restaurants, nightclubs, cafes and grocery stores.

“We want to create an interesting urban district that is now currently surface parking lots and one-story brick industrial buildings,” Andrews said.

Andrews expects the entire project to be completed in phases over the next decade, and hopes to start construction on the first building next year.

After several meetings with neighbors, city planners and hearings with the Planning Board and the City Council’s Ordinance Committee, Andrews said the zoning petition does not change the use of buildings, but rather the allowable size.

According to Andrews, developers will be meeting again with City Council’s Ordinance Committee on Aug. 14 and the Planning Board on Aug. 19 in order them to present recommendations to the City Council. A date for the final vote on the proposal is set for Sept. 23.

Heights of the buildings will reduce to four stories as they move away from the river and closer to the neighborhood, Andrews said. The open space, planned for the parcel of land on the north side of Rogers Street between Second and Third streets, as well as an additional half-acre of community open space planned for the parcel of land at the intersection of Binney Street and Land Boulevard, will act as a buffer zone from Kendall Square.

Toomey said a hotel would also be an “ideal addition” to the neighborhood.

Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. holds 18 properties and manages 1.8 million square-feet of laboratory and office space in Cambridge, including properties in Technology Square and the Science Hotel.

Cambridge Chronicle