Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Magazine Beach Transformation

In the few years I've lived here, one of the more disappointing parts of C-port is the lack of a relationship with the Charles. Physically, the neighborhood's form is defined by the river, either by the sweeping curve of the water itself or by the street grid created by the four heavily used crossings in the Harvard, BU, River and Western bridges. For a variety of reasons, however, most of my direct experiences with the river occur either to the west and east, in front of Harvard and MIT. Our portion of the riverbank lacks a pedestrian connection (or even view) of the water. The Mag Beach park has been pretty run down and overgrown.

A variety of state and city-led projects are seeking to change that, guided by the DCR Charles River Basin Master Plan, created in 1999. The Magazine Beach portion of the document is a pretty interesting read, reaching back to the Olmsted design of 1899. Some projects, such as regrading and resodding the playfields to have more usable surfaces and drainage, began construction nearly a year ago, and are nearing completion. As is the new Riverside Park at the corner of Western and Memorial, at the former Mahoney's Garden Center site. According to the Cambridge CDD website, the park will be completely finished next spring. Helping neighbors get there is a project to repair and improve the Magazine Street pedestrian bridge over Memorial Drive.

Other projects, though long in the planning stages, are just beginning. As noted last week, the Memorial Drive Historic Parkways Preservation program's tree and vegetation removal have sparked controversy this summer. The last big project is the on-again, off-again BU Bridge restoration, a necessary project that has seen its share of bureaucratic infighting.

Once all these projects are complete, planners and state agencies hope to see constant activity at Magazine Beach, from continuous riverside paths to softball and soccer games. Some even have visions of recreational swimming returning to the Charles, a proposal not without its own problems, but one that takes the challenge of reconnecting the neighborhood to the river literally.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One More Time Into the Pool!

From the Chronicle:
State extends closing date for Cambridge pools... again
Sunday was scheduled to be the last day for swimmers to take a dip in the city’s public pools, but luckily for kids entering their last days of summer, that day has been extended for another week.
DCR now says the Swimming and Wading Pool at Magazine Beach will be open until Aug. 30.
(ht: Councilman Craig Kelley)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Volunteer to Help Improve Central Square

Central Square is the place we love to hate: annoyed by litter and crowds, but drawn by necessity and convenience; disappointed by its failures as a public space, but smug in its establishments' low-rent indie street cred.

The city's Economic Development Department is looking for volunteers for the next few weeks to help learn what brings people to Central, how they get there, and what's needed to improve the area. They need five people to fan out to predetermined locations over several dates.

Some details from Elaine Madden, who is heading up the effort:

We in the City’s Economic Development Division are looking for volunteers to help conduct a Customer Intercept Survey in Central Square three days next week and three days the week after Labor Day. We hope to have five people surveying in each time slot.

We thought the survey results would be of interest to the residents of the Cambridgeport neighborhood and other neighborhoods abutting Central Square, as the Square is your cIosest commercial district and a place where many of you may shop, dine, and use professional services.

We will be analyzing the information and hope to share it with residents and the business community in the near future. The goal is to help understand who uses the Square and for what reasons, and to help businesses fill gaps in products and services to better serve their customers and attract new ones.

Please ask any volunteers to contact me ( or 617-349-4618) a.s.a.p. let me know of their interest.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Group Protests DCR Memorial Drive Plans

The Friends of the White Geese group's ongoing protest against DCR makes today's Globe:

This fall, the Department of Conservation and Recreation will be removing nine healthy trees in the so-called goose meadow, in the shadow of the Boston University Bridge, to make way for rehabilitation of the dilapidated 80-year-old structure.

The department also plans to cut down 157 dead, diseased, and damaged trees along Memorial Drive, from the BU Bridge to the Longfellow Bridge, as part of its historic parkways project, which seeks to return that stretch to its original 19th century landscaping.

The two plans have been sources of contention for a local environmental group that disputes the state’s figures, saying the projects would actually destroy 400 to 600 trees along the Cambridge side of the river that serve as shelter for humans and wildlife.

Check these links for more about DCR's Historic Parkways Preservation program and the Charles River Basin Master Plan, and the area plans for the BU Bridge and Magazine Beach. See the Friends of the White Geese blog for more of the criticism of the plans.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What Were the Odds?

Residents and pols work hard to delay the Mag Beach pool's seasonal closing by a week. It turns out to be the hottest week of the year so far. So what were the odds that pipes would break and the pool would be forced to close?

From the Chronicle:
Magazine Beach Pool Closed After Chlorine Spill

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

C-Port Turns Out for 625 Putnam Meeting

UPDATE: Jane Jones passed along a helpful note correcting my misrepresentation of the actual Zoning Ordinance mechanics. The project is compliant with zoning and is not seeking variances, but has submitted a Request for Special Permit. The post has been updated.

The assembled neighbors and other stakeholders filled the Meeting Room at the City Hall Annex for the Planning Board hearing on Tuesday evening. We were there to hear more about (and be heard) regarding the affordable housing development project known as 625 Putnam, proposed by local housing developer Homeowners Rehab (HRI). Jane Jones of HRI and Nancy Ludwig of ICON Architecture presented the proposed design for two buildings totaling 40 units, all of which will be financed as affordable housing and targeted for low-income families. The images presented at the meeting represent the Schematic level of progress, meaning they've accounted for all the major program and systems the building requires, but that they will undergo much more development and adjustment before they are ready for construction.

The smaller, three-story building will front onto SIdney Street, and function as a string of six townhouses, each with an individual exterior entry. ICON is designing this building to be the more "traditional" of the two, featuring stoops, clapboard facades and simple trim and cornice. Owing partially to lower ceiling heights in today's buildings, the building is actually shorter than both its neighbors. The larger building will front onto Putnam and contain 34 flats in a four and a half story building. A structured parking garage beneath the building will be half-buried in the ground, raising the first floor to be roughly stoop height. This design of this building, while clad with similar materials, attempts a more "contemporary" interpretation of traditional Cambridge residential buildings, using asymetric bay window placement and vertical plank cladding at the top level. The building's size, while larger than any of the immediate neighbors, is within bulk and height requirements of zoning--it's actually in a special zone created by the city to transition to future buildings nearer MIT similar in scale to University Park.

HRI came to the meeting having submitted a Request for Special Permit, which would allow the design flexibility at one setback and with parking. The first deals with the side yard on the east side of the Putnam building, where the portion of the building along the street is proposed 10 feet from the property line. The response to this request was fairly muted, as the Planning Board isn't entirely sure relief is warranted (the language on multiple setbacks in the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance is not terribly straightforward; see section 5.24.4 (3).)

The second issue dealt with the number of parking spaces provided, which usually follows a 1:1 ratio. This development proposes fewer off-street parking spaces than the city customarily requires. In this case, HRI is proposing a reduction to 28 spaces from 40 (for a ratio of 0.7:1). Owing to their experience with other affordable housing throughout Cambridge with developments such as Auburn Court on Brookline Street and Trolley Square in North Cambridge, HRI maintains that their affordable housing tenants often do not have cars and could be accommodated by the 28 proposed spaces. Ms. Jones noted that HRI is careful to develop as little unnecessary parking as possible, as an empty structured garage space wastes up to $30,000 better spent on the units themselves.

When the Board opened the discussion for public comment, a series of similar concerns were voiced by several neighbors worried about the impact of 40 families and their visitors on the area's street parking (especially in snowy conditions) and on nearby parks and sidewalks. Some of the direct abutters commented on the significant change in their immediate environment made by the proposed development--more pleasing aesthetically, but more dense and more constrained light and views. Many residents, both from the immediate area and other parts of the city, commended the project's goals of preserving affordability in C-Port and serving low-income families. The debate hinged on a delicate balance: how many units is too many? How much off-street parking is enough?

Though oral public comments are now closed for this hearing, the Board will still accept written comments through the Community Development Department. The next hearing regarding the project will likely be in September. By statute, the Board has only until November 16th to render a decision on the two variance requests.

For previous posts on 625 Putnam, go here and here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

C-Port Scene

The latest entry to the C-Port Scene series is this image from Flickr user Dan Fauxsmith. As you can tell by his photostream, he has a keen eye for some of the bizarre and unique things about Cambridge, which is what I love about this shot.

I mean, a lot of neighborhoods have worn out industrial buildings with sheet metal shops, but how many of them used to supply custom-built melting & atomization chambers to the labs of the world? Check out the ad below from a 1975 issue of MIT's campus rag, The Tech:

I don't know what the famous "Rector" is, and I'm not sure I want to!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brookline St Warehouse to Get Her Eyes Done, Full Makeover Later

Through the work of some concerned neighbors and MIT's Government/Community Relations folks, the abandoned warehouse at 130 Brookline Street will soon have its dozens of broken windows repaired. This is mostly a temporary fix, as the Institute's commercial real estate team has plans to redevelop the property into R&D/lab space in the coming years.

The near-term window repair and replacement, which is welcome news, will begin in the next few weeks--a contractor has already been identified for the work. At a community meeting this summer, MIT's Sarah Gallop encouraged C-port residents with concerns about MIT properties in the neighborhood (snow removal, trash, security, etc) to contact her with their concerns.
Office of Government and Community Relations
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room 11-245
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: 617-253-1988
This work, of course, is not to be confused with the ongoing Brookline Street reconstruction, which is using the driveway of the warehouse as a staging area. See this DPW letter (pdf) for a recent update on that work.
Ultimately, the Institute hopes to redevelop 130 Brookline as part of the belt of laboratory space that surrounds the campus (see rendering of the renovated exterior above). Like their plan for 640 Memorial Drive, the building will be renovated once a commercial tenant is identified. In this economy, no one is holding their breath, but MIT expects to move forward in the next few years. Community concerns around this project have mostly focused on the height and positioning of the new mechanical penthouse, and its effect on the neighbors across Brookline, and on the view from the Pacific Street park. Thankfully, any utility work under Brookline Street will be completed during the current project, eliminating the need to dig up the brand new street in a year.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

If This House Could Talk...

If someone struck up a conversation with your house, what would it say? Would it talk about a famous resident who slept within it's historic walls? Would it gratefully recount a loving restoration by the current owner? Would it explain, for example, why it's surrounded by a purple privacy fence covered with trippy ruminations and a cosmic moose?

The Cambridgeport History Project wants to help you share that story as part of Cambridgeport History Day on October 3rd. (Much more on that in the coming weeks in this space). If you think your house's story is especially interesting, you could be part of a set of houses with "teaser" signs that go up in September. You can bet that the best one I see will be featured on this blog...

Here are the details, via neighbor Cathie Zusy:

The Cambridgeport History Project is seeking Cambridgeport residents or businesses to post signs on their houses/businesses for their fall event “If This House Could Talk…” Saturday, October 3rd, local residents will post (temporary) signs in front of their houses that note some interesting aspect of its history. This could be contemporary history—about the current residents—or it could be stories from the past.

This event will be part of a larger Cambridgeport History Day. The goal of the event is to help make residents aware that they, and their immediate past, are valid parts of the continuum of history and to bring the community together by sharing common stories. The morning of October 3rd people post their signs. These will complement official historical markers. Neighbors are invited to walk around the neighborhood that day, and then share their discoveries with other neighbors at afternoon activities at Dana Park and at the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association’s annual Potluck at Dana Park that evening. To get the ball rolling, the organizers of Cambridgeport History Day are eager to find people to put up some early “teaser” signs in September. If your house has a good story—or if you know of one that does—and you’re willing to blaze the trail, please contact Cathie Zusy at 617-868-0489 or

Sample signs:

  • If this house could talk…. “It would tell you that writer Jill Rena Bloom once lived here, author of Harlequin romances and books helping parents to better advocate for their children with special needs. And around back in the garage, in 1979, Jill’s husband Ron Mooradian established Mooradian Cover Co., which still, today, manufactures soft case musical instrument covers for classical and jazz musicians worldwide. (This company remains in operation, but in Boston.)”

  • “This house was built 120 years ago as a wedding gift for _[to be added!]___ by her husband, local builder M.C. Packer.” Or ”It was here, on the night of February 14, 2005, that Fred and Frederica decided to share their lives. They were married in 2007 and reside here still.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Central Square Businesses Tabbed "Best of Boston"

The current issue of Boston Magazine (on newsstands now) tabs 201 different restaurants, retailers and people in the annual "Best of Boston" issue. Nine of the winners are right in our neighborhood, mostly clustered around Mass Ave.

The Central Square winners:
Fruit Pies: Petsi's Pies
Ice Cream: Toscanini’s
Locavore Restaurant: Craigie on Main
Mixologist: Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli of Craigie on Main
Neighborhood Dining – Central Square: Garden at the Cellar
Casual Bar: River Gods
Dance Spot: Middlesex
Small Music Venue: T.T. The Bear’s Place
Girl's Night Out: Cuchi Cuchi

According to the Chronicle, Cambridge scored 36 total Best of Boston nods this year.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Big Week for Dogs

First, a heavily used dog park reopens. Then, the City's new, experimental off-leash program starts. I've touched on dog issues in c-port before, but it's clear these are truly the dog days of summer.

After a period of work involving excavation, new fill, and removing/replacing fencing, the revamped Pacific Street Park off-leash area reopened late last week. The renovations were needed because of terrible drainage issues in the park, partly due to the lack of any drainage infrastructure, and partly due to intense use by dogs and owners that rendered the surface an impervious patch of bare dirt. After Friday's heavy rain, my dog and I wandered over to see how the new surface performed.

First, credit where credit is due: Friday's rains were the kind that in the past, would have eliminated the possibility of park play for a week. The old surface would have become a quagmire. Just the fact that a dozen of us could come and use the park was an improvement.

That said, however, it's a mystery why the renovation work didn't include an overflow pipe to drain excess stormwater out to Tudor Street (though Tudor's own drainage is an issue, as the street floods badly on days like Friday.) As it is, the new surface sits in a earthen bathtub, and all the water collects to the streetside corner, the section where the dog pictured above found a place to cool off (and get filthy). A significant portion of the new pea stone was washed out of the park and across the sidewalk, where someone tried to barrier it off with wood. All told, the new surface (and the park in general) still need some work.

Following the reopening, c-port dog owners can now take their pooches legally off-leash in a variety of "shared-space" parks, as part of a pilot program spearheaded by Councilman Craig Kelley. Launched August 1, the City has provided a map of the parks (shared for parts of the day or all day), as well as a guide to the experimental rules.