Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Tree Collection 12/28 - 01/08

The 12-day window to recycle Christmas trees began yesterday. See details from the City's announcement:

Curbside collection of bare Christmas trees will be Dec 28-Jan 8. Decorations and stands must be removed and trees should not be in a plastic bag. Weather permitting, trees collected during this time don't get buried or burned. Last year, residents recycled over 4,700 trees. The chipped trees were used as mulch in natural areas in Cambridge. For more information, visit the DPW Yard Waste page.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The 5 MW Gorilla

It's easy to forget that among the historic clapboard houses, the riverside parks and narrow streets that C-port also is home to the 4th oldest operating nuclear reactor in the U.S. A reactor that is over 50 years old and generates over 5 MW of power. A reactor that is becoming a political liability to the federal government, as detailed in today's Globe.

The problem has less to do with saftey concerns from internal problems or outside threat, and more to do with the fact that the plant's mere existence is seen by many to undermine global non-proliferation efforts. From the article:

The US government has spent millions of dollars in recent years helping other nations convert their civilian reactors from using highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium, a suitable alternative for generating nuclear power that cannot be used to make an atomic bomb. And President Obama is expected to seek further commitments next year from foreign nations to phase out highly enriched uranium from civilian reactors.

But while the Department of Energy set a goal of 2014 to switch the MIT reactor to the lower-grade fuel, that commitment is not likely to be met, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, largely because the MIT facility needs a special kind of new fuel to maintain its uniquely high density core - fuel that will take years to develop and certify before it can be manufactured in sufficient quantities.

Photo by Flickr user Mr_H. Used under Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cheung Featured in Globe

City Councilman and C-port resident Leland Cheung was featured in the Globe today as part of the wave of press (and blogging) that followed his election and upcoming inauguration to the Council. The article delves into the rising visibility of Asian-Americans in city politics, paralleling Cheung's candidacy with Sam Yoon's career across the Charles.

Cheung - who is working on a business degree at MIT and a policy degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government - jumped into the campaign. Using social networking websites and old-fashioned campaigning, he
successfully rallied students, the Asian community, and anyone who would listen around his campaign themes of job creation and bridging the gap between students and residents.

It worked.

“There’s a substantial Asian-American population in Cambridge, without regard to students,’’ said former mayor Frank Duehay, who served 14 terms on the council. “He figured out how to bring his campaign to students and the Asian-Americans who live in Cambridge. He obviously was effective.’’

Image from Rui Luo of The Tech.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

MIT Town/Gown Report Released

MIT has just released the 2009 Town/Gown Report, which quantifies the Institute's impact on C-port and the city, and publicizes future plans for development. It's an interesting read for those curious about MIT's ever-important role in our neigbhorhood (it's also an excuse for me to try out the PDF portal in the blog). The map on page 29 is helpful for those of us who are always curious about what properties the Institute owns (and does not own).

Some of the highlights...

Impact on the city:

  • MIT owns 5.1 million square feet of taxable commercial space and 175 taxable residential units in Cambridge (compared to about 11 million non-taxable square feet of space in academic, dormitory and student activities buildings)
  • MIT taxable properties generate $31.2 million in Real Estate Taxes for the City, with an additional $7.4 million in other contributions, fees, etc. This makes up about 12% of the City's annual budget
  • There are about 1700 students residing off-campus in non-MIT (private) housing, a number that has decreased as about 200 additional students have been accommodated in "Institute-approved" (dorms, fraternities, etc) in the past year

Recent and Future Development:

  • 350 additional bike parking spaces have been added, as well as bike "repair stations" with air and minor tools--one at the student center across from Lobby 7 on Mass Ave
  • MIT and the CSX railroad company are working on creating a safe pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks at Pacific Street, creating a better connection between C-port and the western half of campus
  • The cluster of parking lots at the western end of campus (near Ft Washington) are being viewed increasingly as an opportunity to develop new buildings to house administrative uses (that don't need to be as close to the heart of the academic campus). The potential future Urban Ring stop would make this an even more attractive option for the Institute to create transit-oriented development focused on office uses
  • Though there are no immediate plans, the Institute is studying the parking lots along Mass Ave, Albany Street and Vassar Street for development, including the necessary active ground floor uses that would need to be incorporated into future buildings
  • As mentioned here before, MIT is permitting a few projects in anticipation of an rebound in the commercial real estate market, and hopes to start (re)development work when primary tenants are identified. These include 130 Brookline Street and 640 Memorial Drive.

See the full report below...


Thursday, December 10, 2009

MIT Dorm Achieves LEED-Gold Sustainability Benchmark

A new MIT dorm on Pacific Street on C-port's east side officially received Gold-level designation under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system. The architect of the "new" Ashdown House was William Rawn Associates, who has been feeling a lot of Cambridge love from another recent project, the Cambridge Main Library addition.

Details on the building's green strategies, from the Chronicle:

Ashdown House, a graduate residence that houses more than 400 students and includes a full dining area, earned its Gold rating for a variety of green features: The building’s landscaping and irrigation systems use water from a non-potable source; a storm-water management system significantly reduces storm-water runoff; maximized daylight is available in 95 percent of regularly occupied spaces; and low-flow fixtures reduce water use by more than 20 percent. What’s more, care was taken to make the construction of Ashdown House as low-impact as possible: More than 10 percent of its materials included recycled content; more than 75 percent of the waste from the construction was recycled; and the building uses low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) -emitting paints, sealants and carpets.
Photo courtesy MIT.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

C-Port Scene: Wintry Mix Edition

The weather of the past week has certainly not been pretty, but it's a precursor to those moments when C-Port is at its most beautiful: the fleeting hours after a fresh snowfall, and before we get all angst-y about plowing and shoveling and parking.

This edition of the C-Port Scene series was captured by Flickr user Night Owl City over in University Park, where snow from a few years ago transformed the way we see the Simplex Wire & Cable Co. wire spool and the landscape elements.

Have interesting photos to share from the neighborhood? Make them part of this series! Upload the images to Flickr and tag them "Cambridgeport."

Friday, December 4, 2009

The C-port Commercial Real Estate Forecast

In last week's Banker & Tradesman, there was an interesting (and welcome) forecast for the Cambridge Commercial Real Estate market, with regard to life sciences firms. The full article is available to subsribers only, but here's the preview:
Cambridge's life sciences market appears poised to rebound long before the rest of the region's commercial real estate market, thanks to tight constraints on space, healthy demand from small users, and a bit of fortuitous timing.

The article focuses mostly on Cambridge's relative strength in the steady market for smaller, non-blockbuster life sciences spaces, which don't draw a lot of attention, but have mostly avoided the serious commercial real estate downturn, and are better poised for recovery. This is especially relevant for C-port, which has a significant chunk of this kind of commercial space, much of it currently vacant. Additionally, at least two significant redevelopment projects await the rebound of the market in MIT's 130 Brookline Street and 640 Memorial Drive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So What's the Deal with Blessed Sacrament?

The city Planning Board held a public discussion on Tuesday to review design changes for the Blessed Sacrament condo development (aka Dana Park Place). The good news? Many of the objectionable changes to the project were pledged to be undone. That said, the final development will have some compromised features from the original proposal. The process of how the project got to this point is a revealing story about historic rehab projects in Cambridge.

The proponant, developer Paul Ognibene (and his counsel and architect) revisited the recent history of the project that lies right at the center of C-port: After the Archdiocese closed the parish, it was sold to Ognibene in 2005, and he went forward with plans to develop 49 condominium units under the development entity of Urban Spaces LLC. Neighbors objected to the size of the project, organizing themselves as the Neighbors & Abutters of Blessed Sacrament (NABS). The neighbors filed suit and the project was delayed until a settlement was reached in June 2006. Among the terms of the settlement, Ognibene agreed to lowering the number of units in the church and school to 43.

To this point, most of the project has been completed. Of the original four-building campus, the Erie Street convent was demolished and the rectory was restored as a two-family condo. The school portion opened as a 23-unit condo building last year, and despite suffering the worst of the market collapse, its pricing has held up and 17 units have been sold. Work resumed on the church portion of the project this summer, but observers soon began noticing troubling aspects of the construction: poor brickwork, extensive demolition around openings, and tall concrete block walls in the front portico. Inquiries led to the project coming back in front of the Planning Board--a strange step for a project mostly through construction.

It was obvious that the project changed substantially since the Board-approved version, but the changes were documented in the project's Permit documents, which were approved by the city's Inspectional Services Department. Most of the changes were triggered by changing the height of the underground garage's second level by 18" to meet previously unrecognized code requirements--a condition that some on the Board felt was foreseeable and avoidable. The development team countered that conditions in the foundation of the church, designed in 1907, were unknown and had to be resolved as they were uncovered.

This change in floor height rippled through the design, causing the architect, Khalsa Design, to make numerous unfortuante adjustments in the permit documents: existing masonry details were removed or altered, the "planters" between the columns grew taller, window openings now crashed into the building's ornate, classical cornice.

Fortunately, several folks from the city, including Charlie Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC), have been working with Ognibene to mitigate the impact of the changes, and Ognibene's team came to the meeting with seven modifications to be made to the project:
  1. The planter walls (currently the concrete block backup is installed between the columns in the portico) will be lowered in height to the original proposal, near the top of the front portion of wall today. A more transparent railing will take the place of the removed wall. City planners, as well as a few Board members, also voiced concern over the planters being too far forward, burying the profile of the original columns. CHC will continue to work with the developer to resolve.
  2. The Pearl Street entrance through the original portico, already elevated significantly from the sidewalk, will be raised approximately another eight steps to accommodate the new floor heights. This modification is much worse than the original proposal (and existing building), but unavoidable. CHC will work with the developer to simplify the stair railings and conform to code.
  3. The fifth floor windows have been redesigned to not interfere with the existing building's cornice.
  4. The third floor windows (the top, arched portion of the original nave windows) have been redesigned on both the north and south facades.
  5. Proposed decorative grating will be removed from the Pearl Street facade to reveal more of the original brick detailing.
  6. The buildings new main entrance, off McTernan Street, has been altered from the Planning Board submission to better respond to the language of the existing building's punched openings. CHC will review the quality of the brick infill currently in place and necessary repairs. Ognibene called the shoddy work "a thorn in my side, as a developer."
  7. Windows on the south facade will be shifted up 17", with window glazing to remain the same size, and a planned Juliette balcony will be removed (ostensibly for neighbors' privacy).
Several of these modifications will be helpful in preserving the building's architectural integrity. The fact that the developer was able to get permit drawings approved that undermined the Board-approved design is unsettling and raises some questions about the approvals process. On the other hand, that the city responded to neighbor and staffers' concerns and is pushing the development to take corrective action is significant. The onus is on the city and the neighborhood to see that there is follow-through.