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The Landowners subcommittee co-chaired by Michael Simon from Central Property LP, and George Metzger of HMFH Architects and the Central Square Business Association (CSBA) has worked for six months developing a forum for participation of property owners for the mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission. Spearheaded by Councilor Kenneth Reeves, Chairman of the Commission, a number of property owners have participated in this effort. Additionally, expertise has been sought from community leaders. Property owners who actively participated included: Walter Jenkins and Michael Owu from MIT, Kathryn Brown, Peter Calkins and Michael Farley from Forest City; Harry and George Katis from Stone River Properties, Peter Nichols from Northstar Ally RE Development, Liza Rutenback from Ideo, Morris Naggar from 3Mj Realty, Briana Pearson from Harding House , Michael Simon from Central Property LP We never neglected to sample some of the excellent cuisine in Central Square, our meetings were always lunch meetings and we were hosted by: Mohan Singh from India Pavilion, Nabile and Joseph Sater from the Middle East Restaurant and Lettensa Afeowrke from the Asmarra Restaurant. Additionally, members of the Central Square business community sought to give the committee invaluable advice and they were: Estella Johnson, Chris Basler and Pardis Saffari from the Cambridge Economic Development Division (EDD), Ken Reeves Chairman of the Red Ribbon Commission on Central Square, Joan Squeri, Association of Cambridge Farmers’ Markets, Terrence Smith from Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, Matt Pace from Colliers International, and Marge Amster from Vision Central Square , Blair McBride from Block by Block, and Robin Lapidus and George Metzger from the Central Square Business Association (CSBA). Our committee commenced meeting in early February 2011 with the objective of creating a written plan to improve the condition of Central Square. We initiated the process with the question: “What do you think the most pressing issues are in Central Square as they relate to filling empty commercial space and achieving retail mix that serves the Square’s customer base?” We started off with an analysis of the state of Central Square in the present moment, and we looked at a number of issues including: Parking, perception of Central Square’s image, as well as discussing the importance of developing an accurate inventory of ownership and space in the Square. We discussed at length the anatomy of a successful real-estate deal and working with tenants and brokers. 1
The importance of developing a vision for Central Square was deemed to be a high priority. We spent considerable time on a discussion of how a Business Improvement District (BID) might address many of the issues surfaced in our discussions. Having George Metzger as Co-Chair was fortunate because his expertise as an architect and his role as President of the CSBA allowed him to see how some of this might be implemented. The CSBA’s new Director Robin Lapidus was an enthusiastic participant and was able to point out how many of the pieces to the solution of Central Square’s revitalization could be handled by the CSBA. She also brought her decade of experience working at the Harvard Square Business Association to the table. It was determined early in our discussions that an ongoing Property Owners group should be formed as a part of the CSBA to address the unique issues of property owners as well as their responsibilities in helping to realize a new vision for Central Square. Working through the CSBA, the group’s thirteen objectives would include: 1. Engage property owners in a vision plan for Central Square. 2. Work with the CSBA to develop and maintain an accurate and up-to-date data base on ownership, space, tenancies, etc. 3. Understand the nature of businesses now in the square and their unique space needs. 4. Create downtown management structure to accomplish many needs determined by the Red Ribbon Commission. 5. Advocate for the maintenance and development of infrastructure to support growth in the Central Square business environment. 6. Promote new development on under built sites along Mass Ave. 7. Provide a safe and secure environment. 8. Understanding the role of social services in the Square and how property owners and businesses can support and interface with these providers. 9. Plan special events that help the retail environment and promote the positive aspects of the square. 10. Provide information to people coming into the square in the form of a visitor booth, signage, directories, etc. 11. Support the establishment of a strong web presence. 12. Engage the Broker Community in the form of workshops or online tutorials. 13. Assess the impact of the Regulatory Rules on the creation of new businesses.
The Objectives. 1. Engage property owners in a vision for Central Square. Property owners need to be invited and involved in the strategy of a vision for Central Square. Accomplishing this end is a challenge so putting together a process is a priority. It was discussed that the square might benefit from a centrally driven approach. The developers of large project need to have input into this plan simply because of the scale of impact they have.
2. Work with the CSBA to develop and maintain an accurate and up-to-date data base on ownership, space, tenancies, etc. Early on in our meetings we discovered gaps in our knowledge concerning things like: “How much Parking is in the Square?”; “What really is the vacancy rate?” We decided that working with Cambridge EDD and perhaps other City agencies we could provide us with more needed up-to-date information. One of the main obstacles to getting the property owners together is the absence of a database that allows this subcommittee to communicate with them in an effective manner. Robin Lapidus suggested that compilation of this information could be handled by her office.
3. Understand the nature of businesses now in the square and their unique space needs. What are the sorts of businesses that we have in the square? There have been dramatic trends and changes over the last ten years as we have moved into a biotechnology center, and high technology area, as well as the opening of trendy restaurants and clubs. How can we support these new businesses? How can we anticipate and recruit newer ones? It was mentioned that the CSBA and the Cambridge EDD could take on the role of ambassador to bring complimentary businesses to the square In order to accommodate growth in these businesses we will need to encourage tenants and property owners to make better use of “off-Mass- Ave” side streets.
4. Create downtown management structure to accomplish many needs determined by our committee. Morris Naggar, a property owner from 3Mj Realty and an active participant in the committee has had recent experience with Boston’s Downtown Crossing BID. He is 3
extremely positive about the changes that have occurred to the area since the BID has been operation. He reported that the “feeling and atmosphere” of the area has changed for the better. Morris was instrumental in bringing the representative from Block by Block to make a presentation to our committee. We spent a considerable amount of time discussing the feasibility of a Business Improvement District (BID). Blair McBride, Vice President of Block by Block representative spoke to us about the benefits and process in general. In addition, we talked about other options for creating the effect of a BID. For example, the CSBA could administer an entity that could functional in a similar manner to a bid. We asked these questions: “What else can there be besides a BID?“ ”Is the support there?” ”What are the civil liberty concerns to using ambassadors?” ”What are the legal ramifications of putting a property into a BID?” MIT representatives indicated a formal BID would be a preferable vehicle to other management structures because of a proven track record and statutory commitments by the membership. The square has been plagued with a large number of panhandlers and perpetual loiterers, and this has been a problem for many people coming into the Square. It is felt by all that the visibility of ambassadors on the street would be beneficial. One member of the committee, Harry Katis from Stone River Properties, felt so strongly about the issue he believes the benches in the Square should be removed altogether. In the same vein, cleanliness issues in the Square are significant. Graffiti has a way of collecting on buildings. A BID or BID-like entity could go a long to improving that situation. The notion of a BID is definitely a hot topic and should be pursued one way or another.
5. Advocate for the maintenance and development of infrastructure to support growth in the Central Square business environment. This relates to the vision in terms of “How do we plan for our future needs?” In addition, if we look at the space that could be built up along Mass. Ave. the infrastructure requirements could be significant. As mentioned previously the use of back streets off Mass Ave will be required to accommodate growth. A pressing concern today is the adequacy of street lighting. A number of individuals considered the lighting inadequate and had heard that from others not on our committee.
6. How do we plan to maximize development within zoning regulations along Mass Ave? It was acknowledged that the FARs of many buildings along Mass. Ave., particularly the ones with only one story, are quite low. The likelihood they will be developed is high. How can we plan for that eventuality? How can we influence that development in a positive manner? Also, these questions extend to the “off-Mass-Ave” side streets.
7. Provide a safe and secure environment. A significant amount of time was spent discussing the perception of the square. Individuals coming from outside the square considered it to be unsafe, especially in the evening. In addition, it was mentioned by Councilor Reeves that he heard complaints from some new residents of Central Square that they felt “uncomfortable” in Carl Barron Plaza, a major gathering area in the Square’s center.
8. Understanding the role of social services in the Square and how property owners and businesses can support and interface with these providers. Social Services are an intrinsic part of the Square and have been for decades. It was acknowledged after much fruitful discussion that they will continue to be an important part of the business/professional environment. How the business community relates with these organizations has an important impact because their clients are in the square before and after services are delivered. Also, many social service professionals live in the square and certainly work there. These populations need to be communicated with, and served.
9. Plan for special events that help the retail environment and promote the positive aspects of the square. Many of us on the committee remembered the days when the square hosted large events and all of us have heard from people outside of the committee that these events had a lot of value. How do we continue or encourage these events. We believe a mechanism for planning and coordinating these events needs to be handled by the CSBA.
10. Provide information to people coming into the square in the form of a visitor booth or other mechanism. When people come into the square it would be helpful if there were someone to greet them or someplace where they could go to get that information.
11. Establishment of a strong web presence. Development of a web page is a key item. Events, artist profiles, job listings, audio visual presentations, on-line tutorials, vacant space available and other uses.
12. Engage the Broker Community in the form of workshops or online tutorial. We spent an entire meeting discussing how to use the broker community effectively. We discussed how brokers can act as consultants bringing in people who might not know they are even interested. Also, brokers specialize in, retail, national or local accounts. The web page www.costar.com was mentioned as an effective tool to market to brokers. A workshop could be put together either by the Cambridge EDD or by the CSBA to address “working with brokers for property owners.” We had some individuals on our committee who were highly skilled at working effectively with brokers. We strongly believe brokers should be included in the master planning process.
13. Assess the impact of the Regulatory Rules on the creation of new businesses. Terrence Smith from the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce is someone who works with new businesses in Central Square quite often. He pointed out that the regulatory hurdles clients of his have to deal with to start a new business are prohibitive. The committee discussed regulatory reform is consistent with the vision of Central Square and is a hot issue that should be continued.
In Summary. We request the Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission for the improvement of Central Square consider what we have developed as a spring board for a continuing dialog on the issues presented here. The committee liked the idea of the Central Square Business Association maintaining a property owner subcommittee that would provide networking opportunities for large and small property owners. In addition, this subcommittee could provide managers, and brokers with information sessions covering previously mentioned topics important to Central Square landowners. Or to address needs that might come up that have not been thought of already. As previously mentioned the CSBA could develop a dedicated web portal through the Central Square Business Association that highlights available commercial space, including present and future developments in Central Square. This group could also be charged with putting together a presentation and document on the various types of investment strategies to accomplish our priorities.
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