Community Forum on Porter Hotel Park
A community forum to review revised plans for the publicly accessible park/garden behind the new Porter Square Hotel was held at 1924 Massachusetts Avenue on Wednesday, December 9 2015, 8-9:30PM at the North Cambridge Senior Center. A full team from the developer was present, including Peter Lee, David Barsky, Elena Saporta, John LoRusso, and Mr. Gim. Approximately 20 abutters and neighbors from Porter Square and North Cambridge attended, including City Councilor Craig Kelley. Missing was the architect of record, Michael McKee, who is in China; David Barsky served in his place. Although Stuart Dash and Suzannah Bigolin from CDD deserve credit for strongly supporting this meeting, neither was able to attend due to personal reasons.
The original park layout as approved by the Planning Board has been disrupted by two large cabinets of electrical equipment, required by Eversource, with strict limitations on where they can be placed. This is a significant change; the developers are required to get Planning Board approval of a revised plan before they can make the electrical connection. The forum was an opportunity for neighbors to review the revised plan, primarily addressing the location of the new equipment and also specific details about the park, including materials, plants, furniture, irrigation, maintenance, year-round usability, and security.
David Barsky presented the revised layout and rationale for placement of the equipment cabinets. Eversource has stringent requirements. The switch must be accessible somewhere along the Porter Road edge of the park, approximately 10 feet from the curb, and the transformer must be next to it. Furthermore the equipment can not be close to the gas hookup at the back of the hotel building. This makes the back of the park the least disruptive available choice; elsewhere along the edge would be even worse. The revised layout shows that location, provided with plantings to screen the cabinets as much as feasible.
It is my impression that the people present understand this rationale and would support an amendment of the Special Permit. However, this major change, occurring late in the game, might establish a precedent and might even destroy trust in the whole Special Permit process. It was a mistake for the original plans not to show a transformer, and the addition of the switch compounds this mistake. It was asked whether electric equipment related to the commercial use is even allowed by the residential zoning.
I urge CDD and the planning board to insist that electrical and gas equipment be clearly shown in future Special Permit applications, and that existing open permits be reviewed. Given Eversource's surprising insistence on adding a switch (apparently because of inadequate power cables), other projects along Massachusetts Avenue may run into similar problems, for example at St. James's and at the Bob Slate building. A related issue is roof-top equipment, including the large box on the top front of the hotel roof. While not part of the park discussion, it is another unwelcome discrepancy between the original Special Permit application and the actual project.
Landscape architect Elena Saporta presented the park specifics. Without going into great detail here, the reaction to the meeting was generally positive. Hours and rules will conform to Cambridge standards for public parks. Lights will be low and not cast light upward (except possibly some on the trees.) An irrigation system was mentioned but not described. There is more hardscape and less of a garden-like feel than originally expected, but the design elements, materials, and plantings seemed attractive and appropriate to our non-expert eyes. The hotel will be responsible for maintenance and security. There was some concern about possibility of guests bringing alcoholic beverages from the restaurant patio into the park.
Neighbors and developers are all eager to see this long-delayed project brought to a conclusion which adheres to the spirit of the original agreement about the hotel and park and which creates an asset for the Porter Square neighborhood.