Yesterday, the Economic Development Committee had its first hearing on my policy order that asked for zoning language which would create an Arts Overlay District in Central Square. Central Square is in the middle of it’s Cultural District designation (it’s one of only 43 in the entire state) but we are losing artists and arts related spaces at the same time. Yesterday’s conversation was about how to address the displacement, while also talking about attracting new arts uses in our cultural district. Central Square is changing, and will change even more in the coming years. Mass and Main will bring hundreds of new, market rate units to Central Square. We will soon have at least one boutique hotel in Central if not two. Kendall Square is marching up the street and bringing their innovation technology with them, while on the other side, Harvard Square holds our history, and keeps the look and feel of Old Cambridge alive. Meanwhile, Central Square is the heart of our City, but we are losing the cultural assets that give the Square its own, unique identity. When artists are displaced, it comes with all of the usual negative side effects of people being forced out of their homes and communities. But we as a City also experience a loss – as we now live in a community of less artists, writers, performers, musicians, and creators. The recent displacement of artists in Central Square is the loss of a public good, and while it’s true that Cambridge has a broader culture of enjoying art, there is less of a focus on retaining and attracting artists, and making a real commitment to the arts with public policy and resources. One of the goals of yesterday’s meeting was to implement a concrete action plan to support our cultural district, and save the heart of our City.
Zoning is a powerful tool to achieve this goal. There are local examples of arts overlays in nearby cities and towns, such as in Somerville and Lowell. Although these serve as good examples, we need to recognize that the challenges and opportunities Central Square faces are much greater. Somerville and Lowell simply needed to convert and repurpose old buildings, but thanks to the Central Square Restoration Petition, we have all of the FAR we need. In order to make substantive change and have a lasting benefit for the arts community, we need to reform our zoning in more extensive ways. First, we need to talk about and define artists and the spaces in which they live and work in an accurate way which respects the diversity of their crafts. Second, we need to revisit height, subdistricts, and outdated design guidelines. And lastly, we need to specifically outline design guidelines and requirements for developers so that they build arts spaces that are state of the art and allow our artists to create. The way to think about this conversation is to frame it within “what do we WANT for Central Square,” and then zone and plan for that. Some of what we are talking about in terms of this arts overlay was addressed in the C2 draft zoning language from May 2013, but was never implemented. This could prove to be a useful tool to not to start a new conversation, but to pick up where the last restoration petition left off.
Now is a turning point: we can let the identity of Central Square be claimed by outside development forces, or we can let the identity of Central Square be created by a thriving local arts community.