By Abbie Gruskin and Lilly Milman
The community of East Cambridge is getting a new neighbor. Cambridge Crossing, a new “transit-oriented” development, is currently in the works at the intersection of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston in the area formerly known as North Point.
Developing company DivcoWest, based in San Francisco and known for creating tech and life science campuses, bought the 43-acre property in 2015 and plans to host a grand opening within the next year, though no completion date has been set. Once finished, Cambridge Crossing will boast first-floor retail, residential units, offices, and outdoor space for events, according to DivcoWest Managing Director Mark Roopenian. This is one of the largest development projects in recent Boston history.
Development at this site is not exactly new. Over the past 30 years, different developers have all taken a stab at transforming the area, which was previously used for industrial purposes but remained largely “blank,” according to Roopenian. He says that this current project is different from past attempts because DivcoWest has more space to fully incorporate Cambridge Crossing, CX for short, with the surrounding community. The property has been described as underutilized by Executive Director of the East Cambridge Business Association (ECBA) Jason Alves.
Alves also explained that the ECBA is comprised of roughly 150 small, local, and larger business owners and that DivcoWest is also a member of the group and has a representative on the group’s board.
“They’re reinvigorating an area that has been an empty wasteland for decades,” Alves explains of DivcoWest’s development of the Cambridge Crossing area. “There’s going to be a positive outcome on this. Creating more spaces for businesses is going to be great. You’re going to see there be a lot more opportunity. Our push is to make sure that that opportunity can come down to your small operator and your small business.”
However, while this development may present an opportunity for business, it also adds to a growing trend of high-end development in the area. North Point itself may have been mostly uninhabited, but what about neighboring East Cambridge?
A Profile Of East Cambridge
In 2019, the city released a Neighborhood Statistical Profile based on data collected over about 10 years by the Cambridge Community Development Department.
The per capita income as of 2017 is $63,343, while the median household income is $89,818. A household in this report is defined as “related family members and all unrelated residents who share the housing unit, a person living alone in a housing unit, or a group of unrelated residents sharing a housing unit (such as domestic partners or roommates).” The median family income—and families, with or without children, make up 35 percent of the area—is $121,056.
While these numbers are either slightly higher or on par with the rest of Cambridge according to the profile, a sizeable portion of East Cambridge continues to struggle.
“It’s quite feasible for a locality to have both characteristics—a higher per capita income and a higher poverty rate,” says Clifford Cook, senior planning information manager for the Cambridge Community Development Department. This is what happens when a high-income population lives next to a large low-income population, he explains.
“The median household and family incomes are really close to the city. It does suggest that there is a small and very wealthy population that’s tilting that number,” he adds.
According to a 2017 Community Needs Assessment conducted by the city, increasing affordable housing and targeting homelessness was prioritized as the Cambridge’s number one need. Financial security was the second issue affecting the most people. The report also concluded that while Cambridge’s median household income is higher than that of the state, the population also has a higher poverty percentage—meaning “there is a sizeable number of people living in poverty within an overall environment of affluence. These data imply that there is a higher rate of income inequality in Cambridge than the state.”
The report uses U.S. Census Bureau data collected between 2010 and 2014.
The non-student individual poverty rate of East Cambridge, at 14 percent, was 4 percent higher than that of the city. It ranked number four in individual poverty percentage of the 13 neighborhoods in Cambridge. (The Port, Riverside, and Strawberry Hill were tied for second at 21 percent. Kendall/MIT ranked number one at 37 percent, but a note on the report states that this is likely an error.) East Cambridge was marked in the report for its higher-than-average poverty rate and number of individuals in poverty.
Out of the five zip codes in Cambridge, East Cambridge has the third-highest number of SNAP households—households with a member who is enrolled in the government food-assistance program—according to the report. The neighborhood was also marked for having fewer stores that accept SNAP benefits per 100 enrollees than the city or state on average. As of 2016, there were 1,354 individual enrollees and 935 SNAP households.
“It’s a reflection of this contrast you have in East Cambridge,” says Cook. “It is suggestive of a fairly higher level of income inequality. That is not surprising to me. There is this older low-rise, townhouse style neighborhood and then there are very large, very shiny new buildings in the along the river in the North Point—all of which have a not insignificant amount affordable housing. But by and large, those large buildings are going to be occupied by people working in the tech industry and earning fairly large incomes as a consequence.”
‘Off On An Island’
Surrounding the future site of CX are several luxury condominium and apartment buildings that went up in the late aughts.
The Avalon North Point advertises having “the best luxury apartments in Cambridge” on its website and boasts amenities such as an indoor heated resort-style pool, a private theater, a sports club, and an internet lounge. The rent for studio apartments starts at $2,480, while one- and two-bedroom apartments can rent for upwards of $4,000 per month.
According to the website for Elevated Residential, a real estate agency, condos at the Tango at North Point have been sold for a range of prices between $751,000 and $2.2 million. An active listing for a 919 square foot, two-bedroom condo priced at $839,000 mentions proximity to Kendall Square and MIT and “the highly anticipated Cambridge Crossing development” as one of the main perks.
There is still no leasing information on the Cambridge Crossing website, although the residential section similarly focuses on luxury amenities: “The future residences at Cambridge Crossing will offer a superior level of concierge amenities, open floor plans, refined finishes, sun-splashed spaces and outdoor terraces that overlook skylines and green spaces.”
According to an emailed statement from DivcoWest, Cambridge Crossing will add roughly 2,500 units, with price points that are “a mix of affordable and market-rate.” The company did not comment on specific questions about the estimated amount of affordable units and their respective prices. However, the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance requires that at least 20 percent of the residential floor area of new developments is allotted for affordable housing.
Increasingly few are able to spend only 30 percent of monthly income on rent, a metric oft-used to describe an affordable housing situation, in a city with an increasingly high cost of living. However, even if a person with an annual income of about $63,000 spent 40 percent of this figure on rent ($2,100 per month,) they would still not be able to afford the cheapest apartment at Avalon.
Cambridge has the fastest growing rent out of any city in the greater Boston area as of this year, surpassing even downtown Boston, according to Boston magazine.
According to Cook, North Point is “more physically isolated” from the rest of the neighborhood and the rest of Cambridge. He says he is “not sure to what extent it’s going to have an effect on the overall metrics that neighborhood.” Roopenian insists that CX will connect with existing East Cambridge.
“How do you take 43 acres and knit it into the existing East Cambridge neighborhood?” He asks. “Because if it becomes just its own separate thing, off on an island, it’s a failure.”
‘The Most Innovative Square Mile On The Planet’
Next-door neighbor Kendall Square also began as an area of underused land. The Kendall Square Initiative, spearheaded by nearby university MIT since 2010, worked to transform the property into what the MIT website calls “the most innovative square mile on the planet.”
However, this development is a vast contrast from the nearby neighborhood Area Four, which remains a low-income area where residents feel ignored and fear being priced out of their homes, according to Katie Johnson’s 2014 Boston Globe article “‘Area Four’ residents live in the shadow of the future.”
Johnson writes that while the development of biotech companies, influx of start-ups, and expansion of Google and Twitter have “flooded the city” with tax dollars, this has hardly helped the surrounding low-income people.
Cook attributes the steady rise in median household income in East Cambridge—from $80,181 in 2010 to the statistical report’s most recent figure of $89,818—to the proximity to Kendall, as well. While Cook says the survey he worked on is primarily meant to collect data rather speculate on the reasons behind certain points, he notes that the development of larger buildings around Kendall and North Point “certainly is an influence on the trajectory the neighborhood” and is emblematic of the rise of Cambridge prices “across the board.”
ECBA Executive Director Alves says he sees Cambridge Crossing as an opportunity to develop the city in a way that differs from the past development of nearby Kendall Square. Alves says that development in Kendall Square has taken place slowly, and by different companies, over a longer period of time.
Kendall has served as a guide for CX, according to Alves. Roopenian says that DivcoWest intends for Cambridge Crossing, once completed, to work in tandem with the “innovation for which Kendall Square is known.” The new Cambridge Crossing development will ultimately aim to emulate the community feel of Davis Square, according to Roopenian.
Laying Down The Foundation of CX
Seven buildings are currently under construction at the site, and DivcoWest plans for the space to be used equally for commercial and residential needs. Once finished, Cambridge Crossing will also feature a total of seven or eight outdoor parks—Roopenian says that nearly 12 acres of the land will remain “open” for this purpose.
Roopenian notes that the current development plans require three different approval processes—one with the city of Cambridge, one with the city of Somerville, and one with the city of Boston, since the land technically lies within all three.
The Cambridge Crossing development also involves a reconfiguration of local transit. Lechmere station will be moved across the street from its current location as part of the Green Line Extension Project (GLX) allowing First Street to connect with the new Cambridge Crossing center, which Alves says will also provide new access to McGrath Highway and alleviate traffic in the surrounding area. DivcoWest and the ECBA are also interested in enhancing pedestrian accessibility to the area, according to Roopenian and Alves.
The Cambridge Crossing website also mentions that in addition to the MBTA stops on-site and nearby, there will also be four Hubway stations, designated bike lanes, and a private CX shuttle.
According to Roopenian, DivcoWest’s chief goal is to merge the forthcoming Cambridge Crossing development with all of these cities and their existing communities.
“Part in parcel of doing something this big and complicated is to involve the neighborhood and to involve the community,” he says.
For their part, DivcoWest has sponsored free-to-attend community events. In collaboration with the ECBA, DivcoWest ran the Cambridge Crossing Summer Nights Series, featuring local vendors including Puritan & Co., Lamplighter, and New Deal Fish Market. The event series, which ran from June through September this past summer, also benefited local non-profits, according to Alves. Similar efforts can be seen in Kendall, where tech companies like Draper Laboratory provide resources for several nonprofits aimed at helping the still-struggling Area Four residents, reports Johnson.
Will Gilson, chef and owner of Puritan & Co.—which offers entrees at a range of prices from $29 to $50, according to its online menu—announced that he will be among Cambridge Crossing’s first local business tenants. His new Cambridge Crossing eatery will offer a slightly lower price point, with the most expensive dishes costing $30, he says. DivcoWest is also partnering with Lamplighter Brewing Co., which plans to open a microbrewery and microdistillery in the Cambridge Crossing development, this December. They have yet to announce the remaining tenants that might fill additional retail spaces.
This article has been updated to include the above renderings, courtesy of Cambridge Crossing. It has also been updated to accurately reflect that ECBA Executive Director Jason Alves said that Kendall Square (rather than Assembly Row) has served as a guide to CX.
This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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