COVID-19 relaxed red tape in cities. Then the bureau

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that every urban planner dreams of a world in which parking lots don’t exist. They take up a lot of space (about one-third of land area in American cities), they’re not used as much as you think, and all of that pavement increases the urban heat island effect. So much of that space could be given back to people, but the process is slow, complex, and mired in zoning problems.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lot 5 used to be a repository for 90-odd cars right off the main street. Then three things happened: The pandemic hit, ridership plummeted across the country, and the city found itself without a good outdoor space at a time when the safest place to gather was, well, outdoors.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

Thus begins the story of Starlight Square, a pop-up public space that took over Lot 5 for what was only supposed to be 120 days. But for the third year in a row, Starlight Square has just reopened for the season. About half of the space has been given back to cars for abutting businesses. The other half has proved so popular that Starlight even hosted the City Council inauguration in January, as the omicron wave was sweeping through the country. Now, Starlight finds itself at a crossroads: Should it give in to the small number of noise complaints that have tricked in over the past years? Or should its makers fight to build a permanent building, with actual walls to frame the open courtyard—and alleviate the noise?

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

Similar narratives played out all over the country. To weather the crisis, cities from New York to San Francisco relaxed their zoning rules and turned tens of thousands of parking spaces into parklets and outdoor seating. For many, the pandemic was an opportunity to hit the reset button, but two years in, and in a country where the parking landscape hasn’t been rethought since the 1950sresetting the button has proved a lot more complicated.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

Take Starlight Square. It was developed by the Central Square Business Improvement District (BID), together with Boyes-Watson Architects and Flagg Street Studio. Back in March 2020—one day before Massachusetts declared a state of emergency—the team had proposed a smaller iteration unrelated to the pandemic, but when the pandemic set in, the team started dreaming even bigger. They wanted a sizable public space with an open-air amphitheater and a space for the Central Square Farmers Market. But there was one problem: the land was zoned for cars, not people.

Eventually, the city manager used his executive authority to remove all zoning restrictions; but in March 2022, the Governor of Massachusetts determines the state of emergency over, so the team had to go before the zoning board of appeals and seeks a special permit in order to reopen for the summer. Of the six months they applied for, only three months were approved. And while the abutting supermarket asked for some of its parking spaces back last year, this isn’t because of parking. For Michael Monestime, then the executive director of the BID, “It all boils down to sound.”

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

“A story of compromises”

It’s a bit of a catch-22. Starlight is framed by a simple structure made up of Jersey barriers; a scaffolding frame; and a translucent scrim, printed with historic photographs, architectural sketches, and artwork curated by a local creative agency. Starlight won the city over because it was designed to be temporary and reversible: If they didn’t like it, it could be taken down, explains Matthew Boyes-Watson, partner of Flagg Street Studio and a principal of his eponymous architectural firm. So Starlight is noisy because it has no walls or insulation, but it has no walls or insulation because it had to be temporary.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

Now the team has one goal: Convince the neighbors who have complained and bring them into the fold so that, come July, they can go back to the zoning board of appeals and get the rest of the permit approved. But how?

It starts with balanced programming. “We’ve tried to make everything much more predictable; so if you’re a neighbour, you’re able to know, ‘When I might feel the impact, or when can I join in?’ says Nina Berg, the BID’s creative director (and also a partner of Flagg Street Studio) . Together with local community partners, Starlight runs events five nights a week; but only two of those now feature amplified music, Fridays and Saturdays. “It’s a story of compromises,” says Monestime.

The operating budget for Starlight, which includes the installation, operation, and underwriting grants for organizers, has ranged from $490,00 to $560,000 per year—and every single event is free of charge.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

From pop-up to permanence

To further alleviate the impact, the team has done a series of adjustments to the number of speakers and how they’re positioned. Boyes-Watson says they’ve also investigated acoustic paneling, “but you can’t overcome that challenge of how sound carries in what is essentially scaffolding and scrim.”

What needs to happen next is pretty obvious: The pop-up structure has to graduate and become a proper building. “We wanted to show that this city land could be parking for something so much more than and to benefit the residents of Cambridge,” says Boyes-Watson. Now, the architect is quietly working on a more permanent solution, like a U-shaped building that would frame an open courtyard space. Except, the approval threshold for something like this is much lower. A permanent project would likely require City Council approval, numerous Requests For Proposals, a special permit, and a building permit—before construction can even begin.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

In a country where new luxury condos seem to shoot up every other month, it may seem surprising that so much effort needs to go into developing a no-frills public space. But this just goes to show how poorly many cities are set up for change and how far down on the list of priorities public spaces are. Sure, zoning laws exist for a reason, but extraordinary crises like a global pandemic and climate change should call for radical solutions that prioritize quality of life and green spaces, not more asphalt.

The fact that Starlight Square has just reopened for the third year in a row is proof that Cambridge can function without Lot 5. Because, at the end of the day, this is about changing behaviour. “Every municipality has surface lots, and when you remove cars a lot of magical stuff can happen,” says Monestime. “People have been programmed that this is no longer a parking lot.”

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