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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Patrick bill paves way for vast E. Cambridge project
By Erin Smith/Cambridge Chronicle

Gov. Deval Patrick moved to eliminate roadblocks for a massive East Cambridge development, dashing hopes for an underground car tunnel nearby.

Patrick filed legislation late Thursday afternoon that would eliminate Cambridge residents’ leverage for negotiating the tunnel for McGrath O’Brien Highway and overturn a recent court victory that sent developers for NorthPoint back to the drawing board for permits.

NorthPoint is a 5-million square-foot construction project with residential, office and retail space in East Cambridge .

Patrick’s bill would reverse a Supreme Judicial Court ruling and give the Department of Environmental Protection — instead of state legislators — oversight of wetlands development. The legislation would also retroactively approve the environmental agency’s decisions on all wetlands projects.

“It applies to all the DEP exemptions prior to the ruling and since NorthPoint, and after the ruling,” said Jose Martinez, a spokesperson for Patrick, about the bill.

On Thursday morning, Patrick spoke at Cambridge-based biotech company Genzyme about his desire to streamline the state’s environmental regulation process in general in order to speed up construction developments.

Last month, a group of Cambridge neighborhood leaders won a victory when the SJC ruled that DEP had improperly given the developers for an expansive project in East Cambridge an exemption from the state law protecting waterways. The court ruling stated that only the state legislature has the authority to approve projects on public waterways.

Cambridge residents are worried several legislative proposals would give the community less of a say on construction and would affect a court ruling on NorthPoint.

“I think it’s horrible,” said East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffman. “It’s a giveaway of public property to private interests with nothing for the public.”

Patrick isn’t the only one to file legislation that would favor wetlands developers.

State Rep. Michael J. Rodrigues, D- Westport, Christine Canavan, D- Brockton, and David Begelfer, who represents a real estate trade organization,have filed a bill that would set an across-the-board state standard for wetlands construction projects.

State Rep. Tim Toomey, D-Cambridge, had hoped to use the SJC ruling as leverage to get the developers to build an underground car tunnel for East Cambridge .

Toomey could not immediately be reached for comment about Patrick’s bill.

Toomey, who also serves as vice mayor on the City Council, is pushing for a tunnel for McGrath O’Brien Highway so that residents could avoid crossing a busy, seven-lane highway to a new Lechmere T station, which is expected to be relocated to the NorthPoint development grounds by 2010.

Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts law says that the state’s waterways and wetlands belong to the public. Any developer that wants to build on wetlands must prove that the project includes benefits for the public. In past years, residents have used this process to negotiate for an ice skating rink in Kendall Square and a walkway along the Broad Canal in East Cambridge.

Rodrigues’ bill in the House would allow developers to build without that negotiation process if at least 25 percent of the ground floor of any proposed building is set aside for “facilities of public accommodation.”

“What does it mean, facility of public use?” said Hoffman who conceded that the open-ended term could include apartment lobbies. “We really don’t know.”

Rodrigues, who sponsored the bill in January, said the definition of “public accommodation” has always been vague. Rodrigues argues that the 25 percent standard is need to speed up construction projects, which would reduce permitting process costs for developers and taxpayers.

“We need to set standards to move projects along,” Rodrigues told the Chronicle.

Toomey pledged to oppose Rodrigues’ bill.

“It would probably diminish the public benefits, so I’m concerned about it,” said Toomey.

Critics have questioned the NorthPoint developers’ close ties to the state officials now in charge of looking at the permitting process for wetlands development.

Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Dan O’Connell was a top executive with the real estate firm Spaulding & Slye Colliers, the managing partner of the NorthPoint project. Gregory Bialecki — a top legal adviser for the NorthPoint developers — was hired by the Patrick administration to reduce permitting time at the state level, and reports to O’Connell. Senator Jarrett Barrios, D-Cambridge, works for DLA Piper Rudnick, the law firm representing the developers.

The construction site is in Senate President Robert Travaglini’s district.


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