Don’t call it a galleria. CambridgeSide is getting a second act as much more than a mall.
The Cambridge City Council approved a zoning change this week paving the way for the 1 million-square-foot mall’s plans for a bigger — and, its owner hopes, better — future.
As first reported by Cambridge Day, the council’s vote Monday night allows New England Development, which owns CambridgeSide, to move forward with their plans to transform the beleaguered East Cambridge mall and its parking garage into a mixed-use “mini-neighborhood,” including retail, residential, and office space. It’s a move officials say will benefit both the community and CambridgeSide, particularly in the age of “zombie malls” and online shopping.
“CambridgeSide has recently demonstrated that they’re in dire financial straits and need to move to a mixed-use model in order to survive,” Chuck Hinds, the president of the East Cambridge Planning Team, testified Monday, according to Cambridge Day. “Malls that have adopted this model have been invigorated and are thriving.”
New England Development says it will meet with the city and community members next year to seek special permits for the project, which is estimated to cost at least $800 million.
A spokeswoman for the developer told Boston.com that the rezoning allows them to build up to 575,000 square feet of net new floor area — spread across the current site of the above-ground garage, a closed Sears store, and the existing Best Buy and Macy’s locations.
Plans call for more street-facing restaurants and stores on the property. According to New England Development, that includes tearing down the parking garage and replacing it with a new building offering ground-level retail with office and residential spaces on the above floors.
The zoning change also requires that a minimum of 30 percent of the new square footage be devoted to housing — 65 percent of which must be affordable and middle-income housing, including family-sized units. New England Development says it’s an “unprecedented commitment” to providing lower-rent options in the diverse, growing neighborhood.
“The project will transform First Street into an active and vibrant street providing new connections between the East Cambridge neighborhood and CambridgeSide and Canal Park, and will serve to further improve and activate Canal Park for use and enjoyment by the City residents and visitors,” Debbie Black, the company’s senior vice president for marketing and public affairs, said in an email.
New England Development is already in the midst of turning the nearly 30-year-old mall’s third floor into office space. The company launched the “transformation” in March, noting that third-floor stores were struggling to gain traffic and that commercial rents in East Cambridge were booming.
Nevertheless, the core mall — which only recently underwent a $30 million renovation — isn’t going anywhere just yet.
The new zoning law requires a minimum of 100,000 square feet of retail space to be maintained, and Black says that the complex’s two retail floors will remain intact. According to Cambridge Day, that includes the food court and many other existing tenants, subject to both lease expirations and potential relocations amid construction.
“It is important for us for to keep a core amount of retail to continue serving the residents of East Cambridge and the surrounding communities,” Black said.
As part of the project, New England Development has also agreed to $90 million in mitigation and other commitments to the city and the East Cambridge neighborhood, which councilors reportedly praised Monday as “generous,” if not enough to solve some of the potential problems that it may create.
For example, according to Cambridge Day, the 110 units of affordable and middle-income housing that would be built would not nearly keep up with the 3,300 jobs — many high-paying — that would also be created, raising concerns about the displacement of local residents.
Still, the firm’s mitigation contributions include $9 million to the East End House, a local community nonprofit; around $7 million in transportation improvements; $1.3 million to the East Cambridge Scholarship Fund; and a $1 million commitment to the Tree Fund.