COVID-19 casual bureaucracy in cities. So the agency
COVID-19 casual bureaucracy in cities.  So the agency

COVID-19 casual bureaucracy in cities. So the agency

It is probably no exaggeration to say that every city planner dreams of a world where parking spaces do not exist. They take up a lot of space (approx a third of land area in American cities), they are Not in use as much as you think and all that sidewalk increases urban heating island effect. So much of that space could be given back to people, but the process is slow, complex and bound up in zoning problems.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lot 5 used to be a warehouse for 90 cars just off Main Street. Then three things happened: the pandemic hit, the number of riders plunged across the country, and the city stood 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 in what was supposed to be only 120 days. But for the third year in a row, Starlight Square has just reopened for the season. About half of the space is given back to cars for adjacent businesses. The other half has proven so popular that Starlight even hosted the city council inauguration in January when the omicron wave swept through the country. Now Starlight is at a crossroads: Should it give in to the small number of noise complaints that have seeped in in recent years? Or should its creators fight to build a permanent building with actual walls to frame the open courtyard – and dampen the noise?

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

Similar tales unfolded throughout the country. To cope with the crisis, cities from New York to San Francisco relaxed their zoning rules, transforming tens of thousands of parking spaces into parquet floors and outdoor seating. For many, the pandemic was an opportunity to press the reset button, but two years later, and in a country where the parking landscape has not been rethought since the 1950sresetting the button has proved much more complicated.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

Tag Starlight Square. It was developed by the Central Square Business Improvement District (BID) in conjunction with Boyes-Watson Architects and Flagg Street Studio. Back in March 2020 – a day before Massachusetts declared a state of emergency – the team had proposed a minor iteration that was not related to the pandemic, but when the pandemic set in, the team began to dream even bigger. They wanted a substantial public space with an outdoor amphitheater and a space for the Central Square Farmers Market. But there was a problem: the land was laid out for cars, not people.

Eventually, the mayor used his executive power to remove all zoning restrictions; but in March 2022, the governor of Massachusetts considered the state of emergency over, so the team had to go before the Zone Complaints Board and seek a special permit to reopen for the summer. Of the six months they applied for, only three months were approved. And while the adjacent supermarket asked for some of its parking spaces last year, it’s not because of parking. For Michael Monestime, then CEO of BID: “It all boils down to sound.”

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

“A story of compromise”

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 transparent scrim, printed with historical photographs, architectural sketches and works of art curated by a local creative agency. Starlight won the city because it was designed to be temporary and reversible: if they did not like it, it could be removed, explains Matthew Boyes-Watson, partner at Flagg Street Studio and 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 should be temporary.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

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

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

Starlight’s operating budget, which includes installation, operation and grants for organizers, has ranged from $ 490.00 to $ 560,000 per year – and each event is free.

[Photo: courtesy Central Square]

From pop-up to permanent

To further alleviate the impact, the team has made a number of adjustments to the number of speakers and how they are positioned. Boyes-Watson says they’ve also studied acoustic panels, “but you can not overcome that challenge of how sound carries in what are essentially scaffolding and scrim.”

What happens next is pretty obvious: the pop-up structure needs to be upgraded and become a proper building. “We wanted to show that this urban land could be used for something so much more than parking and for the benefit of the residents of Cambridge,” says Boyes-Watson. Now the architect is quietly working on a more permanent solution, such as a U-shaped building that was to frame an open courtyard. Other than that, the approval threshold for something like this is much lower. A permanent project is likely to require city council approval, several 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 apartments seem to be popping up every two months, it may seem surprising that so much effort is needed to develop a public space without frills. But this just shows how badly many cities are set for change and how far down the list of priority public spaces is. Of course, zoning legislation exists for a reason, but unprecedented crises such as a global pandemic and climate change should require radical solutions that prioritize quality of life and green spaces, no more asphalt.

That Starlight Square has just reopened for the third year in a row is proof that Cambridge can function without Lot 5. Because in the end, this is about changing behavior. “Every municipality has surface areas, and when you remove cars, a lot of magical things can happen,” says Monestime. “People have been programmed to make this no longer a parking lot.”


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