What’s really at stake with the Middle East’s proposed residential development?

Photo by Erin Caruso

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his morning, Cambridge Day reported that Joseph and Nabil Sater, the brothers behind the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub in Cambridge, are hoping to build up from the pre-existing structure that houses the venues and companion club ZuZu, constructing a building that will house some 50 to 100 condos and community spaces.

Basically, the owner of the building died, and the Saters have the option to buy the building from their late landlord’s family at some point in the next two years. This could be rad (albeit expensive) or terrible, depending on who you talk to, and so far the biggest concerns for potential tenants interested in living above the Boston music landmark(s) have to do with noise complaints and dealing with the midweek rock show crowd when you come home with an armful of groceries all “Get off my lawn!”-style.

Samantha Fore and I are both members of the Boston community (even though we, y’know, no longer live here), and we talked on Twitter this afternoon about the potential ramifications of the Middle East development deal. At first, the biggest head-scratcher for me was the value of the property — $7 million for that corner seems way too low, given the fact that Mass Ave in Central Square is the primest of Greater Boston real estate. She and I went back and forth (and are continuing to do so via gChat as I type this) about what this could mean for the neighborhood. Those condos are gonna be pricey as hell, as a quick Trulia search will show you that finding a two-bedroom spot to buy in that area is pretty much impossible unless you want to look upwards of $750k.

The kinds of tenants who can afford to live there, as Sam pointed out, are hardly those who are going to be interested in the sounds emanating from ZuZu at the height of Soulelujah on a Saturday night.

And then Sam brought up a huge, scary point: What the hell happens if MIT, Berklee or Harvard makes a counter-offer on the property now that this development is public? What if the Saters get outbid, and what if the landlord’s family goes with the highest bidder, who very likely could transform the cultural fabric of one of Boston’s most vibrant artistic communities?

The Saters, hopefully, have a deal where they’ll get the first crack at making an offer on the property, and the Boston music scene can only hope that this is how things go. MIT has buildings all throughout Central Square, and a couple of frats are located further down and across the street from the Middle East.

MIT also collects rent checks from Naga, Veggie Galaxy, and the Central Square Theater, as the institution owns the buildings directly next to the Middle East Upstairs. Berklee, across the river, could see an investment in a real estate deal in Central Square as immensely valuable as well — sure, they bought up a ton of buildings on Boylston already and have Café 939 and a gorgeous performance hall, but owning a building on a strip that half their students hope to play one day would be huge. Harvard, further down Massachusetts Avenue, has its own venues through their connection to the American Repertory Theater, but who’s to say that they wouldn’t be interested in acquiring these properties?

The point is that 472 Mass Ave, the official address the corner the Middle East resides on, is also in the cross-hairs of three prominent universities that are constantly looking to expand as their student populations do.

The thought of any of them -— explicitly MIT — taking on an initiative remotely similar to the ones the Saters are proposing is scary in that it’ll dramatically shift the cultural identity of the neighborhood (and frankly, sterilize it). The condos may be expensive and the noise complaints are a legitimate concern for potential tenants (and man, that building could use a serious facelift from a structural perspective, anyway) but remaining in the Middle East family is crucial for the block and the city’s music scene at large.

This is all highly speculative, and I do want to stress that, but as this continues to develop, it’s important to bring up any and all questions that pertain to the shifting shape of the most important intersection in Boston music geography —- and history.

Below is an artist rendering of the proposed Middle East property from last night’s community meeting…

Middle East Rendering

  1. I live in Cambridge, and my understanding is that their option on the building locks them into the ability to buy at a set price, maybe through some formula, so no bidding war, no Harvard/MIT as long as the Saters can buy it.

    That said, note that the Saters said the project would not be viable if it has to be Net Zero, which is an incredibly tough environmental standard currently being discussed in Cambridge and a big issue in the current City Council election. Net Zero will drive Cambridge’s crazy real estate prices up even higher, since as the Sater’s note, it drives building costs way up, but it’s got a lot of (I think shortsighted) local supporters. I hope folks point this out to the Net Zero supporters, and maybe this will make a few of them reconsider, but I doubt it. Anyway, if Net Zero happens, Harvard and MIT will be just about the only ones rich enough to buy/build any real estate of any size in Cambridge, which would certainly include the Middle East.

    As for potential residents of the building, going in, you know that you are going to live in Central Square, above the Middle East, so I have no sympathy for anyone who moves in and tries to complain later.

  2. couldn’t agree more. I hope for the best outcome! This landmark is essential to the arts/music in that area. I hope Joseph can work this out! The thought of MIT slithering into central frightens me.

  3. Honestly, is the Middle East that culturally valuable anymore? It seems to have long outlived its role as an epicenter for any sort of local scene, with the downstairs largely catering to national acts and the upstairs essentially a pay-to-play room. There are other venues way more committed to nurturing local talent and taking chances on untried acts.

    1. The Upstairs is not a pay to play room.

      As far as cultural relevance, the calendar is extremely diverse – metal, hip hop, punk, alt-country, rock, ska, indie-rock are all represented.

      1. Yeah, c’mon, Clyde. Every musician in town knows the upstairs is a “NOT paid to play” room. I’ve never made less money playing to bigger crowds in my life.

        1. That reminds me, Dylan, can you draw twenty or more people on a Wednesday night in an 18+ environment? If so, we’ll put you on one of our fab bills at the Middle East Upstairs!

          We have a slot available on October 23, where you can share the bill with a ska band from Saugus (called Skaugus — check ’em out!), a death metal band from Billerica (called Killerica), and Chelsea’s finest Elvis Costello tribute band (called I Really Sincerely Don’t Wanna Go to Chelsea). What kind of music do you play? Are you any good? Don’t worry: IT DOESN’T MATTER.