Cambridge Residents Alliance Annual Report, 2014-2015
Presented at the Annual Meeting -- June 25, 2015
The Cambridge Residents Alliance Annual Report highlights some of our struggles and successes as we work to bring more peoples’ voices and needs into the planning of our city of the future.
The Cambridge Residents Alliance (CResA) was formed in the Spring of 2012 to confront the citywide onslaught of development. More than 18 million square feet of new commercial and high-end residential buildings were being built or permitted, adding 50,000 additional car and transit trips per day. As land and rental prices skyrocketed, thousands of residents unable to afford to rent or buy in Cambridge were forced to move elsewhere. In addition to organizing and advocacy for effective housing, environmental and planning policies, we endorsed a single candidate, Dennis Carlone, in the City Council election of 2013. With his significant urban design expertise and strong advocacy for a citywide Master Plan, he won and has been a champion of our overall agenda.
The year from June 2014 to June 2015 saw the CResA expand as a citywide force supporting the formation or reinvigoration of concerned, active neighborhood groups throughout the city.
We want to share and grow the knowledge we have gained mastering zoning and other city and state regulations in order to achieve our goals of affordable housing, open space, environmental sustainability, manageable traffic and effective public transportation and more. We value the contributions you have made toward these goals and welcome -- and need -- your participation on behalf of the future of Cambridge.
Affordable Housing or Luxury High Rise Buildings?
The Cambridge Residents Alliance has made the production and preservation of affordable housing a top priority from the beginning. We have lobbied for increases in the funding sources that produce it; and our platform calls for 100% affordable housing on city property. We have called on the City to use surplus commercial tax revenues. Yet what is being planned and built throughout the City are mostly “market rate” (read luxury) rental apartments. Current City policies require only 11.5% of new residential development to be “affordable,” leaving 88.5% for those who can pay $2900 for a small two-bedroom unit (for example, see the Atmark). These new buildings are driving up current land prices and rents, driving out tenants who cannot afford the increases.
Most elected officials and many advocates have decided to settle for the few affordable units being built. The Cambridge Residents Alliance has taken the position that we cannot allow real estate interests to define who can afford to live in Cambridge and so we have taken controversial stands to oppose the permitting of out-sized towers full of luxury housing that will define for generations the population size and mix, the retail options, the atmosphere and sense of community in many currently diverse neighborhoods. Below is a look at some of our efforts in 2014 and 2015.
“Mass + Main” Residential Tower in Central Square -- We opposed the re-zoning of most of a city block on Massachusetts Avenue at Jill Rhone Brown Park next to McDonald’s so that Normandy Real Estate Partners and Twining Properties could build a 195-foot tower, two and a half times taller than allowed under current zoning. Supporters and opponents agreed that if anything were built on that site it should be housing; we disagreed on the impact a building of its size with 80% luxury units would have on the area.
- We distributed 1500 flyers to the abutting neighborhoods to inform residents about the proposed tower.
- We objected to the owners’ petition to maintain private parking facilities on the residential side of Bishop Allen Drive so they would not have to build underground parking. We lobbied for housing to be built on the surface lot. In the end the developer promised to give the City about half of the lot in 4 years following construction.
- We lobbied for Councilor Carlone’s proposal for a shorter building on Mass. Ave. and a public-private partnership with the City to create far more units of affordable housing.
- We objected to the very last-minute change of language from a maximum of 5% very small studio apartments to a minimum of 8% such micro units, changing the essential character of the building they had been marketing to the public. We will be monitoring the actual number of these units when the building comes before the Planning Board for a Special Permit.
- We urged that all of the 3-bedroom units be affordable. The developer promised at the last minute to allow the City to purchase an additional 3 units of unspecified size that could be made affordable.
- Outcome -- In exchange for an increase in the percent of affordable units (17% for low/moderate- and 3% for middle-income units) and 10% 3-bedrooms, the City Council voted 7 to 2 to allow the entire up-zoning. We applaud Councilors Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen who voted against the zoning petition.
- The Cambridge Residents Alliance members will continue to follow this project to the Planning Board where a Special Permit for the design of this “gateway to Central Square and Area 4/The Port” will be debated.
Increasing Funds Used for Affordable Housing – The Cambridge Residents Alliance published a paper explaining the various sources of funds that create and support affordable housing, including Incentive and Inclusionary Zoning, recommended a number of improvements, and testified at the City Council hearing on the recent Nexus Study on January 29, 2015.
- Incentive Zoning, often called a “linkage fee,” requires large new non-residential developments to make contributions based on the size of the building to the Affordable Housing Trust or else build the housing. The City Council can recalculate the fee every 3 years, but the Council had not changed it since 1988. We supported the 2014 Carlone proposal to raise the fee immediately from $4.58 to $7.83 per square foot but that was rejected by the Council.
- A Nexus Study, done by an outside consultant, assesses the impact of new commercial development on housing needs. The last Cambridge study in 2002 had recommended raising the fee to $7.83 but that was ignored. The new study published in January, 2015 cited a need for a fee of $24.30 per square foot to support low-, moderate- and middle-income housing, but recommended an increase of only $10 to $12 per square foot. We urged 1) adoption of the $24.30 figure as realistic; 2) the City expand the sizes and uses of buildings that must pay a linkage fee.
- Inclusionary Zoning requires all new residential buildings with more than 9 units to set aside 15% for affordable housing for people with low/moderate incomes; when a special permit for a larger building is approved, that amount becomes 11.5%. We lobbied consistently for an increase to 20% of units affordable to low-moderate incomes and 5% for middle incomes. A study was ordered by the City to determine an increase and has not been either completed or published to date.
(Inadequate) Planning and (Over) Development
Central Square (C2) Planning – During the Normandy/Twining building debate, the 2012 recommendations by the Central Square Advisory Committee (C2) to re-zone Central Square were often mentioned. The CResA testified at City Council in April, 2015 on our concerns about and differences with the C2 recommendations and the absence of a Master Plan for the City.
- The recommendations were never formally debated and amended or adopted by either the Council or the Planning Board, with no consensus about why.
- We objected to the statement by the late head of Community Development, Brian Murphy, that further re-zoning of Central Square would be conducted “parcel by parcel” as developers’ proposals came forward.
- We agreed with the recommendation that surface parking be replaced with underground parking and the City consider building 100% affordable housing on some of its public lots; we even created some draft designs.
- As our platform states, we supported modest increases in height and density to achieve substantially more affordable housing.
- We supported the proposed “neighborhood edge” sub-districts in the C2 plan to protect existing housing and maintain a neighborhood scale.
The Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge Throughout the Summer and Fall of 2014 and into the Spring of 2015, CResA members joined forces with the newly-formed Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge (NAEC) to oppose the sale of the contaminated and abandoned Courthouse to a private developer for new commercial (and a little residential) use. As a government entity, it was constructed in the 1970s to a height of 280 feet, immune to the local zoning laws in a neighborhood zoned for 80 feet.
- CResA members in numbers joined East Cambridge neighbors protesting the preservation of the height for the benefit of the new private owner, worsened traffic snarls from thousands of employees of new commercial tenants, and added nighttime light intrusion. Only 24 housing units are proposed.
- The intensity of the outcry forced the Planning Board to meet in a school auditorium to accommodate the concerned crowds, but the Board voted to approve the special permits needed to move forward.
- We supported the abutting neighbors who sued the state and developer, and some of us, including Councilor Carlone, attended the arguments in Land Court. The judge found for the state, so the neighbors will appeal.
- The redevelopment of the building cannot go forward, however, unless about 400 parking spaces are identified within a local sphere – and some of those are in the City’s municipal lot across the street, so local pressure points remain.
The Volpe Transportation Center
The US government has decided to sell the 14-acre campus on Broadway near Kendall Sq. that houses the Volpe Transportation Center. The City has proposed up-zoning the 10 acres that will be owned by the new developer. The Cambridge Residents Alliance has been studying and testifying about our concerns regarding this very complex transaction, which appears to be on a fast track for Council approval during the Summer and into early Fall, 2015. So far, the CResA has expressed concerns about:
- The draft zoning package that proposes a total of 15% of housing be affordable, but only 10% for people of low- and moderate-incomes, with 5% for people of middle-incomes, below the current minimum requirement of 11.5% for low- and moderate incomes.
- The option to build at least one building up to 500 feet (with one City Councilor advocating a 1000-foot height).
- Radical downsizing of the active open space promised to the neighborhood.
- The zoning proposes that 60% of the building area be for commercial/lab, and only 40% for residential, even though many councilors agree that the city urgently needs more housing.
The zoning of the Volpe campus is happening now in June, 2015 with important hearings and decision points to occur this Summer and early Fall. This acreage and the Quadrangle in the Fresh Pond area are the city’s only remaining large tracts of land which can be planned for the needs of their immediate neighborhoods and the City as a whole
Master Plan Advocacy
A founding principle of the CRA has been the desperate need for a coherent plan for Cambridge as it reacts to the enormous build-out of the city. Despite our efforts to move a Master Plan process forward, a Master Plan effort has been delayed and watered down consistently by the City Council and the administration.
- We supported the “Carlone Petition” in 2014 to enable the City Council to vote on the awarding of Special Permits for large projects, to bring accountability and checks and balances to the process. It was defeated by the City Council, with Councilors Carlone and Mazen voting in favor.
- We pushed hard for the hiring of an outside consultant to initiate Master Planning as new large development proposals were looming. Instead, the Council voted to have the Community Development Department and a consultant conduct a series of “citywide conversations” about residents’ hopes for the city of the future that were convened during the summer and early Fall of 2014 with a report that was not made public until November 2014. We participated in nearly every public discussion, continuing to ask publically when the actual Master Plan process would begin.
- We filed written comments and suggestions on the April, 2015 draft “Request for Qualifications” and scope of services for a consultant to oversee the Master Plan, including that the process should be able to be completed in 18 months to two years, as Boston proposes for its own plan, not the three years as in the draft.
- We urged that a housing analysis and plan be prioritized as an “early deliverable.” The RFQ has been issued without most of our suggestions. We will, however, remain engaged with the planning process to promote our goals and visions, to ensure that it meaningfully involves a wide range of residents, and that the conclusions of report have not been predetermined.
Planning Board Reform
The CResA wrote a thorough critique of the Planning Board structure and procedures in a May 2014 letter to City Manager Rossi. We met with Mr. Rossi and successfully pressured him to fill 4 expired terms and a vacancy on the Planning Board, and to encourage the election of a new Chair. Then the CResA turned to three focuses:
- Early neighborhood review – Groups throughout the city recognized that they had few formal methods of input into proposed large developments that would impact significantly the character of a neighborhood as well as traffic patterns, environmental safety, open space and more. Our proposed change in Planning Board rules would require early neighborhood review as part of any large development plan, along with draft zoning language with deadlines and other requirements, was presented to the City Manager and CDD staff in late 2014. In response to our concerns, the city convened a “Planning Board Focus Group” process in late Fall 2014. A limited neighborhood review rule is under discussion.
- Accessible Meetings – the CResA pressed for the video-taping and live-streaming of Planning Board and Board of Zoning Appeals meetings. Participants in the focus group process from throughout the city agreed that in this day and age, live-streaming for maximum engagement of residents should be a top priority.
- 3-D Models of Large Project Proposals – Residents have a right to see a realistic portrayal of the height, density and placement of proposed new buildings within the context of the surrounding area. Most developers are using drawn renderings and photographs that portray large buildings from favorable and often distorted angles to minimize neighborhood concerns.
Forum on Gentrification –January 31, 2015
More than 120 Cambridge residents from neighborhoods across the city braved a snowy winter day to attend the January 31 Forum on Cambridge Governance and Gentrification -- Will you be pushed out of Cambridge – who decides? Renae Gray of the Area 4/Port Coalition reflected on the continuing loss of friends and neighbors forced out of Area 4 by increasing rents and housing prices. “Who is driving the train?” she asked. “Is it development or is it housing?” The forum examined the role of City government and the Planning Board in particular, the options for the City to build more affordable housing, the amount of unaffordable housing that is being permitted and constructed, and the role of real estate interests in setting the terms of development.
Cambridge as a “Net Zero Community As one of the nation's most densely-populated cities, approximately 80% of Cambridge’s carbon footprint comes from the energy that is used to power the built environment.
- In 2013, climate activists, the Cambridge Residents Alliance, and neighborhood leaders came together to draft the Connolly Petition for net zero emissions, a citizen-sponsored zoning petition to promote energy efficiency and require the use of renewable energy in all large, new buildings.
- In late 2013, the council established the Getting to Net Zero Task Force and in 2014 approved an "early-action” item, a Building Energy Use and Disclosure Ordinance.
- On June 22, 2015, the Cambridge City Council unanimously voted to adopt the final recommendations of the Net Zero Action Plan. Cambridge is now officially on the path to becoming a net zero community.
Now the success of the plan depends on how fast Cambridge moves to implement all of its various elements, so CResA will remain involved.
The Silver Maple Forest This 15-acre forest located mostly in Arlington near the Alewife “T” station protected uniquely diverse wildlife and served as a natural buffer from flooding Sadly, the forest was destroyed in October, 2014 to make way for a 300-unit apartment building in Arlington with 500 parking spots. Members of the CResA supported and participated in lobbying efforts, demonstrations, lawsuits and civil disobedience actions to save the forest and bring attention to the destruction of forests and wetlands as a factor in future flooding due to climate change.
Gratitude and Hope
Almost 1000 Cambridge residents have signed our petitions and registered on our web site to be part of our efforts to create and maintain a Cambridge of the future that is “livable, affordable and diverse.” We have written, testified, demonstrated, knocked on doors, researched, gathered and more. Together, we have surfaced issues involving good governance and accountability and have taken a hard look at who will be able to live in this evolving Cambridge. As we approach a new electoral season, we will have more opportunity to ask the questions raised by the efforts documented here and more. Thank you for your commitment to our community over the past year and to come.