Letter to Planning Board

Cambridge Residents Alliance statement on the revised Volpe up-zoning petition, Nov. 12, 2015

Dear Mayor and City Councilors,

Throughout 2014, the Cambridge Residents Alliance raised concerns with the City Manager, city staff, and Planning Board members about the process of rezoning and planning in Cambridge.  The city held a number of meetings in response, which recommended that residents’ groups should be contacted and meaningfully involved BEFORE rezoning is begun.  That did not happen in the case of the Volpe site.  Instead, CDD drafted proposed zoning, brought it to the Planning Board and City Council, and then held public comment opportunities over the summer.  Those public comment sessions asked for residents’ priorities, but did not engage residents in a process of considering trade-offs, for example, between below-market housing and open space, or between height and open space.

We agree with ECPT recent statement in its letter on the Volpe up-zoning proposal to the Council and Planning Board: “Neither ECPT… nor groups from other impacted neighborhoods including Area 4 and Wellington-Harrington were invited to participate on formal committees or working groups to help develop the re-zoning.  This is disconcerting, given … the meetings [with city staff] during which early and meaningful involvement of neighborhood groups in development planning had been agreed upon. To avoid the widespread public dissatisfaction with the planning /approval processes of the Sullivan Courthouse and Alewife projects, the City Manager should have appointed a committee including neighborhood group representatives, to collaborate on the Volpe rezoning.  We call upon the City Manager to slow down the rezoning process and appoint such a committee now, and make the Volpe rezoning an “early action” item under the City-wide Master Planning process.” [Underline added.]

As ECPT stated, the 1 million increase in square feet represents $125 million in bonus value being created for the federal government. “Before finalizing any up-zoning, the City needs to articulate the economic/political rationale for granting this bonus, and decide what commensurate payments or benefits will be made to Cambridge residents in exchange for this bonus.”  What economic projections has the city run on this proposal, and how do they inform the rezoning?

The density and huge amount of GFA proposed in this petition makes it hard to achieve the K2 goals of livability and recreation.  We note that the images shown in the petition of the buildout options are far more dense than the images included in the K2 Plan; some K2 committee participants may not have realized the possible outcome of their recommendations. 

Before any further rezoning, the city should develop a desired final ratio of housing and commercial GFA for the whole Kendall Sq. area.  All the studies for the Kendall Sq. area have recommended substantially more housing be added to the area.  If an overall ratio of housing to commercial is not developed, given that Kendall Sq. already has a very high proportion of commercial space relative to residential space, any increase in FAR above 3 or in height above the current 250’should go largely to housing.  The rezoning should increase the required minimum residential space to at least 60%, instead of the current 40%.  This would increase residential construction and help achieve the “live, work, play” goal in the K2 study.  It would also reduce transportation congestion, with more workers living near their jobs, and will support local retail.

The revised petition’s increase in below market housing to 15% low/moderate-income and 5% middle-income is greatly appreciated.  However, given the extreme shortage of non-luxury housing, and the high amount of luxury housing in Kendall Sq., this amount of below market housing is not adequate.  Instead the Cambridge Residents Alliance calls for the petition to require at least 20% low/moderate and 5% middle-income housing, and in fact, substantially more is needed.  All of the required 3BRs should be affordable to low, moderate, and middle-income families, which would ensure that they are inhabited by families, rather than by roommates.

The petition’s language on phasing of minimum required housing should be strengthened by using K2’s language: “Certificate of occupancy for no more than 60% of the non-residential capacity may be granted until a Certificate of Occupancy for 100% of the required housing is obtained.”

The zoning should require a large public park of at least 5 acres, with a public easement; fragmented corporate front yards are not helpful open space. The park should not feel walled-off by tall buildings that shadow it for hours each day. None of the federal government’s open space should count toward an open-space requirement, because the government could choose to tighten its access restrictions at any time.  The current language permitting half of the public open space to be on federal land is not acceptable.  In addition, sidewalks, roof decks, roadways should not count in the calculation of open space.

As ECPT wrote, since “total additional development in eastern Cambridge will exceed 10 million sq.ft., …the permitting process should be made contingent upon creation of increased infrastructure capacity.  Studies should be conducted to establish workable infrastructure-to-development ratios that inform both zoning and phasing of new projects.  The planning principle, infrastructure first, development second, should be respected.”  It would be helpful if the zoning required a funded transit improvement plan before occupancy of new commercial buildings, so that the state moves forward with transit improvements in a timely way.

As ECPT wrote about community benefits, “a significant portion of which should be invested in the most impacted neighborhoods adjacent to the development, and made part of a participatory budgeting process for residents.”  The current petition does not say the benefits should go to the nearby neighborhoods.

Sincerely,

Lee Farris, 269 Norfolk St.,  for the Cambridge Residents Alliance, which has 1000+ supporters citywide.

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