Putting Neighborhoods First Forum
Community forum draws enthusiastic crowd: Speakers Tom Angotti, Reneae Gray, Bill Cunningham, Lee Farris, Richard Krushnic,and Ceasar McDowell provide a resident’s vision for Central Square.
In the face of developers’ proposals for a huge up-zoning of Central Square, more than 100 local residents came together at a forum on May 4 to seek ways in which neighborhood voices can be heard in the development of plans for the city’s future.
The forum, “Putting Neighborhoods First,” was sponsored by the Cambridge Residents Alliance and held at the Senior Center in Central Square. Residents learned that we are not alone in our fight to slow down gentrification and stop the displacement of families who can no longer afford to live in our city.
In New York City and other locales across the country, neighborhood groups are taking a stand against global real estate interests whose top-down mega-projects are pushing local people out and driving housing prices sky-high, according to Dr. Tom Angotti, a Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at the City University of New York.
Angotti and local community leaders spoke to the crowd and led lively question-and-answer discussions. Below are brief highlights of their talks, with links to videos. (More videos and transcripts will be posted on our website soon.)
The speakers, and many in the audience, called on the City to slow down the cascade of up-zonings and major new developments. They asked for a comprehensive and credible Master Plan for development that takes into account the impact of all the projects on the infrastructure and livability of the city. They called for the preservation and creation of more affordable housing.
Prof. Tom Angotti, of CUNY:
Angotti described the efforts of neighborhood organizations opposed to Forest City Ratner’s plan to develop a huge basketball arena and 16 high-rise luxury apartment buildings on the site of the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. The plan targeted several square blocks in the middle of four low- and middle-income neighborhoods for removal; hundreds of residents and small businesses were forced to leave.
The developer used clever tactics, Angotti noted, to divide the community opposition, including race-baiting. He negotiated a secret “community benefits agreement” with some neighborhood groups and promised them large amounts of affordable housing and construction jobs, most of which have never materialized. In exchange, any group that signed the deal was not allowed to publicly oppose the project.
Community groups in Chinatown, the Lower East Side, East Harlem and other neighborhoods are fighting similar battles with developers. One important pattern, Angotti said, is that neighborhood groups have moved beyond “no” to creating their own “community plans” with a positive vision for the future. More than 100 such plans have been created in the past 50 years in New York City. “Margaret Thatcher tried to make us believe in TINA, There Is No Alternative to the way things are,” he said. “But we say instead: Another World is Possible!”
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Renae Gray, Co-Chair of the Area 4 “Port” Coalition:
Renae talked about the changes that are impacting the long-time communities in Central Square and Area 4: the many tall buildings, the increased heavy traffic, the lack of green and open spaces, the increasingly expensive stores and restaurants—“for poor people, it’s fast food or nowhere in Central Square”—the lack of available spaces for community events such as weddings and funerals, the challenge in finding a peaceful walk route.
“I’m so tired of being in meetings where what I want is being dictated by somebody else!” Renae said. “My life is being impacted on a daily basis…The diversity that Cambridge touts is getting less and less. More and more, people are moving out of our neighborhoods because they can’t afford to live here. This area is becoming an innovation start-up mecca. What I hear is cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching!
“No jobs for our kids, no partnerships with our schools…I don’t see really affordable housing outside of certain neighborhoods…The very fabric of our community is changing. It feels like a takeover. Not a collaboration, not a partnership, not a ‘working-with.’ And we’re already experiencing the pitting against one another.”
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Bill Cunningham, Association of Cambridge Tenants and a resident of Newtowne Court public housing:
Bill talked about how public housing is under attack, in Cambridge and across the country. Since 1990, the country has lost more than 10% of its public housing stock. Public housing has gone from a construction program to a demolition program. Most housing subsidies are now in the form of vouchers, but even the voucher programs are facing cutbacks. Because housing authorities are desperate for money to make up for the cuts, some have ended up selling their properties or making deals with developers.
Historically, the tenants in public housing developments in Cambridge have had relatives and friends living in the surrounding neighborhoods. This was part of the basis for strong political support for public housing. But rising rents in private housing have pushed out many of those supporters. To save public housing today, we will need to build new ties and a new movement. The recent struggle over Forest City/Ratner’s expansion of University Park shows us what forces are at play today in Cambridge. We can hope that this signals the beginning of that new social movement.
Richard Krushnic, neighborhood development professional in Boston, member of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, and an Inman Square resident:
Richard summarized his research into the demographic and economic make-up of Cambridge. He described Cambridge as a city in the midst of a sweeping transformation, one which has been underway for decades but is now accelerating: from a city of families with children to a city of singles, from affordable rents to extremely high rents, from light manufacturing to high-tech and bio-tech research and development, from an economically diverse population with a working-class base to a relatively homogeneous population of more affluent professionals.
Adding fuel to the fire of this transformation is the leap in new commercial and residential development, with some 18.7 million square feet of development above 2010 levels that is either complete, underway, or planned for the next twenty years, a 23.5% increase in total built space in the city.
Richard noted that building high-rise towers of mostly market-rate housing, as proposed by developers and city planners, does not really moderate housing prices and keep low- and middle-income families in the city. As long as the boom in high tech and bio-sciences draws huge numbers of highly paid workers into the city, the demand for market-rate housing is “virtually infinite” and the new luxury housing will only drive rents up in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Lee Farris, Cambridge Residents Alliance and Area 4 “Port” Coalition:
Lee discussed the efforts of the Cambridge Residents Alliance to limit the size of the Forest City bio-lab at 300 Mass. Ave. and the successful fight to ensure that 168 units of affordable housing originally developed by Forest City in University Park would remain affordable for the 75-year lease of the land.
The Central Square Advisory Committee (CSAC) has called for up-zoning in Central Square that would allow the current height limit of 80 feet to be raised to heights up to 160 feet by a special permit on condition that 25% of the bonus floor area be devoted permanently to middle-income housing. In the Osborne Triangle (where Main Street and Mass Ave converge), an additional 2 stories would be allowed under a transfer of development rights bonus. That means there is potential for 18-story towers with up to 30-foot mechanical penthouses on top. CSAC hopes these very tall residential towers would result in 1000-2000 new units of housing in Central Square.
Lee repeated the position of the Cambridge Residents Alliance that no major up-zonings should be granted until the City has produced a Master Plan. Residents are concerned about the ripple effect of the high rents in these proposed buildings, the increased traffic and parking problems, the building shadows and loss of sky views, the turning over of scarce and precious public land to private developers primarily interested in making a profit. At the same time, we are interested in finding other ways to build affordable housing, including the non-profit development of lower-rise buildings, filled with a larger proportion of affordable units.
Caesar McDowell, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT:
Caesar said the rich discussion at the forum had reminded him “how smart people are who actually live and have experience in the city…The issue here is not, do we know what to do? The issue is: Why are those who have the authority and the power not listening? That’s the question!”
While he agreed on the need for a comprehensive master plan for the city, more affordable housing, and other measures to foster a “livable” city, he said that many people would not know what was meant by those proposals. So he suggested a “metric” by which future development plans should be measured. The metric would be based on the fact that roughly 45% of the students who attend Cambridge public schools are low-income. “So how about a city design method for the future,” he asked, “that is predicated on the fact that 80% of the people who graduate from the high school can live in the city?” His proposal met with enthusiastic applause.
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Jackie Dee King