Welcome to the first issue of Neighborhood Voices, the newsletter of the Cambridge Residents Alliance. Our members include homeowners and tenants in both public and private housing across the city. We are united by our desire for a livable, affordable and diverse Cambridge and by our concerns about the looming tsunami of large-scale developments being proposed for Kendall Square, Central Square, Alewife Brook, and other parts of the city.
We believe that many of these projects do not respond to the needs of Cambridge residents. We are saddened by seeing our friends and neighbors forced out of the city because they cannot afford to live here anymore.
We are working for the preservation and expansion of affordable housing and diverse neighborhoods, for parks and open space, for streets that are not choked with excessive traffic, and for Red Line cars that have open seats for those who need them. Development plans too often have been driven only by the financial interests of large real estate corporations—many based outside the city—that want to build huge laboratories, office towers, and high-rise luxury apartment buildings.
We summarize below the broad-based movement that has developed over the past eight months to keep Cambridge livable and affordable, and that led us to form the Cambridge Residents’ Alliance in April 2012. Future issues of Neighborhood Voices will carry short updates to help keep our members and neighbors informed.
Sparks That Lit The Fire
This movement flared up dramatically when residents learned about two ideas that we feared would move rapidly through the approval pipeline. One would have eviscerated Newtowne Court, the public housing community in the heart of Area 4. The other included changing zoning to allow an oversized commercial biotech building at 300 Mass. Ave., coupled with the taking of parkland to build a 14-story apartment tower next to the firehouse in Lafayette Square.
Last year the city’s Community Development Department (CDD) awarded a $350,000 contract to the consulting firm Goody Clancy to work with advisory groups to prepare development plans for Kendall Square and, separately, for Central Square. This was in part responding to pressures from large real estate firms including Boston Properties, Alexandria, Forest City and MITIMCo wanting to build large office and lab buildings in these areas. The advisory groups were appointed by the City Manager to propose zoning changes and make recommendations for the future of Kendall and Central Squares, the K2C2 planning study. These committees included commercial property owners, local architects and developers, and some local residents. Neighborhood groups were under-represented.
Many residents attending the meetings of the Central Square Advisory Committee felt the presentations by the Goody Clancy consultants were tilted toward high-density and high-rise development that would maximize real estate profits and accommodate future employees of the high tech offices and labs being built in Kendall Square. Little attention was being paid to the needs of existing residents of Central Square and Cambridge in general.
Defend Newtowne Court!
The actual spark that lit the fire was a concept drawing from Goody Clancy (“just an idea,” they insisted) to demolish the Main Street section of Newtowne Court public housing, and replace it with mixed-use and mixed-income development. Hundreds of tenants, a vibrant community of decades, would be displaced, possibly for years and possibly outside the city, during the project. History shows that many residents never make it back after such redevelopment schemes. But some city officials, blinded by dollar signs, seemed oblivious to these problems; at one point, an official asked Newtowne Court residents with hushed reverence, “Do you know how valuable this land is?”
“Do you know how valuable this land is?”
(City Official to Newtowne Court residents)
The Alliance of Cambridge Tenants (ACT), the Area 4 Coalition and other neighborhood groups mobilized to support the Newtowne tenants, and more than 100 people turned out for an Area 4 meeting in April to hear the City’s description of the Goody Clancy plan. The tenants’ anger at seeing half of Newtowne Court’s units “redeveloped” forced the city to back down and issue a letter saying that Newtowne Court redevelopment was now “off the table” for the time being. [To read more, click here.] This skirmish sparked a sharp increase in neighborhood attention to the overall K2C2 planning process.
Forest City Pushes Their Agenda
Meanwhile, another battle was brewing over parcels just 700 feet from Newtowne Court. While the advisory committees were discussing various “visions” for the squares, the Ratner family’s Cleveland-based Forest City Corporation pressed forward with its pre-emptive up zoning petition for two developments. One, already in the pipeline, was an oversized bio-tech lab for the “All Asia block” at 300 Mass. Ave. between the Asgard Restaurant and the site of the former Necco factory (now Novartis). The other was a 14-story residential tower—to be filled mostly with market-rate, small single-bedroom apartments—which would replace a park next to the fire station in Lafayette Square, at the junction of Mass. Ave and Main Street [For more on Forest City, click here].
Again, neighbors mobilized in alarm, viewing these moves as further steps in the march of huge, glass, Kendall Square-like buildings down Mass Ave. and Main Street to the cultural, residential, and small-shop district of Central Square. Many dozens of neighbors testified at Planning Board and City Council meetings, wrote letters, sent emails, and met with councilors. Finally, the City Council 1) in late June removed the residential tower from the Forest City zoning petition and 2) in August decided to allow the Forest City petition for the bio-lab to expire, so that the Central Square Advisory Committee could complete its recommendations. (That move allows Forest City to bring the proposal back when they want.) Residents rejoiced at the temporary victories, but we harbor no illusion that the battle is over. [To learn more, click here]
Staggering Impact of Future Development Ignored
As time wore on, it became clear to many of us that the relevant city agencies are failing to credibly analyze the overall impact of all the development proposals around the city—many of them massive—on the city’s infrastructure, and on the quality of life of its residents. Some of these projects would mean dramatically changing skylines, shadows and wind tunnels, a gigantic increase in traffic, increased demand for parking, and a burden on the water and sewer systems. Each project was being considered individually, on the basis of its own merits, ignoring the impact from all other projects. The current mindset in City Hall appeared to focus on greenlighting these developments in return for insufficient give-backs from developers, rather than protecting and benefitting our community.
18 Million New Square Feet Proposed
A survey by the Cambridge Residents Alliance of all known proposed developments citywide discovered more than 18 million square feet of new office, lab and living space could be coming our way [To view detailed table, click here]. And if approved, they would bring an estimated additional 50,000 cars per day onto Cambridge’s already congested streets. They would also result in an estimated additional 66,000 public transit trips on a system that is already maxed out at rush hour, according to a recent Hub and Spoke study from the Urban Land Institute.
A Traffic Nightmare
Anyone who tries to drive through Cambridge at rush hour knows there’s already more congestion on our streets than we can handle. Doesn’t it seem sensible to discuss the impact of 50,000 additional car trips per day on our roadways—and on the air we breathe, and our safety--before we disembowel our zoning regulations to let those cars in? Or to analyze the impact of these new developments on housing costs, school populations, community economic and racial diversity, open space and our access to sun and sky? Or to consider the impact on elderly residents of people-packed Red Line cars eerily passing through local stations without stopping? [Read more on traffic problems here]
Where Are The Stewards?
Few in Cambridge government seem concerned that something irreversible is happening, something that will permanently alter the fabric of our community. The Community Development Dept., for example, often seems to be speaking more for the developers than for the city as a whole. We are looking for leaders who will have the courage to serve as the cautious stewards our city needs. It seems like the house is on fire and they’re still setting the table for dinner!
Stop and Think
And so it remained for us, the citizens of Cambridge, those most affected by piecemeal development, to step in and demand a more thoughtful approach to planning for our city’s future. No matter what statistics the consultants and developers throw around, we know what it’s like to live in Cambridge. We know there’s already more congestion on our roads than we can handle. We know the intersections that get blocked up on a daily basis. We know the cars on the Red Line are packed to capacity at rush hour. We know we don’t want the steel and glass boxes of Kendall Square traveling down Mass. Ave. towards Central Square.
The Cambridge Residents Alliance, in concert with the Area 4 Coalition and other neighborhood groups, has supported the Area 4 Neighborhood Preservation or “Yanow" petition, which called for down zoning key areas around Central Square. The petition generated spirited but thoughtful debates before the Planning Board and the City Council’s Ordinance Committee, including dozens of residents speaking in support and in opposition to the petition. The petition’s author asked that it be withdrawn, since we felt that our concerns were heard and would be considered as the Central Square planning process continued. [For more on the Yanow petition, click here]
A One-Year Moratorium Makes Sense
We believe Cambridge needs comprehensive, citywide residents’ input before we allow full-scale citywide up zoning and development. Therefore we are calling for a one-year moratorium on up zoning throughout Cambridge [Read petition here]. This will not affect projects tht conform to current zoning laws. We think we should discuss the impact of 50,000 additional car trips/day on our roadways—and on the air we breathe--before we disembowel our zoning laws . We also want to analyze the impact of all these new developments on housing costs, school populations, community diversity, open space and our access to sun and sky before we run headlong and recklessly into the future. We owe that much to ourselves and to the future generations whose lives will be greatly affected by the decisions we make today.
We encourage you to get involved by attending forums, subscribing to our newsletter (Become a member or simply subscribe to this newsletter here], or forwarding this message to your friends and neighbors.
The Newsletter Committee of the Cambridge Residents Alliance
(Paul Steven Stone, Jackie Dee King, Shelley Rieman, Charles Teague, Mary Platt, Jonathan King)