The Area 4 Neighborhood Preservation Petition (“Yanow petition”) was presented to the Cambridge Planning Board on Tuesday evening October 3, and the Ordinance Committee of the City Council on the following afternoon. The hearing rooms were packed with those opposing and those supporting. Susan Yanow’s thoughtful and articulate slide show presentation explained why five key planning principles do not work in the current situation in Cambridge, and why the petition is therefore needed.
Susan explained that the Petition would establish a buffer zone between the commercial buildings along Mass. Avenue and the fully residential neighborhoods north of – and including – Bishop Allen Drive. The Petition calls for a lower building height on Mass Ave in order to prevent Mass Ave from looking like Tech Sq. or Kendall Sq. The Petition also aims to keep the municipal parking lots as open space for farmer’s markets, mural-viewing, cultural, and other public uses.
Representatives of the business community including the Chamber of Commerce, Central Square Business Assn. as well as individual property owners, restaurateurs and high tech entrepreneurs, spoke in opposition to trying to limit heights and bulk in Central Square, while making it clear they share many goals and values of those who supported the petition. Neighborhood residents and representatives of community organizations including the Area 4 Coalition, Alliance of Cambridge Tenants and Cambridge Residents Alliance spoke in favor of protecting the residential character of the north edge of Central Square.
Members of the Planning Board including William Tibbs, Pam Winters and Chair Hugh Russell noted that the petition raised important questions, and expressed concern that residents’ voices had not been heard adequately in the planning process. On the other hand, there were critiques of the petition coming before the Central Square Advisory Committee (CSAC) had completed its process and issued zoning recommendations.
In response, Susan Yanow noted that the CSAC is considering proposals developed by the Goody, Clancy consultants which show over-size high-rise market rate apartment buildings on Mass. Ave. and on side streets moving toward Bishop Allen Drive. Susan noted that community residents at multiple meetings requested that CSAC consider projects that respect existing zoning, but these requests have been ignored. In addition, CDD staff in recent meetings have behaved more as if they were representing developer Forest City, rather than the interests of Cambridge citizens. These actions have led to an erosion of trust.
The Planning Board rejected suggestions to vote down the Petition and instead voted to send the Petition on to the City Council’s Ordinance Committee without any recommendation. The chair and several other Planning Board members felt the Council should wait to vote on the petition until the CSAC process is complete. They felt the CSAC should consider the issues raised by supporters of the Yanow petition. At the meeting of the Ordinance Committee the next day, each side presented testimony similar to its testimony at the Planning Board. Councilors van Beuzekom and Kelly expressed interest in a number of the proposals in the petition, and were supportive of the Council continuing discussion. Ordinance Committee Chair David Maher was very respectful of the concerns that supporters of the petition raised. The committee decided not to approve the petition, but rejected requests to vote it down, and instead voted to support Maher’s proposal to send the petition onto the full City Council without a recommendation, and to keep the petition on the agenda of the Ordinance Committee for further discussion.
The Cambridge Residents Alliance views both of these votes as a positive outcome, encouraging deeper discussion of the important aspects of the Area 4 Neighborhood Preservation Petition. Area 4, public housing, open space, affordable housing, and community advocates are now squarely in the middle of the conversation about the future of Central Square.