Ryan on Planning Board

Remarks about the Planning Board – January 31, 2015

Nancy Ryan

What have we learned from our critique of the Planning Board?

What should we do with these lessons?

Short answers – it is clear that ONLY our activism would have created even the minimal improvements we have seen; the PB itself is both a problem and a symptom of a larger concern about city governance.


The Planning Board is appointed by the City Manager and has the power to grant Special Permits for large projects.

  • The former Manager Healy and present Manager Rossi allowed five terms to expire;
  • their Community Development Department seemed to be giving minimal professional advice to the Planning Board members about existing neighborhood studies or anything resembling citywide planning as they evaluated each project as a stand-alone.
  • Resident groups like the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance and the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge formed in response to on-going or plans for massive new developments – projects that have changed or could change the landscape and character of whole areas of the city.

We are no longer dealing with large local or even regional property owners.

  • We are up against multinational real estate investment trusts accountable to their investors. 
  • At Planning Board meetings we encounter teams of fancy business suits and dazzling power points with photo-shopped images of what they want our neighborhoods to look like based on their profit margin.
  • Where are the equally strong voices for the kind of planning that is holistic, environmentally conscious, protective of traditionally affordable housing and insisting on much more of it? Pretty much – we are those voices.

Our initial intervention took the form of doing our own intensive research and included everything from revealing the disastrous condition of the roadway and the toxicity under New Street, to inadequate traffic and parking studies in the Alewife area, to the courthouse with its corrupt history and questionable legality.


In May we submitted a 30-point list of complaints, concerns and suggestions to Manager – this stimulated

  • the publication of CDD memos on projects,
  • 3 new appointments starting December 1,
  • a new chair and
  •  a slight rule change in January requiring “community engagement,” however vague – the old rule that “strongly encourages” meeting with abutters, neighbors and neighborhood groups remains in the Planning Board’s rules on the website.
  • We requested that at least one new member be an “ordinary resident,“ not a development or legal professional, but were rebuffed.
  • We proposed creation of an “ombudsman” position to provide residents and neighborhoods with more information that we don’t have to dig up ourselves back in May – that is now being debated.

In the Fall, we supported the Carlone Petition to give the City Council final approval of large project special permits – it failed. Council members would have had to go on the record on these very projects and refused  – subsequently the Courthouse and New Street development were approved with little acknowledgement of resident concerns.

A series of City Council-ordered, CDD coordinated focus groups in December simply restated many of our original suggestions and identified some positive procedural changes but were yet another demand on time.

  • In November we presented a zoning change proposal detailing early neighborhood review to the Manager and CDD and received no formal response. One outcome of the focus groups:  “Explore options for early engagement on zoning petitions (Short to long-term, 0-6 months).”  Two months and counting.
  • We should instead be in full Master Planning mode, with a focus on major areas being affected, and re-writing our Zoning Ordinance.

Two next big things to come before the Planning Board:

  • the Normandy/Twining proposal for a 195-foot residential tower at Jill Rhone Park in Central Square with 40 affordable units that that would set a precedent and begin a transformation of the square and increase the gentrification of its abutting neighborhoods. It would have come before the Planning Board during Tuesday’s snow storm.
  • The Volpe Transportation site in which CDD is proposing far less open space than promised as Kendall Square has been built out and more market rate housing.  A Planning Board member stated during an initial review of the plan that this is a chance to create far more affordable housing than proposed. CDD seems again hell-bent on more high and dense market rate housing and maximum build-out.

Accountability to residents is at an all-time low but we are more visible than ever. Some of our lessons from attempts to reform the Planning Board reflect how slowly institutions change, and raise questions about how to get a Master Planning process underway while huge projects await Planning Board approval right now. How do we more creatively confront what seems to be an inbred assumption that all development is essentially good for the community and needs only minor tweaking before approval?

In some and perhaps more instances, we are being  forced to take or explore legal challenges to the validity of these large projects. Neighbors of the Courthouse have already filed suit. While what we want is a community-wide definition of our future, if our only ability to contain the size and impact of these projects is in the courts, we have to pursue it and we are.

One bottom line is that the City Manager form of government does not work with a weak City Council. The majority of this Council has, for the most part, weakened or delayed every proposal we have made for accountability, responsible planning and zoning reform. They defer continually to a Community Development Department that has enabled many of the recent problematic developments and the traffic nightmares that accompany them.

  • We need new elected and appointed leadership to carry us forward.

An election is an opportunity to elect 4 to 5 Council members who understand and reliably support planning and effective community involvement. And who recognize that our land and housing mix are disappearing perhaps more quickly than the polar ice cap.

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