What Lies Beneath: The Brownfields of New Street & Vicinity

Pile of dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

In the rush to transform the former industrial area along New Street into a residential neighborhood, there has been a troubling lack of discussion about what kind of industry historically took place there, and an unfortunate lack of public awareness about the types and amounts of hazardous waste those prior uses have left behind.

Just days before the Cambridge Planning Board’s July 22 public hearing on a proposal to construct a 93-unit apartment building on the industrial parcel at 75 New Street, we learned that the site contains dangerously high levels of heavy metals (lead and barium), toxins (arsenic), petroleum byproducts (TPH), and known carcinogens (at least three hydrocarbons, including benzo[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, and benzo[b]fluoranthene). We learned this not from the developer (AbodeZ Acorn New Street LLC) or the City, but from a “Notice of Release Form” filed with the Mass Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) on June 4th. The July 22nd public hearing was the third on this project (the first was in early March), and the subject of the site being a brownfields has never been mentioned. Not once.

The amounts of the hazardous substances in soil samples at 75 New Street far exceed the permitted “safe” levels. The level of lead is more than 7 times the permitted level; total petroleum hydrocarbons exceed the permitted level by 3.5 times; benzo(a)pyrene is present at up to 5 times the legal limit; and arsenic exists at 35% above permitted levels. On June19th, MassDEP notified the developer of its strict statutory liability to assess and remediate the site within one year. Environmental risk reports like these are in the category of publicly available information that 99.9% of the public never sees or hears about – unless you regularly troll the MassDEP website, or work for a city agency like the Department of Public Works that receives official notices from the State. Very few people are aware of what lies beneath our streets and basements, or the potential risk to public health of not knowing and taking protective measures. (These reports are available on the MassDEP website’s waste site and reportable release file viewer under RTN 3-32213.)

The Planning Board did not hear about the extent of the toxic waste on the site at 75 New Street, because the developer did not volunteer the information before or during last week’s hearing, and our letter and its five supporting documents (emailed the day before the hearing), which contained the details of these findings, were withheld from the Board for procedural reasons that remain unclear to us. So the Board did not have critical information that might have informed their deliberation on Special Permit General Criteria 10.43: whether residential development on this former industrial parcel would pose a “detriment to health, safety or welfare of occupants or citizens.” Those at potential risk would include the residents living next door in the proponent’s “Park 87” building (including quite a few young children), Danehy Park users (home field of Cambridge Youth Soccer and the high school’s athletics teams), people at the adjacent Fresh Pond shopping center, and construction workers on the site itself, all of whom could be exposed to airborne dust containing toxic substances during excavation and construction at 75 New Street, if the project is approved.

The Problems Don’t Stop at the Property Line

Park 87 building

Park 87 building

We also just learned that the soil at Park 87 (the 54-unit apartment building constructed next door in 2010 by the same developer as “Phase I” of the complex) had very high levels of toxic waste, though not as high as the levels at #75. To prepare the Park 87 site for the construction of housing, AbodeZ Acorn was required by MassDEP to replace the soil to a depth of roughly 10 feet, install a vapor barrier, ventilation system, and monitoring wells under the building’s foundation, and cap all exposed soil with 3 feet of clean fill. The contaminated soil was trucked out of the area on the public streets.

In February 2011 – two months after the first residents had begun to move into the new building – AbodeZ Acorn issued a 495-page Release Abatement Measure Completion Report detailing the extent of the soil contamination at 87 New Street, a report that estimated the post-abatement risk of health problems among utility workers and children, should they contact any polluted soil, water, or air on the site, at 56% and 42%, respectively. (The RAO reports are available on the MassDEP website’s file viewer under RTN 3-28725.)

In fact, the apartment building at 87 New Street carries numerous legally binding “Activity & Use Limitations” to protect residents of all ages, as well as utility and construction workers, from exposure to the hazardous substances in the soil and groundwater on the site. Ironically, one of the AULs prohibits the site from ever being used as a single-family residence or a daycare facility, yet multi-family use is permitted. In addition, there can be no in-soil gardening on the premises. The property owners also are required to abstain from any extensive construction work (longer than six months) on the site, a condition that does not (yet) apply to their even more contaminated property next door at 75 New Street. (The AUL report for 87 New Street also is available on the MassDEP file viewer site under RTN 3-28725.)

The Concord-Huron sewer separation project produces a lot of dust. What's in it?

The Concord-Huron sewer separation project produces a lot of dust. What’s in it?

We were disturbed to learn that MassDEP has on file numerous reports of high levels of benzo(a)pyrene (and other toxic waste) throughout our Huron Village neighborhood, where all the streets and sidewalks are being excavated and reconstructed in conjunction with the multi-year, multi-million-dollar sewer separation project. More on the problems closer to home in a future post.


How did we get here? The History of New Street

We have heard a great deal about how New Street was the road to the town dump, but the dump operated for a relatively brief period, from 1952 to 1971. In fact, New Street is not new at all; it was first laid out in the mid-19th century when the Danehy area was a swampy clay pit and brickyard well served by freight spurs of the Boston & Maine Railroad. To this point, the name “New Street” first appears in a City atlas in 1878.

1886 map of New St and area. Fresh Pond is at the bottom.

1886 map of New St and area. Fresh Pond is at the bottom.

Mid-20th c. map showing the Cambridge Offal Dept. on New St.

Mid-20th c. map showing the Cambridge Offal Dept. on New St. (yellow square building at right)

From 1901 to 1903, the Cambridge Board of Health operated a smallpox hospital on the site of 75 New Street; few of its patients survived. The City burned the “pest houses” after the epidemic. For more than 30 years, from 1928 to 1962, the City of Cambridge operated its offal processing facility on the same site, likely incinerating animal waste from the slaughterhouses in the area. The burning of this organic waste (up to 8,000 tons annually according to newspaper reports at the time) may be, in part, responsible for the high levels of benzo(a)pyrene still found on the two New Street sites – and may have disposed of the resulting ashes in city-owned clay pits and ponds in the area, including the present-day sites of the Tobin School, the Concord Avenue Armory, Rindge Towers, and other parcels later sold to private companies. At the time, no one was aware of the health risks, but today benzo(a)pyrene’s link to cancer is well documented.

In 1946, the City of Cambridge acquired all of the land at the north end of New Street encompassing the remainder of 75 and 87 New Street through eminent domain, and used the land for waste fill. Two decades later, in 1968, the City sold two 40,000 square foot parcels to two local, family-owned businesses: the Ugliettos of Cubby Oil acquired #87 for fuel oil storage, and the Adams bought #75 for their window business. The Adams family subsequently bought out the Ugliettos in 1980, recombining both parcels, before selling all of their land to AbodeZ Acorn LLC over the last few years for a total price of $8.25 million. That’s a high price for a brownfields that abuts an auto body shop, another business that could pose health risks to future neighbors. Directly behind 75 New Street are the loading docks of Whole Foods, which operate 24/7. But developers see huge potential in this evolving neighborhood, so long as they can maximize the floor-area-ratio (FAR) through special permits to reduce setbacks.

Piecemeal Planning Fails Us Again

In summary, while window manufacturing at J&C Adams seems like a relatively clean form of industry, the alarming results of the recent environmental tests at 75 New Street have opened a window to New Street’s industrial history, a history that needs to be much more closely examined by all parties before any more permits, special or otherwise, are granted. The Concord-Alewife Plan entirely ignored the need to remediate known and likely brownfields in the process of redeveloping an area “whose special character derives from its industrial history.” Published in 2005, the 89-page report included not a single word on the area’s legacy of hazardous waste.

Cambridge DPW also would have to consider these significant environmental risks in undertaking its planned reconstruction of New Street’s sidewalks and streetscape to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, as one can assume that the contamination does not stop at the proponent’s property line. In fact, Cambridge DPW already has a Notice of Release Form on file regarding extensive contamination at the City’s own storm water pumping station on New Street. The location of the release is actually directly across the street from 75 New Street. In truth, the City has good reason to expect that most of the formerly industrial land in the Concord-Alewife area is contaminated to some degree. Like traffic and flooding, environmental pollution that can easily migrate underground cannot be adequately addressed on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis, and redevelopment will require far better coordination and communication among city and state officials and residents than has so far been demonstrated with these New Street projects.

This post begins to tell a story that we hope will elicit much more discussion, as the City continues redeveloping a part of town whose industrial past has remained buried up to now.

Copies of the documents that the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance submitted to the Planning Board on this topic are available upon request. Please email freshpondresidents@gmail.com.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Parking lot at 75 New St. At right is driveway to Park 87 apartments.

Parking lot at 75 New St. At right is driveway to Park 87 apartments. Multiple dirt piles left over from soil sampling should have been removed from the site.

An auto body shop abuts the south side of 75 New St.

An auto body shop abuts the south side of 75 New St.

Loading docks for Fresh Pond mall behind 75 New St.

Loading docks for Fresh Pond mall behind 75 New St.

Piecemeal Approval Process Lets Developers Off the Hook

180RCPD AerialThis week’s Cambridge Chronicle has a guest editorial by FPRA officers Jan Devereux and Doug Brown.

Here’s how it starts (read the full piece on Wicked Local Cambridge):

The Cambridge political landscape has changed this year with the election of four new city councilors and the appointment of a new city manager. There also has been a marked surge in activism among residents, much of it focused on development and urban planning issues. Along with councilors Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen, neighborhood organizations across the city have begun to change — and elevate — the conversation about the goals, values and priorities that will inform the city’s new master plan.

As leaders of the newest resident group on the scene, we think this is a healthy change, and one that we aim to further through our work. For too long, the city’s permitting process has pitted residents against developers in an adversarial process that forces us to play “whack-a-mole” on a playing field that is far from level. Under the former city manager’s quarter-century regime, our volunteer Planning Board followed a narrow checklist approach to evaluating large projects that ignored some of the broader policy issues at stake. Too often, residents were cast as obstructionist when they tried to raise reasonable concerns about community benefits and the public good.

If you have not already signed the Carlone Petition to make the City Council the special permit granting authority, please do so here.

Comments on Latest Alewife Development Proposal

Aerial view of 180R Cambridge Park Drive

Aerial view of 180R Cambridge Park Drive

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on July 8 to review a proposed residential development near the Alewife MBTA station. Below is an extract of the comments that the FPRA officers submitted to the Board for consideration. The complete document is here (17 pages). Continue reading

It’s Always Sunny in Render-adelphia

603 Concord Ave.

603 Concord Ave.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all live in the dreamscape neighborhoods depicted in architectural renderings? The sun is always shining, traffic is minimal, and the people look so carefree and unhurried. The warm light in watercolor washes is so flattering, especially to building materials like concrete clapboard that up close don’t look so soft around the edges.

We have the technology to create virtual reality simulations of what proposed buildings would look like in their real-life urban context, yet major development projects are routinely approved based on old-fashioned renderings — the architectural equivalent of what fashion models are to real women. Continue reading

Carlone Zoning Amendment: A Positive Step

Wheeler St & Concord Ave development

Wheeler St & Concord Ave development

As those on the FPRA’s listserv and others following local development politics know, Councilor Dennis Carlone introduced a zoning amendment that would change the process by which special permit decisions are made while the city is in the midst of a master planning process. If passed, the Carlone Amendment would make the City Council the exclusive special permit granting authority for “Project Review Special Permits” as described in Section 19.20 in the city’s Zoning Ordinance. The change would restore a power that the Council (our elected officials) has had all along, but had delegated to the Planning Board, volunteers appointed by the City Manager. Unlike a moratorium, which many residents have called for to pause large-scale development during the master planning process, this procedural change would not affect smaller proposals or any “by-right” development.

The Carlone Amendment represents a reasonable response to citizens’ concerns that the rapid pace and scale of development, especially around Alewife and Fresh Pond, undermines the citywide planning process, and that special permit decisions during this critical period should be made by the policymakers who are directly accountable to voters.

Quoting the text of the online petition that Councilor Carlone is circulating in advance of the June 30 meeting when the Council will take up the amendment:

As we move forward with a process to create a citywide Master Plan, this procedural change will enable the City Council to impose reasonable conditions on large, new development projects as part of the ongoing planning process.

Under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A, Section 1A, the Cambridge City Council may act a “special permit granting authority” — but as stands, the council has delegated this oversight to the Planning Board, an unelected body.

To be sure, the professionals who volunteer to serve on the Planning Board deserve our gratitude and respect - but when it comes to the big decisions, such as redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse, or large-scale development along the Alewife floodplain - we think elected policymakers ought to assume a more meaningful role in the process.

Under Article 19 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, Project Review enables the special permit granting authority to encourage the production of affordable and middle-income housing, mitigate against the impact of added traffic, promote the use of alternative modes of transit, apply strong Urban Design criteria, and more.

Perhaps most importantly, City Council Project Review will create a better system of “checks and balances” — we will continue to draw on the expertise of the Planning Board and the Community Development Department. But with this change, the City Council will also have a say on projects that are likely to have a significant impact on abutting properties and the surrounding urban environment.

Sign the petition in support of the Carlone Amendment.

Residents may also wish to email City Councilors and to attend the June 30 meeting to express their views on this proposed change. The Council meeting will be held in Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room at 459 Broadway (where the School Committee usually meets), not the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.

View of Wheeler St project from the Trader Joe's parking lot.

View of Wheeler St project from the Trader Joe’s parking lot.


Roadblocks to Change in the Transit Sector

A typical afternoon on Fresh Pond Parkway

A typical afternoon on Fresh Pond Parkway

Last week’s transportation committee hearing was a testament to the human capacity for denial and collective paralysis in the face of large systemic problems. Listening to the presentations by city staff, a newcomer (say, someone who arrived from outer space) might have come away believing no transportation crisis exists in the Alewife area, that plans to massively increase housing density around the area won’t aggravate the problems (which, remember, don’t really exist, and to the extent they might exist, are not within our control because they are mostly regional in origin), and that any remaining problems can be remedied by improving bike paths. Continue reading

All Mixed Up

This building will offer 398 units (all 1 & 2 BRs). In the foreground another building will offer 244 units.

160 Cambridge Park Drive. This new, 100% residential building will offer 398 units (all 1 & 2 bedrooms). In the foreground, another already permitted building (165 Cambridge Park Drive) will offer an additional 244 units.










One of the concerns we have over the large development projects currently in the Alewife pipeline is that they are almost exclusively single-use, 100% residential buildings, when one of the stated goals of the 2005 Concord Alewife rezoning was to promote mixed-use development. The area’s 2005 rezoning was intended to further the planning study’s vision, which emphasized the following: “creating a people oriented sense of place; developing a neighborhood gathering-place for people who live, work, play, and shop in the area; overcoming barriers and creating much needed connections to achieve a walkable neighborhood; and enhancing the environment.” Continue reading