A Tale of Two Hearings

Sample of materials proposed for 75 New St.

Sample of materials proposed for 75 New St.

Public comment turned the tide at two public hearings last week, again demonstrating the importance of our showing up and speaking up on matters large and small that affect the quality of life in our area. Encouraging greater civic engagement is central to our group’s mission to raise the level and quality of public discourse on neighborhood planning and development issues.

75 New Street: Case Continued Again

On Tuesday, September 16th, the Planning Board resumed its consideration of the 93-unit project at 75 New Street, and once again did not make make a decision, continuing the case to a fifth hearing (to be scheduled within the next 60 days). Those who attended the prior hearing in late July may recall that some members had declared the project “ready to go” apart from a few loose ends. This time, the members expressed a lot of reservations about the building’s design, especially its massing, its roofline silhouette, and its relation to the street front and to its noisy and malodorous commercial abutters (Hi Tech Auto Body and Whole Foods). The developer was asked to rethink and address these concerns and to come to the next hearing with more detailed street elevations and with a scale or virtual reality model.

There is significant progress on several fronts:

  • Chair Hugh Russell seems to have rediscovered the Board’s discretionary power to set the bar higher for developers seeking special permits, asserting to AdodeZ: “I don’t think you have the right to max out on every single aspect of the zoning.” He even suggested that the developer might have to “lose some units” in order to meet the urban design guidelines for the area. In the public comment period Councillor Dennis Carlone called on the Board to show leadership on requiring that these urban design guidelines be a requirement under the ordinance. “The design guidelines should be in the zoning…you’re the experts. The Council wants to hear from you on this,” he said.
  • Models may be required for all large projects from now on. Our group had asked for a model last month, but was told it was optional. In fact, models used to be required, and we are glad to see the Board call for their return.
  • Kathy Watkins, the chief engineer at DPW, announced that the city is now fully committed to redesigning all of New Street and to providing continuous sidewalks along the non-park side. She said that funding is available and the improvements will begin next summer, following a public process, slated to begin this fall, on the details of the design. Creating a safe pedestrian route through the shopping center’s parking lot remains a challenge, to say the least, but this is a big step forward from prior talk of incrementally improving the sidewalks over time as each New Street parcel was redeveloped.

355 Fresh Pond Parkway: Request for Sign Variance Withdrawn

On Thursday, September 18th, the Board of Zoning Appeals showed little inclination to approve the Bank of America’s request to install a second illuminated sign on the new(ish) retail building at 355 Fresh Pond Parkway (formerly the site of Fresh Pond Seafood), prompting the applicant to withdraw its request rather than have it denied and face a two-year waiting period to reapply.

Hard to miss there's a BofA at 355 Fresh Pond Parkway

Hard to miss there’s a BofA at 355 Fresh Pond Parkway

The bank used up its permitted sign area (60 square feet) with its prominent sign on the building’s south-facing prow, and was seeking a variance to install another large wall sign on the façade facing the parkway. Our comments and those of several others convinced the BZA that allowing additional signage might encourage drivers coming from the north to make an illegal left turn into the parking lot, and that the bank faced no hardship in not having additional signage. The BZA agreed with residents that it would set a poor precedent to grant a variance that would contribute to the cacophony of non-conforming signs in the parkway district — referred to by some as “sign alley.”

A few observations following the BZA hearing:

  • BZA Chair Constantine Alexander remarked that before the hearing he had assumed there would be no objection to this variance and that it would be approved. However, it would have been very easy for us to have overlooked or missed this hearing entirely, because the BZA’s antiquated and inadequate public notice procedures tend to limit public awareness.
  • Unlike the Planning Board, the BZA does not post application materials online, and written notice normally only goes to abutters. In this case, the abutters on either side included two gas stations that were hardly going to object to their neighbor’s request to join the parade of sign offenders. Members of the public interested in knowing what relief is being sought are asked to make a trip to the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) in Central Square to look at various applications. This must change; there is absolutely no reason why the BZA cannot upload pdfs to a website for the public’s review.
  • Enforcement of the sign ordinance is woefully lacking in the parkway district, and the bank and other tenants of this retail building have been taking advantage of ISD’s lax enforcement to put up “temporary” flags, banners and window signs along the parkway month after month. They are certainly not the only offenders, as commercial signage along Fresh Pond Parkway makes a mockery of the sign code.

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This banner has been up for years...

This banner has been up for years…



What’s on the Council Agenda? (9/22)

All aboard for Alewife!

All aboard for Alewife!

Items of note on tomorrow’s City Council meeting agenda:

Policy Order #5 Asks the CDD to undertake a study of “emerging business types” in order to update the zoning ordinance to reflect more home-based businesses.

This is a good step, given that technology has changed greatly since the early 1960s when the table of uses was written. More home-based businesses (and co-working spaces) could help reduce people’s commutes.

Policy Order #6 Seeks to require earlier community outreach by developers of large projects to neighborhood organizations and residents. The CDD and the Planning Board are asked to begin testing strategies to create new policies and procedures for soliciting more community engagement and input prior to hearings.

We support the intent of this order, but would like to see residents involved in developing the procedures, rather than leaving it to CDD and the PB to determine what’s most effective. We also wonder about the status of the study committee proposed in an earlier order that was supposed to be looking at Planning Board procedures — wouldn’t this have been a key item on the study’s committee’s agenda?

Policy Order #7 Asks the City Manager and staff to look into the feasibility of conducting series of walks in the Alewife area to prepare the councillors for their roundtable meetings with the Planning Board in Dec and January.

This likely came about because Vice Mayor Benzan said at the last Council meeting that he hasn’t had too much chance to visit the Alewife area and would like the Council to get on a trolley bus to tour the area.

Also a report on the council’s transportation committee hearing held in June at Tobin has been posted for the official record. 

Complete list of policy orders.

You can email your opinions to council@cambridgema.gov (cc dlopez@cambridgema.gov) or call 617-349-4280 on Monday morning to sign up to speak. The meeting begins at 5:30 and will be held at CRLS in the Henrietta Alves meeting room where the School Committee meets (entrance on Broadway).

75 New Street: Round 4 Comments

Transit friendly?

Transit friendly?

The Planning Board will hold its fourth hearing on the proposed 93-unit development at 75 New Street on Tuesday, September 16 at 7 pm. The FPRA submitted these comments on the project. If you support our position let the Planning Board know by attending the hearing or emailing the Board via CDD staff member Liza Paden (lpaden@cambridgema.gov). Continue reading

What’s On the Council Agenda (9/15)?

Newly installed rock at Fresh Pond. Was a study committee needed to move this rock?

Newly installed rock at Fresh Pond. Was a study committee needed to move this rock?

Items of note on the Council’s agenda tomorrow:

Policy Order #4 schedules roundtable meetings between the council and the planning board on 12/1 and 1/12. The Vice Mayor said that it would be inappropriate to support the Carlone petition without first having held roundtable discussions with the planning board, but there seems to be no sense of urgency to have these conversations. (There’s been no word on the proposed study committee to review planning board procedures either.) Roundtables are discussions where no vote is taken. The public may attend but can only comment in writing. A roundtable with the Affordable Housing Trust is proposed for 10/6.

Continue reading

Fall Kickoff Meeting on 9/10

Nearing completion. Phase II on the way.

Nearing completion. Phase II on the way.

It’s back-to-school/work/life and the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance (FPRA) is gearing up for the fall political season. Please join us for a neighborhood meeting on Wed., Sept. 10 at 7 pm at the Tobin School.

We need everyone’s help to protect & improve our neighborhood’s quality of life for current and future residents. Among the big challenges we all must confront are: Continue reading

What Lies Beneath, Part II

IMG_7405Our recent post about soil contamination on New Street was met with a shrug in some quarters as, supposedly, it’s common knowledge — to be expected when formerly industrial land is redeveloped. But without knowing the complete history of uses a parcel of land has served, one could easily assume that, for example, the site of a window manufacturer — or a public school — would not be heavily polluted. Wrong. Continue reading

Proceed with Caution


Walking tour of Alewife with Cambridge planning board (8/12/14)

Walking tour of Alewife with the Cambridge Planning Board & CDD staff (8/12/14)

Today’s Boston Globe column by Paul McMorrow of Commonwealth Magazine on the Carlone amendment and the planning crisis in Cambridge sparked a lively string of comments online. Taking a step back from the debate about the politics of the city’s special permitting process, let’s think for a moment about who else is affected by our planning decisions, and what’s at stake. My letter to the Globe editor follows:

To the Editor:

Columnist Paul McMorrow is right that Cambridge urgently needs a new approach to development. However, the “terrifying prospect” is not that that the Cambridge Planning Board would be “gutted” as he wrongly suggests. It is that large-scale development in the Alewife area will continue in the current haphazard fashion in the absence of a citywide plan that threads the needle between promoting economic and housing growth and preserving the area’s livability and floodplain environment. The Alewife area is the caboose on the Kendall Square engine, long neglected as the industrial fringe but suddenly desirable as the city’s last frontier for redevelopment. The area presents great opportunity and even greater urban planning challenges. Cambridge is not an island; our planning decisions will impact residents of neighboring communities as well — those trying to commute through the Alewife bottleneck and those who share its vulnerable floodplain environment. We will all be living with the results of piecemeal planning for years to come. Proceed with caution.

Jan Devereux

Coming soon: About 475 apartments on these parking lots

Coming soon: About 475 apartments on these parking lots behind CambridgePark Drive

Late summer twilight (and lighter than usual traffic) on Alewife Brook Parkway

Late summer twilight (and lighter than usual traffic) on Alewife Brook Parkway