Kickoff Meeting Sparks Dialogue, Spurs Push for Master Plan

Fresh_Pond_Residents_mtg_3-24-14About 150 Cambridge residents gathered on March 24 at the Tobin School for our group’s first meeting to share concerns about the “tsunami of development” underway in the Fresh Pond/Alewife area of Cambridge. In addition to residents from all areas of the city, attendees at our town-hall style forum included MA Rep. David Rogers and Cambridge City Councillors Dennis Carlone and Marc McGovern, and Carlone aide Mike Connolly. Also present were School Committee member Patty Nolan, former Councillor Minka von Beuzekom, and staff aides to MA Rep. Jon Hecht and Cambridge Mayor David Maher.

Our kickoff event raised awareness about the surge of recent development in the Alewife/ North Cambridge area – over 2,500 residential units constructed or in the pipeline since 2010 – and prompted a vigorous discussion about the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and the environment. Many attendees were unaware of the 2006 zoning changes that unleashed this “gold rush,” and were shocked by the scale and density of growth around the area (see slide presentation from meeting).

Yet while the extent and rapidity of the recent development boom seemed to have taken residents by surprise, the impact on their quality of life was not lost on them: most visibly, more traffic congestion on Fresh Pond Parkway and Concord Avenue and through neighborhood side streets, reduced safety for pedestrians and cyclists, and more intensive use of the area’s retail services and open space resources.

Impact on the Environment and Affordability

Ellen Mass of the Friends of Alewife Reservation made an impassioned plea for concerned citizens to help her non-profit organization sound the alarm for the negative impact such high-density development is having on the fragile wetland ecosystem. With the potential for severe flooding along the Mystic River floodway all around Alewife, the prospect of more than 1,500 units on Cambridge Park Drive alone and a proposed 80,000 s.f. hotel have the FAR calling for a moratorium on development pending the release of the city’s Climate Change Vulnerability Study.

Attendees also expressed concern that most of the new development consists of 1-2 bedroom “luxury” apartments concentrated in massive buildings erected on formerly industrial sites, where residential requirements for more open space and greater setbacks do not apply. Some noted that inclusionary zoning results in only about 11.5% of the new units being reserved for low-income residents, and increases the total number of units in the process. The acute shortage of affordable housing for middle-income residents and families with children are being ignored in this rush to maximize the developers’ return on investment, several speakers asserted.

New Street Project is a Flashpoint

A lightning rod for many residents at the meeting is a proposed 93-unit building located at 75 New Street, another instance of formerly industrial parcel being converted to high-density residential use. Originally laid out as the road to the town dump, two-lane New Street barely meets the current demands of vehicles travelling to and from Danehy Park and Evolve Fitness and those avoiding parkway bottlenecks to access Fresh Pond Mall at the rear. While the proposed development at 75 New Street (and the same developer’s 54-unit “Park 87” building next door) are pitched as transit-centered, walking to the Alewife T poses significant safety risks, as the shortest route to the T station cuts through a heavily trafficked parking lot without sidewalks. After dark, the danger grows. Sidewalks connecting New Street to Concord Avenue are woefully inadequate.

Earlier this month at a public hearing before the Cambridge Planning Board on March 4, a dozen residents voiced strong opposition to the proposed design and demanded that, at minimum, New Street’s circulation and sidewalk infrastructure be improved before granting the requested special permits. An online petition has gathered more than 240 signatures. The planning board will resume its deliberations on the New Street project on the evening of Tuesday, April 8, and we urge fellow residents to submit opposing comments and to attend the hearing.

Change on the Horizon?

Our unusually well attended meeting came as another sign of mounting frustration across the city with the planning process, from the ongoing debate over the redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge to outrage over a proposal to build 40 micro-units without parking in historic Harvard Square.

In response, Councillor Dennis Carlone has launched an online petition asking for new citywide master plan. In a letter circulated at our March 24 event, Carlone calls for “an open process that will begin to provide a cohesive vision for how our city will grow and mature in the years to come….I believe that our Master Plan should be organized and presented in a manner that can be readily understood and supported by independent planning professionals and the general public. Furthermore, I want to strengthen the design review process and take action to ensure that zoning guidelines are applied in a way that reinforces all that we love about our neighborhoods.”

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