Well over 100 residents and a cadre of city officials attended our May 13 meeting, filling the Tobin School cafeteria for two hours of vigorous debate. On hand to listen to our presentations on planned, proposed, and possible new development in the Fresh Pond-Alewife area were: Cambridge Mayor David Maher, City Councilors Dennis Carlone, Nadeem Mazen, and Marc McGovern. Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy, Director of Community Planning Stuart Dash, and School Committee Member Patty Nolan attended as well.
Also listening closely to the discussion was Richard McKinnon, president of The McKinnon Company, the developer of about 1,000 apartments in the pipeline on Cambridge Park Drive. McKinnon’s design team will present the plans for the firm’s latest proposed project (378 apartments plus a 9-story shared use parking garage for 791 cars at 180R Cambridge Park Drive) at the next FPRA meeting on Wednesday, June 4 at 7 pm in the Tobin auditorium.
Judging by the VIP attendance and the high emotion in the room, it’s likely that the issue of whether development in our area is proceeding according to a well considered and thoughtfully implemented growth plan — or racing ahead unchecked like kudzu — will demand a good deal of the Council and CDD’s attention for the foreseeable future, as the city prepares to embark on its recently initiated master planning process. A unanimously approved Council policy order earlier this month tasked the city manager with hiring an independent urban planning consultant to facilitate a series of community meetings by the end of June, and to submit a report on recommended next steps by the end of July. To date, the name of the consultant and the meeting dates have not been announced, raising doubts about the timetable’s feasibility.
However, the centerpiece presentation by the FPRA’s Doug Brown left no doubt that time is of the essence, as development in the Fresh Pond-Alewife area has already exceeded what was projected for a decade from now. On top of the hundreds of units already under construction and the hundreds more that have been permitted or may be soon, he identified several large parcels that recently changed hands and are likely candidates for future development.
Since 2004, development in the Concord Alewife study area has added some 3.5 million square feet (98% of it residential), and Brown estimates that another 3.1 million square feet are likely to be built in the next five years. For comparison, the existing residential and commercial base in 2004 was 4.4 million square feet; the Concord Alewife study projected that new development would add 2.8 million square feet — but not until 2024. Thus, we have surpassed the study’s goal a decade early and are on the way to overshooting the target by nearly 250% by 2020. Brown’s jaw-dropping data underscored the urgency of getting a handle on the city’s growth plans for the area, sooner rather than later.
The councilors hastened to reassure residents that the master planning process will provide residents from all areas of the city an opportunity to voice their concerns about the pace, scale and balance of development. Mayor Maher said the upcoming meetings with the consultant would provide “a chance to walk through what’s working and what’s desired in each neighborhood.” He stressed that a new master plan would serve to better balance growth across the city, and that the process would give residents a chance to weigh in. The mayor remarked that in East Cambridge residents are complaining that there is not enough residential development, while the Alewife area has experienced tremendous residential development and almost no retail or commercial growth. A West Cambridge resident himself, Mayor Maher also noted that the emergence of the FPRA marks the first time in 25 years that the neighborhood has had an organized group.
Councilor Mazen agreed the city as a whole is “striving for balance,” and that a master plan would address residents’ complaints that by the time they get a look at development being proposed it’s too late to have a say in striking that balance. “The City Council is attentive to the fact that if these conversations can start comprehensively at an earlier stage, and if the guidance that can come from a master plan can be leveraged by developments, the outcome will be better for everyone,” Councilor Mazen said. “It will be better for developers as they plan and spend their money, and it will be better for all of us. We will get what we want early on in the development process.”
Many residents expressed concern, however, that development would continue at the same heady pace and massive scale during the months, even years, it could take for the city to produce a comprehensive master plan to manage citywide growth. North Cambridge resident and Alewife Study Group member Mike Nakagawa was one of the few in the room who did not appear surprised by the extent to which what has been built has exceeded what was planned, having reported on the shortcomings of the Concord Alewife planning process in a series of articles in local publications a decade ago during the study period. At the time he felt that his concerns fell on deaf ears. Now, one might suspect he feels vindicated, though probably not pleased to be able to say, “I told you so.”
Tom Klein, an Appleton Street neighbor of the mayor’s, finally dared to utter the “m” word. Why not declare a halt to all special permits until the master plan is completed, he asked? Wouldn’t a moratorium light a fire under our leaders to get moving on a new plan, he posited? Caroline Stack of Chilton Street and Pebble Gifford, standard bearer of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, pressed for a show of hands on the idea of a targeted moratorium, and to no one’s surprise the hands in the room showed strong support.
Porter Square resident Andrea Wilder’s assertion that the city “has been sold to developers” drew applause from many of the same hands. Ilan Levy, active in the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge’s fight against the Sullivan courthouse redevelopment plan, stated that, “All of Cambridge is fighting for the same thing: saner development and more input from the community.” Alice Heller, a veteran of a successful neighborhood downzoning petition a decade ago that halted plans to redevelop the self-storage facility on Concord Avenue, said that residents should be brought into the process well before projects come to the planning board. In theory, that’s what the coming master planning process will do, but with the current building boom patience and trust are running short.
Loose talk of a moratorium made the four councilors visibly uneasy. A majority of their votes would be needed to pass, and speaking candidly Councilor Mazen noted there are other stakeholders in other rooms with other opinions. Looking for the middle ground, Councilor Carlone suggested that there might be an “interim step” that would address some of the “most egregious issues” raised at the meeting. “You’ve made us focus on this,” he said.
Mayor Maher seemed to agree, saying: ““I think that what you’re hearing, and what you’re seeing tonight is — and this is not meant as any offense to any other neighborhood — I think that there is unanimity in looking at Alewife-Fresh Pond as priority number one right now. That does not in any way, shape or form say we’re not interested in looking at every other area in the City. It all needs to be looked at….If you had asked me at the time [of the Concord Alewife study] if I’d ever see housing on New Street, I never thought that we’d see housing on New Street, I thought it was a crazy, crazy idea. I never thought that we’d see it, and now look what’s happened. And you can project going forward, that’s what New Street is going to be. So, I think that we’re saying is that we want to look at it, and we are, and we’re on the same page.”
So, at the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, there was widespread agreement that the Fresh Pond-Alewife area is in especially urgent need of a planning reset of some type, but what type of action might be the most effective — and politically feasible — remained a big question mark.
Conversation to be continued at our next meeting on Wednesday, June 4 at 7:00 PM in the Tobin School auditorium.