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.”
In this post Doug Brown, an FPRA vice president and resident of Huron Village, shares his thoughts on why mixed-use development is so important to fulfilling the planning vision expressed above — and on just how far short the current development falls.
Let me start with a controversial statement:SINGLE-USE ZONING IS DEAD.
Sitting here participating in the first Cambridge Conversations session at the Tobin School, I am midway between the quiet, residential neighborhood of Huron Village and, spreading out to the north and west, some of the largest residential buildings Cambridge has ever seen built. But rather than herald one and vilify the other, I would propose a second controversial statement: that, done correctly, both could be appropriate for our City and its citizens.
That said, I would also contend that the essential ingredient in making any neighborhood successful, and here I would define “successful” simply as a place that someone would want to live, is the mix of different uses that it includes for its residents.
Live. Work. Shop. Play. Four essential components in creating a livable neighborhood. Without all four ingredients, a neighborhood can’t be a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week place. Without a place to buy a cup of coffee in the morning, have a beer with coworkers and buy groceries after work, or take your kids for a walk on the weekend, residents have no choice but to look elsewhere to get their basic needs met. Sadly, at least in the Concord-Alewife area, our current zoning ordinance and its Special Permit-based incentives is simply not generating the dynamic blend of uses now demanded by our residents and aspired to by our planning studies.
Why not? Zoning originated in the Twenties, a time when society still found it necessary to keep big, dirty factories away from cute, little neighborhoods like mine. Along the way, the Zoning Ordinance that oversaw this separation grew and grew and grew. At last count, the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance contains 130 different categories of building: Single-family home. Two-family dwelling. Multifamily dwelling. Elderly housing. Office. Factory. School. Hospital. Museum. There’s even a specific category for businesses that manufacture lampshades. And each type of use has strict requirements on where in the City it is allowed.
And yet, today, this is a solution to a problem that no longer exists. The City’s tanneries and slaughterhouses are by now long gone, replaced by startup incubators, green tech labs, and data mining firms. And, at least for the young workers of this new industries, modern urban living has come to be defined by how CLOSE you are to different things, not by how FAR.
In my own case, my local life revolves around Fresh Pond Market, which serves not only as my local grocery store but also as a community meeting place, a great place to find local help (particularly babysitters), even a place of worship (if you believe the many loyal fans of the Market’s meat department). In fact, I live so close to the store that the cashiers all have my account number memorized and often joke about me eating three meals a day there.
Meanwhile, about 10% of Cambridge residents now work at home, and a growing number make use of shared co-working spaces like Huville, the local space on Huron Avenue where I work everyday. They visit maker spaces on the weekend to take classes, exchange ideas, and make cool stuff. They practice urban agriculture, even though it’s not technically legal in Cambridge yet. And yet the zoning code, where every building is categorized by a single use, simply doesn’t recognized these kinds of modern mixed-uses.
Why does this matter? Well, if we are talking about all those big boxes out by Route 2, the ones that are single-use, 100% residential buildings, the two biggest concerns I have for them are: 1) whether their residents feel a true sense of local community; and 2) traffic. In the first case, more of what are referred to as Third Places (restaurants, coffee shops, civic plazas, entertainment, recreational opportunities, open space, retail shops. In short, everything other than work and home) would help immensely. Mixed-use spaces provides local businesses with places to operate and test new ideas. They provide local citizens with jobs. And, by promoting what modern urban planners call “human collisions,” they create opportunities to connect with friends and neighbors.
As for the second issue (traffic), a recent Seattle study found that mixed-use developments can reduce traffic by as much as 75% compared to traditional, single-use developments where residents must drive to everything they need. 75% less traffic. Consider that number the next time you are stuck in traffic on Fresh Pond Parkway. Sure, much of the parkway traffic is generated by people driving through Cambridge on their way to somewhere else, but shouldn’t we be looking for ways to reduce the portion of the traffic we can control by creating new neighborhoods that offer their residents the possibility of leading “car lite,” if not car-free, lives? And by providing opportunities for local commuters to delay their drive home until later (restaurants to visit for dinner with friends, movie theaters to catch the latest release, fitness clubs for an after-work workout), these Third Places can smooth out the rush hour traffic spikes that are so common on the Parkway of late.
Here’s another example of what I am talking about. The Cambridge Zoning Ordinance actively discourages accessory uses of all kinds. So if you want to add an apartment for an elderly parent, or a local grad student, or a foreign visitor, the code won’t allow it in most cases, even when you meet all of the necessary fire and building code requirements. Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, the city now allows the construction of backyard housing (so-called garage or “granny” apartments) by right. The result has been hundreds of new housing units constructed in existing neighborhoods.
Back here in Cambridge, we now similarly allow basement apartments, but they are restricted to a single section of Mass Ave close to Lesley University. (In addition, we also allow a small handful of accessory housing units in so called Single Family with Auxiliary Apartment homes.) But if all of the 3,000 single-family homes in Cambridge were allowed to add such an apartment, the result would be more new housing units then have been built in all of Concord-Alewife in the past 10 years, without needing to build any more big “spaceship” developments.
There are many different groups now advocating for a greater focus on mixed-use development: The LEED for Neighborhood Development standard, the New Urbanism movement, the City of Atlanta’s Mixed Use Tool Kit, even our neighbors in Somerville, who have recently had mixed-use successes both big (Assembly Row) and small (Artisan’s Asylum).
The former turned an old Ford car plant into a mixed use development with housing, office space, restaurants, retail, a new T station, a riverfront park, a movie theater, and Legoland. The later turned an old envelope factory into a thriving community of industrial artists. In a TED talk on Somerville’s new approach to zoning, George Proakis, the city’s director of planning, said that these kinds of projects were simply not possible under their old and outdated zoning code.
In the end, whether some of these ideas are ultimately adopted by Cambridge or not, I think the central idea I would put forward as we begin a new Master Planning process is that we need to think differently, more creatively, if we are going to build a better city. The same old ideas have left us with the same old results. We can, and must, do better.
The new 398-unit building at 160 Cambridge Park Drive (pictured above and at the beginning of this blog entry) is now leasing. Here are the advertised rents for the market-rate units (46 of the units will be offered under the City’s inclusionary zoning program). Three-quarters of the building’s apartments have one bedroom; a quarter offer two bedrooms. There is no ground-floor retail or mixed-use apart from a small leasing office. Though the building is transit-oriented (it’s located just down the street, 4/10 of a mile, from the Alewife T stop), it is 7/10 of a mile to the nearest place where a resident could buy a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee.
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