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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Jan, Just checked the FPRA Calendar listings. 180R is still posted as being on for June 17th at the Planning Board. As I mentioned in a prior email and alluded to at Tobin, we have been rescheduled to July 8th at 7 pm. Thought you might want to change that with the 17th being so close. Rich
Excellent piece, thank you.
I love everything you’ve put together here. Its like reading from my zoning wish-list. One thing I think people would be suspicious of is the allowance of basement apartments. The building code changed this year making anything below 7′ neither “livable” or “habitable” and now the old game of turning 6’11” existing basements into finished space has one more hurdle to jump over. Cambridge of course includes in their FAR calc anything that is 7′ or higher, hence the 6’11” game. Are you suggesting we do away with the lot per dwelling unit calc and let people add units where they can or are you saying we should simply do away with adding basement spaces to FAR and allow people to add bedrooms, offices, etc…where they could do it safely? I never understood with basement spaces are calculated into FAR but I’d like to hear anyone explain it. Given the cost of sqft in Cambridge its truly low hanging fruit without the drama attached to building up. I think also people may be concerned about water table issues and the issues of flooding….yada yada. As a person who currently resides (illegally?) in a “hybrid environment” I can appreciate the need. Somewhere in this planning process I’d love to see a combination of practical thought (such as you’ve presented) mixed in with some of the density that others have brought forth. It doesn’t seem to be like the whole process has to be an all or nothing dilemma. Thank you for putting this info up plainly.
A fabulous piece of analysis, thank you Doug for writing this. First plan then build–this
is how we should go. More later, I had to get this down right now.
The difficulty may lie in zoning itself, and particularly its suburban versions which have been adapted for cities. In all too many cases, zoning restrictions urge uniform uses, such as residential only, while Doug’s wonderful Fresh Pond market is an example of the old fashioned, small scale mixed use. Even New York’s high rise office and high rise apartments have retail on the first floor, so that the pedestrian seeks a whole line of retail options.
Look at any older neighborhood in Cambridge and you will see the traditional mixed uses — residential, retail, business, churches, schools, municipal buildings, park. Look at the new development at Kendall or University Park or North Point or Alewife, and what we are seeing is big blob buildings all of one predominant use and with little clear activity space on the first floor.
The Alewife Triangle is classic. It used to be old-fashioned blue collar industrial, with steel companies, fabricators, the Dodge company doing major business in embalming fluid. The last forty years have seem a bulldozing and transformation of that “community” to be replaced by nothing but office and R&D and parking in the Triangle (plus the T garage.
Suddenly within the past five years there has been a trend towards housing, to fill in the vast suburban-style parking lots. But the office and housing are all in single function buildings, with dead first floors and no social or functional interrelationship. This single-use design diminished the social importance Doug talks about, but in transportation terms in means there is little value in walking anywhere, except to the T. Anything else usually requires people to drive.
Talk all you want : how difficult it will be for anyone living in the Triangle to go completely “car free”. As a minimum they will need some sort of significant Zip-Car service. Where is the school at Alewife, other than Tobin? The pressure is on to drive the kids somewhere else, by car. All because of the single use fanaticism.
What I am getting at is the entire concept of urban design over the past century has been wrong. Government housing in the 1930s was all single purpose. Arthur D. Little assembled its Acorn Park campus in 1953 as a single use operation, fully auto oriented, and in two years they were flooded out by Hurricane Diane in 1955. It was a lesson in bad planning in the flood plain, but since then we can see that it was bad planning in terms of single use buildings and resulting auto dependency.
No one should blame the traffic mess at Alewife on “through traffic” when the single-use, auto -orientation has produced such a mess of local traffic as well. Add in the diappointing architecture which ranges from drab to shabby and what we have is a total failure in functional and aesthetic urban design at Alewife. Any previous plans need to be completely rethought, and a key element is zoning that encourages or demands single use structures. We need to take a look at 1920s Cambridge and before to see how residential neighborhoods worked and also how well they have adapted to the automobile. It is modern development and architecture which is telling us : this is NOT the way to do it.
A very fine job. Yes, mixed use in Cambridge in Alewife, and off of Concord Ave.
Whatever retail space is built, let’s aim at it being adaptable because we live in rapidly changing times.
Retail in the years ahead is hard to predict. What bricks and mortar retail can survive as internet sales delivered rapidly to the home increases every year? The percentage of internet sales made from mobile devices, and/or on the job must have exploded in recently years, from what I see.
Alas, $4 lattes in paper cups seems to some of the most stable type of retail in recent decades, and the future look bright for it too. The retail we dream of could be a thing of the past.
If this was 1994, I would be advocating for book and record stores in Alewife, maybe a movie theater, a branch library. It is extremely unlikely that any 20th cen style book or record store concept would attract start up money today.
Car free and car light are not always healthy for retail. I can tell you from direct experience that there are hundreds of people in our greater community that live car free. On example is the cohort of student/grad student/post docs who buy everything they can from the internet to be delivered to their door; this includes furniture, major appliances, bikes, skis, packaged food and beverages, and even shares in locally grown produce. This group has less and less need for physical retail store, as they have less need for a car.
(There was a time when Fresh Pond Market delivered.)
I don’t agree completely with this fine piece:
“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. ”
This is a gross misrepresentation. The development had not been an automobile plant for decades. The last car off the line probably had tail-fins. You could have said that it converted former wilderness, and that would be true also; but it leads the reader to distorted impression of things.
The present development incarnation underway succeed a history of retail use, not of industry. It had long since been adapted (adaptated reuse) into a retail shopping mall with interior corridors (Assembly Sq. pre 1984?) which itself underwent a subsequent entire renovation into a strip mall style shopping mall. This previous lifetime as retail space was decades long. A movie theater in an adjacent property was developed concurrently, it has since closed. There was also adjacent restaurant and entertainment businesses.
In my lifetime in West Cambridge, what the area was called before the RE marketing term Huron Village was coined, we have benefited mightly because it was hard to add extra apartments onto dwellings. It was a family neighborhood that did not become a student/post grad district alone; it is certain that the regulatory difficulty in grafting units on to existing building contributed to keeping it a family community.
Beware of heart string pulling stories about why any particular property owner should be granted license to breach the zoning rules. We STILL have yards and gardens that have not been converted into condos and parking spaces. We have minimized the neighbor vs neighbor fights about why a large dwelling can’t be made into a dozen condos.
If you don’t like zoning, I suggest you visit Houston to see if you like it.
If too many restrictions are lifted, developers will buy properties, add the extra units, sell at a profit, and move on. Stories of adding units should be treated as issues of increasing property value; value added.
Buyer beware: if you have ideas raising the roof to add units, or converting the garage into unit, or putting Cell Phone Antenna on the roof, you owe it to yourself to investigate those rules before you buy; don’t cry “Nanny State” and NIMBY run a mock, unless you did your homework before you bought.
There are no hotels, B & Bs (legal ones), rooming houses, or dorms, in the residential part of the neighborhood. (We do have a hospice, and had some form of halfway housing) Perhaps a limited amount could work. But, too much, and the community is eroded by profit seeking.
The Boston Globe has recently done a multipart series on Boston’s worst student slum lords, some of which actually have contracts with universities. I was impressed by the large scale rip-off of students, the city, and the community. People have died in illegal fire trap apartments that were added ad hoc, and never meet any real enforcement. With the help the landlord’s lawyers, nothing changes, rules are not enforced, the grand total of fines is small, much profit accrues. This type landlord is keenly drawn to opportunities to shoehorn units into buildings where they don’t belong; also, they have a record of disgraceful upkeep.
A new type of Taxi service:
Something I have not heard/seen mentioned here and in our greater FPRA world is Taxi Stands. How many should be included? And so on. I suspect he lack of taxi discussion is because few of us take a taxi regularly. One reason for this is that taxis are expensive, and it can be difficult and/ or time consuming to get a taxi.
Out taxi system makes little rational sense as part of a transportation system.
(Does anyone car pool via taxi? I suspect it is cost prohibitive, and why is that?)
The cost of a taxi fare has little to do with the cost of operating a vehicle per mile. It has much to do with a medallion system.
Our Cambridge taxi system is a medallion system. It works well for medallion owners, who make profit by renting taxis to drivers. Medallion owners have an interest in limiting medallions, it is a private club, a monopoly system.
Consider the City created new class of taxi aimed at the market of residents, not tourists and business people going to the airport. It would not be controlled by medallions that are bought and sold. It could be limited to Cambridge only destinations, it could be limited to certain hours, it could be zero emission, the taxis could be tracked via GPS, the taxis could be called my smart phone, they could be cash free. A membership system might be used. Perhaps a week pass system.
There are services called Uber and Lyft that might serve the public better, think of it as Zip cars but as taxi cabs. Of course, taxi medallion owners are against it. I have not used these new kids of the block yet. I believe they deserve rational consideration, and not political reaction.
Doug might want to check out section 4.22 of the Cambridge Zoning ordinance – “Accessory Apartments”. Right now it’s limited to Residence A districts, but it could be expanded to other districts by a petition to the city council. I don’t believe it’s been used much in the 20 or so years it’s been on the books.
Thanks so much for joining the conversation here. You are entirely correct that the issue of accessory housing is covered under Section 4.22 of the Zoning Ordinance, and that it has not been used much over the past twenty years. To that point, I did some further analysis of existing accessory apartments (or what the Assessor’s office refers to as “auxiliary apartments”) and out of 25,331 properties in the City, only 143 properties are currently classified as “Single Family with Auxiliary Apartment.” So you are spot on that Article 4.22, created to encourage accessory housing, has not generated much interest to date.
So I next reviewed the conditions that must be met to qualify for an accessory apartment. The list of requirements is long to say the least. A property must be a single family, detached dwelling. It must be in a Residence A zoning district. It must be built prior to 1940. It must have a lot bigger than 3000 square feet, and a house bigger than 3500 square feet. And it must have a current Floor Area Ratio of less than 0.50. When taken together, all of these requirements serve to extremely restrict the number of homes that qualify to add an accessory apartment. In fact, only 250 more houses in the entire City are currently eligible to add accessory housing. The average assessed value of these 250 homes is just over $3 million. That’s not accessory housing, it’s servant housing!
So what can we do? I think you are right to suggest that we consider expanding the number of eligible properties if we are to see a real uptick in new accessory housing applications. The house size restrictions alone (homes must be greater than 3500 square feet to add an accessory apartment) eliminate almost half of all the non-condo, residential properties in Cambridge. And as you mentioned in your comments, expanding the Article to also include properties in Residence B or C zones, provided they meet all the other requirements, would also help immensely.
Lastly, I would also note that accessory buildings (garages, garden apartments, etc.), which Portland has had such great success promoting for housing, are completely forbidden for residential uses here in Cambridge. Not to suggest that every garage in the City should be immediately converted into housing, but this is yet another area to be thoughtfully considered if we are to effectively confront our pressing need for additional reasonably priced, well located housing.
Regardless, thanks again to Hugh for contributing to the conversation here. There is always much to do, but a willingness to engage in just this kind of open dialogue makes for a great start to what will surely be a thoughtful and wide ranging master planning process.
It was good of Doug to raise the issue of Assembly Square in Somerville (now called “Assembly Row”). The mall area indeed was a Ford assembly plant from the 1920s to 1958, when the last cars were produced. The first cars were Model T Fords and then Mercuries in the early 1950s, ending up with 1958 Edsels — which had no fins. I bought my 1959 Edsel second-hand out of the mall storage area in 1982, at the same time there was a massive corruption investigation by the FBI — exposing and forcing out most of the politicians in the City for taking payoffs.
First National Stores bought the place in the 1960s and converted it into a storage building to supply their numerous local stores. By the late 1970s First National vacated the space, and there was little interest in new uses. East Bay Development came in and decided to make the building into a shopping mall, combined with a theater complex. The new owner was a car nut and thus called the site “Assembly Square” in recognition of the history of car assembly. The Assembly identification continues to this day.
The new construction surrounding the mall grew out of a failed effort to locate an IKEA store adjacent to the Mystic River. The current design includes tightly spaced different uses, but is still marked by a huge stand-alone parking garage which deadens one corner of the site. The scale is excessive, and the retail may be highly dependent on car traffic. It appears that the provisions for cars in the new construction comes closer to dumb growth than smart growth.
Hm. I too idealize the neighborhood now known as “Huron Village”. I went to school at Fayerweather from 1974 to 1980, and when I was in third grade my class wrote a book about the neighborhood. My chapter was about Huron Drug, back when it was owned and operated by, in his words, “an amateur thespian of great unknown.” I got pizza and an earful from Emma, I got my afterschool candy at the Huron Spa, and subs at what I think was called the Big T (?). The neighborhood was a great place, and to some extent still is.
Nevertheless, I’m not sure we should let our nostalgia lead us to try to turn back time. To have a functioning little neighborhood center, you need more people. A lot more people used to live in Huron village then than do now. I live a half mile or so away, in North Cambridge, but my two-family house is representative. My wife I bought it over a decade ago from a family that had owned it for 90 years. In the seventies my house held 11 or twelve people. Now it holds seven. When my kids leave it will hold four. My guess is that the same is true of a lot of houses in Huron Village.
In any case, while I agree that public meeting spaces are important, that walkability is important, that mixed-use is important, I disagree that the current development around Alewife is undesirable. Of course Huron Market is more appealing in many ways than TJ’s or Whole Foods, but many of the young people who move into the new buildings will shop at those stores anyway, and many will not drive there. I shop at those stores myself pretty often, and most of the time I ride my bike. I sometimes get a coffee at the Starbucks out there, and it’s surprisingly vibrant. Danehy park is nearby. Fresh Pond is nearby. Alewife is nearby. The Minuteman Bikeway is nearby. If we can’t put a couple thousand more people here, then where CAN we put them? If this isn’t mixed-use, Transit-oriented Development, then what is?
In other words, it looks to me like this development is a good thing overall, and I’m happy that we’re not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.