Open space has always been at a premium in Cambridge’s dense urban environment, never more so than in today’s overheated real estate market. Citizen-led petitions to save two imperiled open spaces have resulted in policy orders on the City Council’s July 28th agenda, which we strongly endorse.
Both the Silver Maple Forest and the Whittemore Avenue Community Garden are in the Alewife floodplain and both are off the well-beaten path, but resident activists have been working overtime to raise awareness of their value to the broader community.
The 15.6 acre Silver Maple Forest is a rare corner of the urban wild whose principle value lies in its natural ability to absorb and store storm water, thereby protecting neighboring residential and commercial areas from flooding; few people would visit the Forest but all of us would benefit from its conservation, especially as climate change makes our area more flood-prone. The Forest, which lies along Acorn Park Drive off Route 2, straddles Cambridge, Belmont and Arlington, so its preservation poses the additional political challenge of regional coordination. Policy Order #4, put forward by Councillor Dennis Carlone, affirms Cambridge’s commitment to providing financial resources to purchase the Forest from an out-of-state developer (O’Neill Properties). It also seeks to prevent the developer, which seeks to construct a 299-unit housing development on the land, from acquiring any Cambridge water or sewer connections.
The Whittemore Avenue Community Garden in North Cambridge, by contrast, would serve to bring people together in a part of town where public gathering spaces are extremely limited. The Garden, once the largest in the city’s community garden program, served that purpose for over 30 years until it became a pawn in Fawcett Oil’s plan to redevelop its site at the end of Whittemore Avenue. The city’s 2011 deal to purchase the garden from Fawcett broke down after a soil test revealed arsenic and triggered a hazardous waste clean up. Now cleaned but covered with sand, the garden resembles a desert, without even so much as a crop of weeds to remind neighbors of its salad days, and Fawcett’s owners have resisted residents’ pleas to re-open negotiations with the City. With its community garden program oversubscribed (there is at least a two-year wait for a plot in one of the city’s 13 gardens), the City has ample incentive to restore the historic Whittemore Garden. Policy Order #2 from Councilor Carlone raises the possibility of using eminent domain if Fawcett continues to stonewall efforts to strike a deal.
Open space, whether left wild or intensely cultivated, is an asset the City must make every effort to preserve, as opportunities for creating new open spaces are certain to be scarce in the future. We must note that protecting natural resources and open spaces are two of the nine elements of the citywide master plan every city is required to produce under Chapter 41 Section 81-D of state law. Cambridge does not have a citywide plan, having relied on a piecemeal planning (and permitting) process that has repeatedly let us down. Last spring the Council initiated the process of developing a new master plan (now renamed a “citywide plan” out of respect for the formerly oppressed), and we strongly urge all Councillors to press forward with the process when they reconvene this fall. The wording of planning consultant’s preliminary report (see the second paragraph of the report’s introduction) injects a disquieting note of doubt that we hope is not an indication the City has lost sight of the urgent need to plan comprehensively.