In Case You Missed It: Planning Debate Heats Up

Large crowd at last week's Ordinance Committee hearing on the Carlone Amendment

Large crowd at last week’s Ordinance Committee hearing on the Carlone Amendment

ICYMI there’s been a lot of going on this summer, as city officials of all stripes scramble to respond to the growing public perception that the planning and permitting process in Cambridge is broken. This post will catch you up on the key issues.

Carlone Amendment: A Timely Response to Our Immediate Concerns*

Councillor Carlone’s zoning petition to temporarily give the Council the final say over granting one category of special permit (Sec. 19.20 large project review, which relates to traffic impact and urban design guidelines) came before the Ordinance Committee last week, and citizen supporters outnumbered opponents (big developers and real estate interests) by about 3 to 1. On Tuesday, August 5 at 7 pm, the Carlone petition will come before the Planning Board itself. This should prompt an interesting discussion, to say the least.

The Carlone amendment is the best proposal on the table to address our immediate concerns. It is not a Trojan horse for a development moratorium. It’s a stopgap measure that is urgently needed while, collectively, we develop a master plan and repair a planning and special permitting process that is widely recognized to be “broken.” It adds another layer of review for large developments that have far-reaching impacts.

Important Note: If the Council passes the Carlone amendment, then any proposal requiring a large project review special permit that is currently before the Planning Board would need to be heard by the Council. For example, if 75 New Street was permitted at its next hearing in September, and the Council subsequently passed the amendment before the petition expires at the end of October, then the New Street proposal would have to go before the Council for another layer of review. The petition is a safety net that increases accountability to voters.

*Immediate Concerns: A Refresher Follows. Please Read on:

I. Planning Board: In Dire Need of Repair

The planning void of operating without a citywide plan (see Immediate Concern III. below) aggravates the problems of operating with a Planning Board that itself does no planning and views its role as principally administrative. The Board instead relies on project review memos prepared by CDD staff, which offer gentle critiques of development proposals that for the most part skim over the larger urban design and context issues. Five of the members’ terms expired several months ago (including that of the Chair, who has served since 1988), and the Board appears frustrated with, even resentful of, the increasing volume of public comment demanding that they take a bigger picture view in reviewing large projects with far-reaching impacts.

The City Manager, who appoints the volunteer Board, put out a request for applications to the Board (due August 1), but we don’t know which or how many members will be replaced (there is one vacancy in addition to the five expired terms). The Manager has also promised training for members to improve their communication, but fundamentally the problem cannot be solved through changes to personnel and communication style – the Manger must also empower the Board to exercise the discretion it has under Massachusetts case law. They can, and must, do more than tick off a checklist of criteria.

Responding to the public outcry over the state of the Planning Board, the Council just approved a policy order to create an advisory committee of community members to review the Planning Board’s procedures and to recommend improvements to the process. An advisory committee could complement the master planning process but, as we all know, forming a study committee is a great way to kick a problem down the road. It would take months for any committee to do this work, and there’s no guarantee its recommendations will be implemented. What happens to the development projects under Board review in the meantime?

II. Area Development Projects: More Hearings Ahead, Put that Rubber Stamp Away!

There are currently two large projects in our area that are crying out for the big picture view that, time and again, our Planning Board has declined to take, despite the clear authority it has to do so under Mass. case law. Their “obligation” to grant special permits is a fiction of their own creating, one they have used to justify never denying any large project review special permit that has come before them.

88 Cambridge Park Drive (formerly known as 180R) will have its second hearing at the Planning Board on Tuesday, August 19 at 7pm. In response to the concerns the FPRA and the Board expressed about the building’s scale, the developer intends to radically reduce the number of units (from 378 to 258) and parking spaces (revised net gain of 95 versus 220 originally). We have not yet seen the new design, so we cannot comment on whether a smaller building (6 stories rather than 9-10) better meets the urban design guidelines for the area, and there are still outstanding questions about the traffic and environmental impact. We expect the new plans to be available for public review and comment the week of August 11.

75 New Street will have its fourth Planning Board hearing on Tuesday, September 16 at 7pm. At the most recent hearing (on July 22), the Board appeared poised to approve the project, pending answers to a few unresolved questions about details. They did not get a chance to address the FPRA’s questions about the dangerous levels of toxins found in the soil at the site. We expect the environmental issue to be discussed at the September hearing. A redesign of New Street’s sidewalks and roadway has been promised to improve access to the T, but the details and timing remain to be worked out in a public process this fall.

III. Citywide Master Plan: Keep the Pressure On, We Need a Real Plan

The series of “Cambridge Conversations” facilitated by urban planning consultant Kathryn Madden in concert with CDD staff yielded a 15-page report at the end of July. The “preliminary summary of process and input” collects snippets of feedback and ideas from residents responding to three broad questions:

  • What’s special about Cambridge?
  • What could be working better?
  • What should the city’s priorities be?

The consultant acknowledges that the 18 community meetings and drop-in sessions held over six weeks were unable to reach some segments of our diverse community, so outreach will continue into the fall. The report makes no attempt at analysis and does not document the frequency of comments expressed on each topic. So it’s hard to see how this compendium of soundbites will help frame the scope for a Request for Proposal from an outside team of planning consultants to undertake a two- to three-year citywide planning process – if the Council votes to recommend this course of action. The report’s conditional language re-opens the question of whether the process will move forward.

We must keep the pressure on the Council to reaffirm its commitment to going forward with a citywide planning process. They left some wiggle room in the language of last spring’s compromise policy order – we cannot let them off the hook.

Flooding on Fawcett St after last week's deluge

Flooding in front of the new building on Fawcett St after last week’s deluge

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