As reported today in the Cambridge Chronicle, the Planning Board approved the McKinnon Company’s 254-unit residential development at 88 CambridgePark Drive last night — pending the resolution of one sticking point before the final decision is recorded (no later than November 21).
Still at issue are 16 parking spaces in the 668-space garage that the city’s Traffic & Parking Department insists should be made available for daytime use by residents rather than belonging to the pool of shared spaces available to office workers at one of the neighboring commercial buildings. At the 11th hour and literally after 11 pm, it looked as if the whole deal might fall apart over a mere 16 parking spaces. Ironic, when you consider that this project truly is transit-centered development, and that this developer has staked a lot on traffic demand measures, from a new Hubway station and 6 Zip Car spaces to steeply discounted T passes for residents for 12 months and the creation of the Alewife Traffic Management Association. The future addition of a bike bridge over the railroad tracks and/or a commuter rail station will make this location even more transit-centered in the future. Developer Rich McKinnon is confident that within three years the resident parking ratio will drop to 0.60 from the permitted 0.75, which is already the lowest ratio in the Triangle district. “What’s the point of all this traffic demand management if not to discourage cars?” Mr. McKinnon asked.
The shared parking arrangement and the developer’s contractual obligations to the owners of neighboring office buildings is too complex to explain succinctly, but one Planning Board member referred to the small number of disputed spaces as a “rounding error.” If you are interested in the parking math, refer to Exhibit A of the most recent traffic impact memo.
More important than where to put cars is how to create more housing for families, especially low-income families. The lion’s share of the hundreds of market-rate units being created in the Alewife area are studios and one bedrooms. This week’s City Council roundtable discussion with the Affordable Housing Trust highlighted the acute need for more three-bedroom units; the wait for a one-bedroom unit is down to a few months for current Cambridge residents, and even two-bedroom units are becoming more readily available to priority applicants (Cambridge residents, families with children under 6, and those in need of emergency shelter). However, few people even bother to apply for three-bedroom units because the likelihood of securing one is so low. Under the terms of the inclusionary zoning program, the allocation of affordable units mirrors that of the market rate units project by project. Out of the 254 total units, only 10 (4%) were planned as three bedrooms, so out of 29 total affordable units, only 1 would be required to be a three-bedroom unit. We asked the developer to change the unit mix to offer more large units, and we are very pleased that he agreed to place 6 three-bedroom units in the inclusionary program.
During the Affordable Housing roundtable Councillor Tim Toomey griped that the one-third reduction in the total units from the originally proposed 378 to the eventual 254 was evidence that residents across town from his East Cambridge stronghold are blocking affordable housing. “Certain residents alliances are putting certain parts of town off limits for affordable housing,” he complained. The Councillor said he intends to put forward a measure to change the zoning ordinance to incent the creation of affordable housing in all areas of the city.
Good, because at present the inclusionary percentage of 15% (which by some fuzzy base-to-bonus math falls to 11% of the final unit count) is not going to amount to more than a drop in the bucket in these boom times. There are now two nexus studies underway to consider whether to increase both the inclusionary percentage and the incentive zoning fees. As many have said, most recently Councillor Marc McGovern during the roundtable, “We can’t build our way out of an affordable housing crisis.” He’s right. Developers aren’t going to solve the housing crisis in Cambridge, or San Francisco or any other desirable urban center.
To Councillor Toomey and others quick to write off resident activists as NIMBYists, I would say that our group’s advocacy over the past six months shows that it is quite possible for residents and developers to engage in a constructive public review process. In fact, we are working on a petition to require a similar community engagement process for all large projects. True, the final project offers fewer housing units than what was originally proposed back in May, but the Planning Board agreed that it’s a more appropriately scaled design for the long narrow site. The new design offers almost 10 times more ground floor retail space, well-landscaped public areas with seating and a tot lot to enliven the new street front and create a sense of place. Overall, the result is a significant improvement over what it might have been had we stayed on the sidelines, or had the developer refused to engage with residents.
Now, the question is: Can we learn from decades of planning mistakes in the Triangle and get it right in the Quad? Our group is eager to kick-start an urban planning charrette that could help the city determine a new vision for the Quad’s future redevelopment. Sure, we need more housing of all kinds, but we also need lots of other things along with the new housing if we want this emerging neighborhood to be worthy of its Cambridge zip code. Let’s get cracking before more mistakes are made and more time is lost.