On Monday The Boston Globe ran a story on the Alewife development “boom” that highlighted the success of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance in lobbying for more holistic and inclusive growth planning. The article sparked a robust online discussion, attracting over 110 comments and driving traffic (the good kind!) to the Globe’s website. Given the space constraints of a daily newspaper, this week’s 993-word story could only scratch the surface of a complex set of transit, infrastructure, environmental, and housing policy challenges. Globe editors, please take note: Development in Cambridge is clearly a topic of great interest to your readers, and the story merits continued and more in-depth coverage in 2015.
In the meantime, I’d like to like to use the luxury of the Internet’s boundless space to expand upon some of the thorny issues the article raised:
Alewife traffic was bad before the boom. It’s not entirely fair to scapegoat the new residential development for the perennially bad traffic congestion through the Route 2/Route16/Fresh Pond Parkway corridor. Tempting as it is to blame large new developments like “Vox on 2” for the daily gridlock on their front doorstep, this pernicious congestion is the legacy of decades of poor decision-making and buck-passing at the state and local level, coupled with underinvestment in public transit to support the creation of thousands of new jobs in Kendall Square and Boston’s Innovation District. Transit-oriented development is a sham without better transit and walkable live-work-play neighborhoods, and so far Alewife development has spawned neither. If we want these new residents to lead car-free or car-lite lives then we have to create communities that make that choice easy and appealing.
As commenters pointed out, the Red Line was originally intended to extend to Route 128 at Lexington, and both the MBTA garage at Alewife and Red Line reached capacity before the current boom. A new commuter rail stop at Alewife could relieve some of the pressure, as could dedicated express bus lanes, the additional of circumferential bus lines, and more private bus service. (In fact, the Alewife article’s author, Stefanie Friedhoff, recently reported on Biogen Idec’s five coach bus lines for employees commuting to Kendall Square from points north, south and west; other large employers across the region should follow suit.) Another commenter noted that state police could help by directing traffic through chokepoints during peak commuting hours. Other readers suggested improving bike paths and pedestrian connections throughout the area to make it safer and more appealing for commuters and residents to forego driving. For example, Cambridge planners have been talking for decades about building a bike/pedestrian crossing over or under the commuter rail tracks near Alewife – it’s high time to make this a reality. (Soon, a medical marijuana dispensary will be located on the other side of the tracks from Alewife; a new footbridge would shorten by half the pedestrian route between the dispensary and the T.)
But, please, let’s not revive the idea of an Inner Belt highway cutting across North Cambridge and Cambridgeport. Building a highway that destroys established neighborhoods is not the way to mitigate the negative impact of traffic on a community.
Housing prices are not simply a function of supply and demand. Here’s a penetrating glimpse into the obvious: If you want housing to be affordable, you have to build affordable housing. Offsetting thousands of new luxury units with a relatively small number of low-income inclusionary units (in Cambridge it works out to 11.5% net) will not magically reduce rents across the board. Land costs are too high, and smart developers don’t willingly invest hundreds of millions of dollars on the assumption that future prices will decline. Driven by the ROI demands of global equity investors, the market cannot be counted on to supply the balance of housing needed to maintain the city’s socio-economic diversity. The current development boom offers nothing for middle-income residents or families who need more than two bedrooms. The missing rungs on the housing ladder create conditions that drive up prices; growing families stay in units they’ve outgrown and people continue renting as home ownership grows further and further out of reach.
The article did not mention the obligation of the universities to provide housing for more of their students, especially graduate students and post-docs who are essential to stoking the engine of the innovation economy but compete with others in the workforce for moderately priced housing.
Cambridge is currently reviewing its inclusionary and incentive zoning policies, and but even with the hoped-for increases in both, the widening affordability gap will be hard to close through private development alone. Currently, inclusionary zoning produces a net of just 11.5% of units for low-income residents. This week The Globe reported that average rents in the Boston area rose twice as fast as incomes in 2014; without income growth and more progressive housing policies, housing in dense, desirable cities like Cambridge will continue to be unaffordable for most wage earners.
Left unmentioned in the article: the Alewife area is vulnerable to flooding. The environmental impact of increased development on the Alewife floodplain is the elephant in the room. Environmental groups have long questioned whether adequate measures are being taken to protect both emerging and established neighborhoods from flooding with sea levels and precipitation rising. The Alewife area is only 5 feet above sea level and would flood if the Mystic River dam were overtopped in a storm surge. The pristine 7-acre “Silver Maple Forest” on the Belmont-Cambridge border (just off Route 2 and adjacent to the Alewife Reservation wetlands) was clear-cut last fall to make way for a 298-unit housing complex (with 500 parking spaces!). The loss of this unique urban wild after years of litigation and protests by hundreds of residents in Belmont, Cambridge and Arlington may make the adjacent Alewife area even more vulnerable to flooding. The city is expected to release its long-awaited Climate Change Vulnerability study in early 2015, and future zoning and stormwater regulations for the area may need to provide for greater resiliency.
The entire planning culture must change. Globe readers unschooled in Cambridge’s realpolitik might assume that the Alewife development story is on its way to a fairy tale ending: some residents complained, the city’s planners listened, and we all lived happily ever after. Yes, residents did complain that large projects were being rubber stamped — and also that several of the members had been serving with expired terms and that the board’s procedures stacked the deck against constructive resident/community engagement early in the planning process. Residents’ calls for comprehensive reforms prompted a months-long review not only of the board’s composition but of its policies and procedures as well. That review is still underway. Some of the proposed changes will be discussed at hearings with the City Council in early January. We sincerely hope the changes will reflect a genuine change in the planning culture and will not be simply window dressing. Similarly, calls for a citywide master plan amped up during the 2013 Council election, but the master planning itself has not yet begun and is expected to take at least two years. Then, presumably some areas of the city would need to be rezoned, which would open up another long political process. In the meantime piecemeal development is likely to continue unchecked.
Those of you on the FPRA’s listserv know that our group has been collaborating with resident-activists across the city to raise greater awareness about planning decisions and to prod the city to do more than “appease” residents by organizing community conversations about what residents value in Cambridge. Certainly, there remains much to appreciate about our city and our neighborhood. But piecemeal planning on the scale we are seeing around Alewife erodes everyone’s quality of life and threatens the floodplain environment without remedying the acute problems of housing affordability and traffic congestion. We must do better going forward.
How you can get involved: If you would like to join the FPRA listserv, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a Facebook page and a Twitter profile (@FreshPondRA). You do not need to live in the immediate neighborhood to “join” — development around Alewife impacts the entire city, even Belmont and Arlington.