Large development in East Arlington near Alewife draws public opposition, fans fears of flooding

May 21 meeting (photo by Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands)

May 21 meeting (photo by Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands)

Some 300 members of the public, including many from Cambridge and Belmont, attended a “Community Presentation and Feedback” session held on May 21 by Oaktree Development regarding their proposal to develop a site in east Arlington bordering Rte. 2 owned by the Mugar family (across Rte. 2 from the “Belmont Uplands”). Most of us are familiar with the wetlands of tall phragmites reeds to our right as we drive west on Rte. 2. For some 50 years the owners have been looking to develop the property, initially for a Star Market, and then large buildings (of decreasing size over time). The current proposal is 219 units on the 17.7 acre site, of which 10.5 acres would be donated to the town for conservation. The town of Arlington has been trying to buy the entire property for conservation as well, but the owners have not been interested. After having their last development proposal turned down by the town, the owner is now using the 40B mechanism, which allows proposals that include affordable housing to avoid some aspects of local regulation. Oaktree’s Sr. V-P Gwen Noyes noted that while 40B does not require any dialogue with the community, they would like one nonetheless. The owner is determined to build on the site. The meeting was preceded by a rally objecting to the development.

The Mugar parcel is outlined in orange.

The Mugar parcel is outlined in orange.

Oaktree Development, a locally-owned Cambridge firm, has a long track record of innovative energy-efficient, transit-oriented and mixed-use developments, including 30 Cambridgepark Drive next to the Alewife T station, which is entirely within the 100-year flood zone (citizen litigation over flood storage resulted in a cash settlement in favor of those challenging the development, which was built in 2002). Gwen noted that she and her husband (Art Klipfel, an Oaktree co-founder) live in a co-housing development in Cambridge that they built 17 years ago. She also serves on the board of the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust..

The key messages from the developer were:

  1. The current site and neighborhood have frequent flooding and high groundwater (lots of basement sump pumps), but this development will reduce the flooding by (a) eliminating an earthen berm that is retaining water in the area, and (b) cleaning out a culvert under Rte. 2 that is 2/3rds filled with silt. These two improvements will allow the site to drain more quickly into Little River in Cambridge.
  2. According to their land survey, there are 5.5 acres above the 100-year floodplain, which is where most of the construction would take place. They would mitigate any impacts from construction in the floodplain, as required by state law. They aim to retain most of the larger trees. The site is overrun with a tangle of invasive plants and trash and frequented by vagrants. This would be replaced by a new wetland with native species. About 98% of the wetlands will be deeded to the town.
  3. They are considering green roofs or roofs that can store stormwater (approx. 7 inches). The project would conform to the Dark Skies Initiative with downward-facing lights.
  4. The development, called “Thorndike Place,” would be 6 duplex town houses on Dorothy Road, with two 4-story apartment buildings behind them in natural earth colors. Parking would be partially sunk under the two large podium-style buildings, with a ratio of 1.4 parking spaces per unit, plus a small parking lot. The units would be small, 700-1,000 sf, mainly 1 bedroom (104 units), with 23 3-bedroom units. Since they are small units, they are likely to have no children living there and no impact on schools.
  5. Traffic has been studied in detail; they concluded that 1/3rd of the neighborhood bikes, walks or uses public transit to get to work. It is 2/3 mile to Alewife T and is right off the Minuteman Bikepath. Their traffic consultant said that 70% of vehicle trips will be to Rte. 2 and that legally the property could have direct access to Rte. 2, rather than residents relying exclusively on the neighborhood streets. DOT may grant direct access to the off-ramp, but no new off-ramp. The current backups and delays at Lake Street were acknowledged. The consultant concluded, however, that the estimated additional 88 morning and 90 evening rush hour trips (approx. 1 car/minute) would not have a significant impact.

The public’s concerns and comments:

Many of Oaktree’s claims were countered by the public. State Rep. Dave Rogers spoke, saying that all the state delegation representing Arlington was opposed to the project. He noted that rather than the 4.5 acres not in the floodplain map showed by the developer, the FEMA maps show all but 1.5 acres in the floodplain. With climate change and resulting increases in precipitation intensity there will be even less land that is not in the floodplain in the future. Traffic delay estimates are understated, he noted. He said the delegation would do anything in their power to prevent this development from happening. A written statement from State Senator Ken Donnelly had been submitted with the same sentiments.

Arlington Soccer Club was opposed due to the possible increases in flooding resulting from the project threatening the use of adjacent Thorndike Field, which is essential to their program. A Sustainable Arlington representative reiterated that with storm intensity increasing due to climate change flooding will increase, which is indeed already happening.

There was no Q&A. Other comments included:

  1. If the severe neighborhood flooding were that easy to solve, it would have been by now. The area has a very high groundwater table and Alewife Brook backs up into the area. Rte. 2 itself gets flooded. Despite the sewer separation work in Cambridge, there will still be combined sewer overflows during storms (CSOs) and sewer backups into the neighborhood.
  2. Adding even one car/minute to small neighborhood streets is a large impact, not insignificant at all. It would endanger the many children using those streets (and the nearby public school). The proposed exit off the Rte. 2 ramp will likely become a cut-through for other traffic, further impacting neighborhood streets. Traffic congestion in/out of the area is already ghastly. One person quested the 1/3 non-car commuter figure used to calculate traffic impacts, which she says is far lower on her street.
  3. Using 40B to force through a development that has failed to get town approval in the past cannot be presented in a good light. It is irresponsible development to put “affordable” housing in a floodplain. Floodplain development seems contrary to Oaktree’s stated goals of promoting sustainable development. Environmentally responsible design must consider the qualities of the land and the location.

Editorial comments: This account is based on notes taken at the meeting, so any errors are mine (and my ears). Please let me know. I left before the public comments ended, so I missed quite a few. A couple of points stand out from my “Alewife” perspective.

  1. It is true that the wetlands on the Mugar site are quite degraded, dominated by phragmites and other invasive plants. That situation, however, is due to the owner not maintaining it. The site needs some TLC.
  2. The dispute over the actual 100-year floodplain delineation needs to be resolved. However, no matter where the line lies, it was the 100-year flood based on historical precipitation, not current or future. Future flooding is likely to be significantly worse. What happens to the stranded people and their 280 cars (some belonging to people with limited resources) parked under the buildings then?
  3. While the opportunity to drain the floodwaters more quickly under Rte. 2 into Little River was offered as an attractive aspect of the project, that would not be attractive to Cambridge’s Alewife area downstream. And when the entire area is flooded, those Rte. 2 culverts are underwater and thus irrelevant.

And let’s be clear, this whole site is lowlands . . . there are no “uplands”.

Further resources: Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands on Facebook; Your Arlington has a detailed report of the meeting: www.yourarlington.com/search/news-archive/32-development/7627-mugar-051815.html; Belmont Citizens Forum Newsletter (May/June 2015, p. 12) www.belmontcitizensforum.org/.

Written by Alison Field-Juma, FPRA Water Subcommittee

Neighbors rallied before the meeting (photo by Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands)

Neighbors rallied before the meeting (photo by Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands)

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2 thoughts on “Large development in East Arlington near Alewife draws public opposition, fans fears of flooding

  1. In reality though, 219 units seems to be a drop in the bucket in comparison to what already exists and to all the new developments coming up in the immediate area. These developments have been discussed at great length on this blog. There are a thousand or more units on a one-way-in, one-way-out street and hundreds on the (now unfortunately ironic) tree themed street. The fact that the Mugar parcel abuts conventional family residences perhaps has a bearing on the substantial opposition from locals in comparison to the other garangutan development projects. I wish the residents luck in their efforts to downscale this project. However, given the recent loss of irreplaceable wildlife habitat in a floodplain to 40B residential projects, I do not see much reason to be hopeful. Perhaps the residents can put the 10 acre lot that would be deeded to the city if this construction is approved to good use.

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