FPRA Comments on Envision’s Scenarios for Alewife

The FPRA submitted comments to the City’s consultant, Tim Love of Utile, on his presentation to the Alewife Working Group on Jan. 26, 2017. At least six FPRA members attended this meeting.This was Utile’s sixth presentation to the Working Group formed under the Citywide planning process called Envision. The Alewife area is the first part of the plan to be developed, both because development is already so rapid in our area, and to be a pilot for the rest of Cambridge. These meetings are open to the public and we encourage you to go to the next one: March 9, 6-8 pm (Water Dept. Lunchroom, 250 Fresh Pond Parkway–watch for venue change).

Utile’s next step is to present this to the public (that’s you!) at an Alewife Public Workshop on Weds. February 8, 6-8 pm at the Tobin School Cafeteria, 197 Vassal Lane.

We hope and expect that their presentation will reflect and respond to our comments below (submitted 2/1/17). We hope that you will read and think about them prior to the meeting. The presentation we saw is available here.

“These comments are the result of considerable concern and dismay at the contents of the presentation. The length of the presentation [72 slides] afforded the members of the Working Group, and particularly the other members of the public, very little time to fully discuss or react to the presentation. The fact that the room was so full that some people had to stand for the two hours attests to the interest in this process.

The FPRA grew rapidly in response to the widespread discontent of people in the Fresh Pond and Alewife neighborhoods to the seemingly thoughtless and rapid development taking place throughout Alewife that did not reflect the Concord-Alewife Plan developed in 2004-5. As a result of the energy expressed by hundreds of our neighbors and other neighborhoods, City officials realized a City-wide plan for future development was needed, and in the case of Alewife urgently enough to prioritize it. 

Most of us have lived in this area for decades, and many of us participated actively in the process resulting in the 2005 Concord-Alewife Plan which was the framework for major zoning changes. These changes resulted in a rapid increase in land value, high volume of land sales and changes in ownership, extremely rapid development of major residential complexes, increases in traffic, and few improvements to the relevant mobility or other public infrastructure in the Alewife area. We do not want to see a repeat of this experience; in too many ways the plan scenarios were not responsive to the concerns that have been expressed to the City by the Alewife neighborhood.

We appreciate Utile’s considerable work to present ideas in a useful way. We recognize that the presentation’s intent was to lay out some conceptual scenarios specifically for the area known as the quadrangle, and that these will be refined in the context of the realities of the whole Alewife area in subsequent work and presentations. We hope that our comments will clearly convey where we see positive ideas and, conversely, where changes in approach are needed. Our specific comments are as follows:

  1. Assumptions

Since all four scenarios equaled or exceeded the FAR of the buildout under current zoning, it appears that the City intends to see development at Alewife exceed the currently permitted density.  The justification provided for this was that an increased density is needed to provide enough tax income to the city to fully cover the cost of building the necessary pedestrian/bike bridge over the railroad tracks. This begs the question: When did our current buildout become a “baseline”? We find these assumptions unacceptable:

(1) Significantly more density at Alewife is beneficial (over the current buildout, which itself was a very sizable density increase agreed to via the zoning changes in the 2005 Plan).

(2) Important infrastructure will only be built if it comes at minimal cost to the City. If we want infrastructure like the bridge, open space or connecting roads, the cost must be borne by the community living in and around Alewife in terms of actual tax revenue and externalities (increased traffic and air pollution, decreased quality of life and property values). Infrastructure will be provided after all development is committed or completed, although this will severely restrict any opportunities to do so.

Alternatively, we support these assumptions:

(1) “Alewife should be a sustainable, resilient, mixed-use district with convenient and safe connections within the neighborhood and to the rest of the city along with amenities that support interaction and social ties among its residents.” (Slide 4, Utile Presentation, “Alewife Vision”)

(2) The City should invest in the necessary infrastructure prior to development in order to steer development in the right direction and secure valuable public amenities. There are many infrastructure projects that the City does without having new tax income in hand.

  1. What is the City’s budget projection (costs and revenues) for the build out and other scenarios?

If the driving justification for the development of Alewife is economic (tax base), we cannot adequately weight the cost and benefits of any scenarios without knowing (roughly) the balance between new tax revenues and the needed investment in public amenities and infrastructure, including schools, roads, bridges, land and easement purchases, etc. Our conservative estimate of property tax revenue currently generated by new construction permitted under the Concord-Alewife Plan zoning is at least $8 million per year. With additional projects already in the development pipeline, this number will soon rise to roughly $11 million per year. This revenue stream is enough to support a sizeable bond issue which could in turn fund long-promised infrastructure improvements now, without needing to wait for any further new development. Tax increment financing should be one of the options evaluated and discussed.

  1. Density

The buildout density of the quadrangle is based on the zoning changes approved through the 2005 Alewife Planning process. Although there were obvious flaws with the implementation of that plan, there was general consensus that increasing density in Alewife made sense—up to a point.

Central Square was provided as the point of comparison. At no time in the planning process to date have we ever heard that a density equivalent to Central Square was desirable or even conceivable. Central Square has a fully developed street grid with many ways in and out of the density, it has a Red Line station and many bus lies in its center. Conversely, the Alewife quadrangle has no effective street grid and barriers on all four sides (Fresh Pond, FP Parkway, railroad tracks, the Highlands neighborhood). The “Mixed-use Commercial” scenario with high rise overlay is 2.64 FAR, even exceeding Central Square’s FAR of 2.2, and double the current buildout FAR of 1.3. The fundamental question of whether we should be putting more development in an area prone to flooding must be discussed. At what cost to residents, businesses and the City will future flooding come? The City has stated its commitment to building a sustainable and resilient community—that also includes not building in areas where it is unwise. We ask that you present:

(1) At least one additional scenario for the quadrangle that is significant down-zoning, with FAR between the current 0.6 and buildout of 1.3.

  1. No value attached to public open/green space

The “Environment” metrics used to describe the four scenarios were water use, flooding resilience, energy use, and solid waste/contaminant remediation. These are important metrics. But there was no mention of green space or open space that is needed to: make a pleasant public (and private) space, take pressure of Fresh Pond Reservation by providing a neighborhood park/square, reduce the heat island effect through green space and trees, support the biodiversity of the area (particularly songbirds and raptors), provide adequate space for green infrastructure to filter polluted stormwater, and enhance community life and connections which build resilience. The scenarios should:

(1) Add significant green space, differentiating between public and private space.  The “network of green infrastructure” idea is good—but the amount was insignificant.

(2) Show the % change in green space with each scenario. What is the quality of that greenspace (ecological richness)?

(3) Provide a metric for street tree cover, also showing % change with each scenario.

  1. The scenarios ignored changes in trip generation/traffic

There was no analysis of how the scenarios would affect car or truck traffic within the quadrangle (and particularly getting into and out of the quadrangle, or other traffic congestion in the Alewife area. Since traffic is generally cited as the primary concern by participants in virtually every meeting, this cannot be ignored.  The scenarios should:

(1) Show the % change in traffic congestion with each scenario. The A-F system could be used in conjunction with this but only if F-1, F-2, or some other designation is used to show worsening beyond the grade F.

(2) Show the % change in pedestrian and bike traffic with each scenario, clearly stating the assumptions that go into the calculation, particularly in reference to the T capacity (e.g., number of extra Red Line cars needed) and existence of a pedestrian bridge.

(3) Show the population estimate for each scenario (broken down by office, resident, children, etc.).

(4) Scenarios must consider the cumulative impacts with the other Alewife areas (Triangle, shopping mall, etc.) and not be evaluated in isolation when considering impacts.

  1. Public transit

Mobility cannot be evaluated without showing the linkages to and from the area. There are 15 MBTA bus routes that cross the parkways of the western edge of Cambridge moving commuters to the Red Line, work, markets, daycare, and home. These bus routes are augmented by a rising number of van and bus services of corporate, educational, health, and TMA organizations.  Collectively, these move more commuters over the fixed street space in Cambridge than any other type of vehicle. Could the Fitchburg line right-of-way be used to accommodate buses as well? Deeper thinking about solutions to the transportation problems must be part and parcel of the Alewife planning process. Subsequent scenario iterations should:

(1) Show how existing bus routes will need to be enhanced to accommodate the increased population of workers and residents in the Alewife area, and quadrangle in particular.

(2) Show how these routes interact with the Red Line T station.

(3) Larger-scale innovation solutions to the Alewife mobility problems that extend beyond the project boundaries.

  1. Local transit-oriented development and mobility equity

The Concord-Alewife Planning Study (2005) states unequivocally: “A crossing for pedestrians and bicycles is crucial, however, to improving the connection from the Quadrangle and Cambridge Highlands to Alewife Station and for providing a bicycle connection to a regional network through the Minuteman Trail, Linear Park, and the Belmont Path.” (p. 16) Despite this, the City has not invested in this “crucial” infrastructure even though developers have already contributed to a fund for the project.

A second pedestrian/bicycle bridge or underpass between the Jefferson Park/Rindge Ave. dense affordable housing community and the Fresh Pond Mall has been discussed and then consistently ignored. This is needed to provide reasonable, safe access across the railroad tracks to places of employment at the mall, food shopping, for children to walk to Tobin School and to Danehey Park which is the major recreation destination for that community and CRLS track and soccer fields. This is a justice issue, where the least advantaged residents of the Alewife area are literally fenced off from the amenities that the rest of us benefit from. There is a pedestrian/bicycle underpass that serves this purpose at Yerxa Avene near Porter Square for those residents. The Rindge Avenue community deserves equivalent access.

The planning scenarios for the Alewife area should show both of these bridges and evaluate the way that they can be paid for as prerequisites for development.

  1. Type of development

There is some support, and clearly interest, in further exploring some light industrial/incubator space/fab space, due to the positive role in could have in the community. The Fabrication Districts in Somerville are an example. Kendall Square’s Cambridge Innovation Center and the Harvard I-Lab are examples of the important synergy between our institutions of education and innovation and the City’s ability to support and benefit from them. We value the small businesses that make things and employ a diversity of people—bread, beer, bio and tech innovations, the arts/maker economy—and hope that they will be able to stay in the area and the rising price of land does not drive them out. We do not value commercial enterprises that undermine our local businesses or that require large vehicles (like tractor-trailer trucks) that will make our streets even less safe and more congested.  Have PUDs been considered for aggregating several parcels and rationalizing land use?

  1. Public amenities—are we, or are we not, building a community?

To support existing residential development in the quad and triangle, and any future residential development, there must be some public amenities, such as green open space, a library, a community center, connecting streets, a dog park, etc. Since the City owns very little (if any) land in the area, there needs to be considerable attention paid to how this will be made to happen and what investment needs to be made by the City to make happen. These features cannot be left to chance, or await future tax revenues to put in place.

  1. On the positive side

The ideas of A and B streets, with the A streets having raised publicly-accessible areas to enable climate resilient structures is a creative step in the right direction.  Building to deal with floods is good, and clearly necessary. The “Optimized” baseline was useful—showing that we can improve the current scheme significantly to achieve many of our goals through smaller tweaks such as setback requirements.

Thank you for considering our comments; we look forward to continued discussion. Please don’t hesitate to contact me or other FPRA Board members if you have further questions.”