FPRA Comments on 55 Wheeler St., Cambridge

These comments are based on the presentation by the developer to the FPRA on May 24, 2017.

June 14, 2017

Reid Joseph
Senior Vice President
Westbrook Properties
211 Congress Street, Suite 920
Boston, MA 02110

Re: FPRA comments on proposed development at 55 Wheeler St. Cambridge

Dear Mr. Joseph and Colleagues,

The Fresh Pond Residents Alliance (FPRA) provides these comments on your proposed 55 Wheeler Street project as presented to us on May 24th , 2017. Thank you for your presentation to our neighborhood association and for diligently answering the questions raised during the presentation.

To begin, let us say that we appreciate that the project has evolved from its original design in several positive ways. A significant number of the questions that we and others raised in the Public Presentation of March 1, reiterated in our 3/5/17 email to Anthony Galluccio and Lisa Seraphim, have been answered. That said, there are still aspects which concern us. Overall, the project is being designed for a parcel with limited site access, in an area already highly congested with traffic and with limited existing mobility options. It is also partially within the current FEMA 100-year floodplain delineation and largely within the severely flood-prone areas identified by the City of Cambridge’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (CCVA).

While we realize that these problems cannot necessarily be solved by your team alone, we do nevertheless believe that this site will require significant improvements in access and mobility, and adherence to the highest standards of flood preparedness, in order to be a viable location for such a large project. We will review these and other points in greater detail below. Our specific concerns are as follows:

  1. Traffic. We are supportive of proposed improvements to the existing road layout in order to connect a dead-end street and improve traffic flow on surrounding streets. We are particularly concerned that left-hand turns onto Concord Ave. from Wheeler St. will be even more disruptive to the flow of traffic than at present and will back up traffic into the rotary. To eliminate such an outcome, we suggest that Wheeler St. be redirected as a one-way street moving from Concord Avenue in towards the site, with traffic in turn exiting the area via Fawcett Street and Terminal Road. We understand that if the connector road is to handle traffic from Wheeler, there needs to be a safe place for the moving vans of Atmark residents to park without obstruction. In addition, at the Fawcett Street-Concord Avenue intersection, the traffic study expects that a traffic signal will be needed to allow cars to exit Fawcett Street in a timely manner. We support such a signal. Finally, we believe that a connection to Terminal Road is essential to improving the current conditions at the site. Such a connection will allow vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians to access Route 2, Alewife Station, the Fresh Pond Mall, and New Street without needing to use Concord Avenue or the rotaries at all. It will also improve truck deliveries to the rear of CVS and Trader Joe’s.

There is the larger problem, however, of adding the residents of and visitors to more than 500 new units to an already severely over-loaded road system. The traffic presentation was insufficient to fully understand these impacts, although a doubling of evening peak traffic is anticipated. The presentation showed an “added delay of more than 20 seconds” at both Fawcett and Wheeler Streets, with both intersections degraded to an “F” level of service both morning and evening, but the traffic study itself suggested wait times in excess of 120 seconds per car at these intersections. This is unacceptable. In addition, the mode-share analysis assumes adequate capacity and accessibility to transit and other mobility options, for which there was no evidence. We look forward to reviewing the traffic analysis in greater detail, and would ask that the study be revised to incorporate the three changes suggested above. As we asked in our 3/5/17 email to Anthony Galluccio and Lisa Seraphim, based on the Public Presentation of March 1, we hope that the TIS will include analysis of impacts of and to Blanchard Road as well as off-peak impacts. We also refer you to Steve Kaiser’s letter of March 21, 2017, which raises many additional and important points and suggestions.

  1. Mobility. We appreciate that the project reserves land for a future multimodal bridge over the railroad tracks. We believe that this bridge, in some form, is essential to the future mobility of the site and of the Quadrangle neighborhood of which it is a part. We hope that the developer will make a significant financial contribution to making this bridge a reality. The construction of safe, continuous street design with bike and pedestrian pathways is also essential, and the developer of this site has an important role to play in working with the City, neighboring property owners, the neighborhood, and the Alewife TMA to make this site truly work from a mobility point of view. We hope that the developer will actively advocate among other stakeholders on behalf of this important project and make explicit what their financial contributions will be.
  2. Public Open Space and Building Scale. The designated open space between the electrical substation and railroad lines is unlikely to be much of an amenity without considerable work to buffer it from the unattractive, neighboring land uses. We understand an effort has been made to plant vegetation as a screen and we would like to see more detailed plans of how to make this area usable, attractive, and well-maintained. The tree-lined “allée” and the open spaces arranged as pocket parks and pathways hold promise (though we do have some concerns that the City will allow mature trees to remain on top of the storm water easements located in this area). It is important that the public feels welcome in these spaces and that they do not appear to be exclusively for residents of the buildings. For example, to reflect the history of Alewife and to signify the character of the place that Alewife is becoming, we support the preservation of all or most of the three contiguous courtyards of Abt Associates. This open space with mature vegetation has been a center of business development and innovation that took place and will continue, we hope, at Alewife. A connection to Terminal Road is crucial, and will allow residents to more easily access Danehy Park and relieve some of the pressure on Fresh Pond Reservation.

The shape and massing of the buildings is creative and provides some visual relief and views connecting through to Fawcett Street. We question, however, whether the site can accommodate the number of units proposed and still provide adequate open space. Open space that is vegetated and includes large trees for shade is essential to mitigating the heat island effect that this area is prone to due to the large amount of impervious cover. The open space should be designed to also trap and treat storm runoff so that it enters the storm water catchment system, and ultimately Alewife Brook, free of pollutants from roadways and parking areas. We would like to see a drainage plan that utilizes green infrastructure to treat the runoff from small storms. We are pleased to see that there is very little surface parking proposed on the site.

  1. Ownership, Inclusion, and Community. We strongly support the developer’s addition of a building consisting of ownership units to the plan. This will provide more of a community anchor with people who are invested in the long-term welfare of the area, provide a better transition to the ownership units at The Reservoir Lofts next door, and provide a greater variety of residential options for the area. Meeting the 20% inclusionary requirement in both rental and ownership buildings will also enhance community stability, as well as overall diversity and opportunity. In addition, we hope the developer will consider an additional 5% priced at a workforce level (80- 120% of AMI) to provide for residents who are above the inclusionary criteria but otherwise not able to afford living in the area. Finally, providing 3-bedroom units is also important so that families with children can live in this housing. In any case, we would expect the Planning Board to document any specific project promises regarding ownership units, workforce units, or bedroom counts in their final decision conditions.
  2. Overall Regional Context. It is not possible to assess all the incremental positive and negative impacts of each local project without considering the cumulative effects of all such local projects. In light of that, the applicant (or Cambridge’s Community Development Dept.) should provide additional details of such cumulative impacts, including current and planned developments, anticipated changes in population, expected populations of school-aged children, anticipated number of affordable housing units, percentage of open space (both permeable and publicly accessible), as well as housing turnover rates—especially of rentals. We need to see the cumulative effect of all expected projects, rather than assess each project in a vacuum. The applicant (or CDD) should also present the cumulative effect of all projects on transportation and circulation patterns, additions to the housing stock, implications for public services including schools and libraries, and usable open spaces for the entire area.
  3. Environmental Concerns. Given the site’s past history of contamination, what is the expected process for site remediation? What contaminants are present on the site? Will excavation expose contaminated soils or ground water that will need to be remediated or that might migrate off-site? If so, how will these issues be addressed? And, lastly, how do you expect to keep residents and abutters abreast of further developments?
  4. Climate Change Resiliency. Very few details were presented on how this project provides resiliency to the clear dangers of climate change on this site, perhaps due to lack of time. Any filing with the city should detail how the project will:
  5. Accommodate flooding (see figures, below): provide compensatory storage, protect property of tenants/owners (including cars), store wastewater, protect utilities, infiltrate and filter runoff from small storms to protect water quality using green infrastructure.
  6. Protect the safety and welfare of the residents: inform prospective owners/tenants of the dangers of flooding, provide safe shelter in place spaces and systems, provide emergency egress.
  7. Minimize heat island impacts: Using shading and green infrastructure, significant large shade trees and other vegetation, white roofs, and other means to reduce ambient summer air temperatures during heat waves.
  8. Comply with Net Zero. How the project will comply with the city’s Net Zero Action Plan.

[Figure not posted
Source: City of Cambridge CCPR, Climate Change Scenarios, Sept. 2016, Kleinfelder.]

Thank you for considering our comments; we look forward to continued discussion. We hope that you will be able to develop a project website that contains current project information for easy public access. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact us should you have further questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Officers of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance

Doug Brown, Standish Street
Terry Drucker, Chilton Street
Alison Field-Juma, Concord Avenue
Alice Heller, Corporal Burns Road
Langley Keyes, Chilton Street
Peggy Barnes Lenart, Fayerweather Street
Mike Nakagawa, Madison Avenue
Ovadia Simha, Blanchard Road
Arthur Strang, Fresh Pond Parkway
Ann Sweeney, Lakeview Avenue
Jay Yesselman, Vassal Lane

freshpondresidents@gmail.com

Cc: Louis DePasquale, Cambridge City Manager
Lisa Peterson, Deputy City Manager
Cambridge City Council
Cambridge Planning Board
Owen O’Riordan, Dept. of Public Works
Iram Farooq, Community Development Department
Joseph Barr, Traffic, Parking & Transportation
Alewife Envision Working Group Members
Tim Love, Utile
Nancy Ryan, Cambridge Residents Alliance

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Envision Alewife–FPRA Concerns

FPRA Comments submitted May 31, 2017

To: Cambridge City Council, Planning Board, Community Development Department, Envision Team

Re: Concerns regarding Alewife Envision Planning Process

Dear Cambridge City Officials and Envision Team,

The Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, the neighborhood group that includes the Alewife planning area, supports the need for comprehensive planning of the Alewife area. We are concerned, however, that the scenarios and plans being developed through the Envision planning process do not represent the best interests or concerns of the Alewife area residents, nor of the city as a whole. We raised many of these concerns in our letter of 2/1/17 (attached), to which we have received no response. Our members have strongly expressed their concerns several times at both FPRA public meetings and Envision public meetings. Although every Alewife Envision Working Group and public meeting begins with a review of the vision statement, the plans presented clearly do not meet this vision. We support the goal that Alewife provide significantly more housing and economic opportunity than at present within various real constraints, including the area being subject to severe flooding as soon as 2045, the date at which the 100-year storm is predicted to outflank the Amelia Earhart dam.

Our first concern is that the proposed scenario and accompanying zoning changes will degrade the sustainability, social interactions and safe connections of the area. While we have repeatedly asked to see scenarios that have a lower density than the current zoning allows—which is itself a major increase in density over the 2004 status quo—we continue to be presented with plans that have significant increases in density.  At the public meeting held by Envision on 2/8/17, the audience clearly supported seeing a lower density scenario. At the FPRA public meeting of May 24, the participants reiterated this position.

The “middle-of-the road” proposal presented at the Envision Alewife Working Group meeting of 4/27/17 still showed an increase in density—from 1.3 FAR to 1.56 FAR. The impacts—which is what matters in the end— were presented only for the 60% build-out, and were particularly worrisome in the case of traffic on Concord Ave. These impacts were obviously an underestimate of the final impacts at 100% build-out.  It may be argued that 100% build-out is a long time off. However, what we have seen at Alewife is, to the contrary, that construction has far outpaced the expected rate of development laid out in the 2005 planning scenarios.

According to the presentation of impacts, existing quadrangle peak traffic on “Outer Concord Avenue” is already about 800 cars on top of the 500 cars that are from non-quadrangle traffic (slide 45). That can hardly be blamed on through-traffic to Boston.  The proposed “New combined scenario” adds another 500 or so cars on top of the current existing 1,300 (approx.). But that is at only 60% of the build-out, so it underestimates the impact not only on that section of road, but on the Blanchard intersection and residents in Cambridge/Belmont at one end, and the entire Fresh Pond Parkway rotary system at the other end.

In addition, several projects under active discussion with the City and residents have been omitted:  55 Wheeler Street, despite the developer having been engaged in active discussions with CDD since at least August of last year, is not included. This project is proposed as 530 units. The map also fails to include 605 Concord Ave. (49 units already permitted) and Fawcett Street (44 units currently under construction).  Why does this matter? 55 Wheeler St. includes one of the proposed green spaces shown on page 22, as well as the frequently discussed bridge landing. 55 Wheeler Street also includes three new streets shown on page 23, one of which their current project design would render impossible. On page 37, there is a map labelled as “Housing Units- Existing and Pipeline.” None of the 3 projects mentioned are included on the map, and, therefore, the baseline figures on page 36 appear much lower: the current housing situation totals 697 units, 98 of which are still to be built. In fact, the real numbers are 1,320 units, 721 of which are still to be built. This allows them to show a rosier picture on page 36. The bar graph for the New combined (preferred) scenario shows a housing total of 1,777 units at 60% buildout. The real number will be 2,400, by our count. This will in turn affect the traffic calculations.

We have, thus, a fundamental question. At what point, or by whom, was it decided that the Alewife area should increase its density above the already high increase allowed in 2005?  Why is this being relentlessly pursued with no explanation, as if it were a foregone conclusion? The Envision “New combined scenario” has a painfully small amount of open space proposed for public use. But at the proposed density there is nowhere to expand the public open space to. As property values continue to relentlessly climb, the City needs to take action now to secure open space and tackle the mobility and traffic issues head-on. May we state the obvious that making more intersections F-rated is not acceptable?

Our other grave concern is that the entire development of the quadrangle so far depends on one-sided access—Concord Avenue—forming a near cul-de-sac for thousands of residents and workers, while simultaneously claiming to be transit-oriented and maximizing the opportunities for sustainable transportation. The refusal of CDD and the consultant to even show the necessary bridge across the T tracks to link the area to the Alewife station is makes the area unworkable. To say that it can’t be shown because some other more important investment could prevent it from being built, may be too close to the truth. But it is important to make this area function reasonably well while we still can. We are well aware that features not shown on a plan will simply not happen. We learned that from the 2005 Alewife plan.  As we asked in our February 2017 letter, there must be a commitment to invest in the infrastructure that will make this development work. Waiting until after the development has occurred is a recipe for failure—which the residents will have to live with for years to come.

There are several things to like about the “New combined scenario” that was presented at the Working Group meeting. The presentation of the housing, jobs and tax/fiscal impacts were also helpful, albeit for only 60% build-out.  The improved street grid, mix including light industrial, commercial, and owner-occupied townhouses that would help stabilize the neighborhood, together with creative structural approaches to inevitable flooding, hold promise. However, this will not work at the density proposed. It will not result in a livable Alewife community and will have serious negative impacts on neighboring streets and communities. At a lower density there could be reasonably-sized public open green spaces, stormwater treatment, and transportation linkages that could double as emergency access and egress during flooding without sacrificing a major increase in residential and economic development.

We respectfully ask the City Council and Community Development Department to require a lower density scenario with the necessary infrastructural investments be developed and presented to the public. We also ask that a serious multi-stakeholder Alewife Mobility Task Force be established by the City, similar to what exists in Kendall Square, including the Alewife TMA, community groups and others. This Task Force should report back to the City Council with proposed actions and within a defined timeframe.

We look forward to your response and continued dialogue regarding development in Alewife.

Yours sincerely,

Fresh Pond Residents Alliance Board

Doug Brown, Standish St.
Terry Drucker, Chilton St.
Alison Field-Juma, Concord Ave.
Alice Heller, Corporal Burns Rd.
Langley Keyes, Chilton St.
Peggy Barnes Lenart, Fayerweather St.
Mike Nakagawa, Madison Ave.
Ovadia Simha, Blanchard Rd.
Arthur Strang, Fresh Pond Pkwy.
Ann Sweeney, Lakeview Ave.
Jay Yesselman, Vassal Lane

Reply to: freshpondresidents@gmail.com