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.
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
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Thanks for a well-written letter.