Highlights of Envision Alewife Working Group Meeting, July 2017

View Alewife Working Group  Meeting 11 (July 27, 2017) presentation here: http://bit.ly/2tK1xxY.

Here is Envision’s Presentations page: http://envision.cambridgema.gov/documents/#presentations

Utile’s Tim Love, the leader of the City’s consultant team, presented the vision for the whole Alewife area for the first time. He emphasized that the plan so far attempts to balance the aspirational with the practical. Their goal is to look at the whole picture rather than the current one-project-at-a-time approach taken by the city. Working Group members were positive about many elements of the plan, but emphasized the need to drill down to find the ways to ensure that the plan is in fact executed. Some of what the plan contains, like a bridge over the tracks, has been proposed before but never carried out.  There needs to be real investment to make it happen.  Execution is key. The next meeting will be in September and by then the plan will be articulated with the Envision Climate and Environment Working Group’s results.

Projected population.  There has been no projection of total population that would be added to the area as a result of the schemes he was presenting.  They list the number of jobs and units but not the resulting population.  FPRA noted that without population numbers there is little way of evaluating the impact on public services and public infrastructure needs, like playgrounds and libraries. There is no way to justify the amount and location of retail services  that will be viable or required.

Housing. There was little information about the character of the housing inventory to be added. We have a sense that much of the housing that has been built is serving transients and is relatively expensive. FPRA will continue to press for more ownership (condos)  in the future inventory to establish a more permanent population base that would be concerned about the amount and quality of public services for them and their families. How to ensure that developers follow the plan’s vision and the desired urban form was discussed.

Retail. The entirely redeveloped shopping center was revised slightly to improve car access/egress from Fresh Pond Parkway and incorporate open space and non-vehicular connections. Terminal Road and a bike path along the RR right-of-way to improve connections with the Quad are significant improvements.  It is still an above grade parking garage-oriented project, although the garages are mostly hidden from sight. If there is a notion that the owner would receive substantial zoning incentives the city ought to get them to pay for an underpass for at least pedestrians and bicycles from Rindge towers to the shopping center. Further, they should be prepared to dedicate a public right of way for the Terminal Road-to-New Street connection. The new plan includes a significant amount of housing over the retail and is modeled to some degree on Assembly Square in Somerville.

Transportation/Mobility.  Pedestrian/bike mobility linkages were improved, including a continuous loop between the Quadrangle and the Shopping Center, Danehy Park, Tobin School and Fresh Pond.  There was no improvement in linkages, either bike/ped or vehicle, across the RR tracks, which remains the “Great Wall” blocking transit-oriented development and exacerbating traffic problems.  FPRA suggested that a “passage” be shown on the plan to represent commitment to a solution (whether a tunnel or bridge, vehicle or non-vehicle, commuter rail station or whatever) to be determined by a transparent, multi-stakeholder process and in-depth study of options with calculation of cost for each option.  We need to have a push for the whole hierarchy of needs–Commuter rail station, better bus service from MBTA and a local system perhaps as part of the TMA to serve not only the Quad, Triangle and shopping center but also the surrounding residential areas, especially Rindge Ave.

Open Space. Open space in the quadrangle is still way below par for the population they propose to put there, which will increase pressure on Rafferty Park and Fresh Pond Reservation.  FPRA commented, and the consultant agreed, that the next presentation should show the stormwater treatment and green space in the quad that is achieved by realignment of buildings and setbacks as promised. It was also pointed out that the high density of the industrial buildings makes it hard to gain the necessary green space, much is devoted to truck parking and access. They plan to show significant tree cover to reduce the extreme heat island that currently exists.  A new element was a restored Jerry’s Pond and extensive park. This is a very positive vision for an open space asset for the large population across the street in Rindge Towers and linking the T station to North Cambridge. But they haven’t addressed how to clean up the WR Grace site of all the asbestos in the soil next to the Russell Field youth sports area.

Light industrial/maker space. FPRA pointed out that they still haven’t addressed why they needed to increase the density in the Quad from their original mixed industrial scenario, which matched currently zoned density.  The current zoning was supposed to cover 20-year projections from the 2006 Concord-Alewife Study.  Making the vision of a mixed-use light industrial zone within the Quad a reality given current land ownership, and bringing in public amenities like a year-round farmer’s market, will take a lot of work.

Financing.  Working Group members asked if Tax Increment Financing (TIF–a public financing method that is used as a subsidy for redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects) could be used to get the developments to pay for the public infrastructure.  Utile noted that this can be done according to a formula to ensure the distribution of funds and benefits is equitable and meets city objectives overall.  The plan should also show the City’s financial contribution to solving the transportation problems, perhaps including a contribution to the Alewife TMA as is done in East Cambridge.