FPRA Review of 526-Unit Development at 55 Wheeler St. (behind CVS)

The model showed the true bulk of the building, dwarfing the large developments next door. Looking towards the RR tracks, CVS to the right, Concord Ave behind you.

FPRA submitted this letter to the Planning Board at their Hearing on September 5th, 2017. The model drew gasps from those present, as it showed the true bulk and shadows posed by the building that were not apparent in the artist’s renderings. The hearing was continued–there were numerous questions and concerns especially regarding flood risk, traffic impacts, mobility/access, preponderance of studio/1-BR units (72%), soil contamination, building materials and quality of construction, sheer size, etc.

FPRA emphasized that this project was at odds with the plans currently being developed through the Envision master planning process and should be re-evaluated by the City in terms of the Envision goals and plans. See video of Hearing and Special Permit Application materials (scroll to bottom). It is essential that residents continue to express their concerns at subsequent Hearings. Let us know what you think, especially if you live or work nearby.

Dear Members of the Planning Board,

On behalf of the board and membership of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance (FPRA), we politely submit the following comments regarding tonight’s Planning Board case #SP330, a proposal to construct 526 new residential units on a site located at 55 Wheeler Street in West Cambridge. 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 have been answered. That said, there are still aspects of the project which concern us.

Overall, the project has been 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 wholly within the 500-year floodplain, both of which are highlighted as severely flood-prone areas by the City of Cambridge’s recent Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (CCVA). As a result, we 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. Respect for Neighbors. We are extremely supportive of the need to protect neighboring residents from harmful project impacts, both during and after construction. As such, we strongly support the Reservoir Loft owners’ previously documented requests for construction mitigation measures (including dust, noise, and construction vehicles entering and exiting), traffic mitigation measures (including service road noise control measures), careful building siting and design, storm water management best practices, and support for increased housing ownership. Also included in this category would be fire safety, as recent events have shown that such large, stick-built buildings are extremely susceptible to fire, both prior to final sprinkler activation and, after activation, from ignition sources in attic and exterior areas where sprinkler units are not typically installed, and, once on fire, can endanger surrounding structures.

2. 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 REQUIRE 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, because the project degrades Wheeler Street to an “F” level of service, then overflows to Fawcett Street and degrades Fawcett to “F,” as well, the Fawcett Street-Concord Avenue intersection will require changes. The traffic study’ Signal Warrant Analysis expects that a traffic signal will be needed to allow cars to exit Fawcett Street in a timely manner. We STRONGLY SUPPORT such a signal.

 We also believe that a similar signal will be necessary at Smith Place for at least part of each day to account for overflow traffic from Fawcett Street, as the increased morning delays at all unsignalized Concord Avenue intersections are disastrous (91.1 seconds of average additional delay per intersection).

Finally, we believe that a connection to Terminal Road is CRITICAL 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. We are concerned that no mention of such a connection was included in the proponents’ most recent plans, despite such a connection being a neighborhood planning priority for almost 40 years, including in the most recent version of the Envision Alewife study.

There is also 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. Evening peak traffic is anticipated to double, and the traffic presentation we saw 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. The traffic study itself suggested up to 20 traffic exceedences, with wait times in excess of 120 seconds per car at some intersections. This is unacceptable. Two new permitted projects (Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc. on Concord Avenue and Lanes & Games on Route 2) were omitted from the future traffic estimates. In addition, the mode-share analysis assumes adequate capacity and accessibility to transit and other mobility options, for which there was no evidence. We have also asked repeatedly that the study be revised to incorporate the three major changes suggested above. Lastly, we also refer you to Steve Kaiser’s letter of March 21, 2017, which raises many additional and important points and suggestions.

3. Mobility/connectivity. 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. Again, we were disappointed to see no dedicated bike infrastructure included in the final design of either Wheeler Street or Fawcett Street, particularly since the final traffic study forecasts an increase in Fawcett Street traffic volumes of up to 40% by 2021. This is unacceptable. With such volumes, we do not believe that sharrows (or worse) are sufficient to ensure the safety of cyclists. Other area projects have been required to pay for separated cycle tracks in front of their projects; we would expect the same in this case. Moving curbside tree plantings to the back of the sidewalk is just one possible approach to create more space for such features.

4. Public Open Space and Building Scale. The designated open space between the electrical substation and the railroad tracks 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 past innovation; innovation that, we hope, will continue in the Alewife region. 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.

And though 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 and its immediate surroundings can accommodate the number of units proposed and still provide adequate open space. The 526 units proposed for the site would be the largest residential development in Cambridge in at least 45 years, representing in total the equivalent of two of the three Rindge Towers. By comparison, we would note that the LEED standards for such a site only require 231 residential units to qualify for the LEED credit for increased urban density. This project proposes more than double that number. Though Cambridge continues to demonstrate an insatiable demand for new housing, we strongly question whether this particular site is the best location for such a large project.

In addition, 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 proposed open spaces 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, but we also strongly object to the granting of a special permit to allow the project to proceed with a substandard amount of permeable area. As recent events have shown, now is not the time to be reduced permeable area, particularly in such a flood-prone area.

We would ask how the City can ensure that these new open spaces remain publicly accessible in perpetuity, how they will be maintained, and how they will be programmed.

 Similarly, we are not at all satisfied with the long list of issues to be resolved during continuing design review. For example, what percentage of the ground floor of each building will be transparent? The developer makes no commitments, even though local design standards specify a specific requirement. How will a 7-story building not create significant shading of neighboring units at Atmark? Though we are satisfied with the overall design direction expressed in the renderings, the public nevertheless deserves to have input in any significant revisions.

Lastly, we would support an even greater reduction in the proposed parking ratio for the project, perhaps as low as 0.6 spaces per unit, as other recent area projects have successfully pioneered. In fact, Redgate’s recent proposal for a development in South Boston proposes a ratio of 0.62. The reduction in required parking could be used to further reduce overall building size, or to increase underground flood storage capacity.

5. Ownership, Inclusion, and Community. We strongly support the developer’s past promises of adding a building consisting of ownership units to the plan. This would 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. We hope that the Board will see fit to mandate this ownership requirement, as the most recent project narrative makes no mention of such units. At the same time, meeting the 20% inclusionary requirement in both rental and ownership buildings will also enhance community stability, as well as overall diversity and opportunity. We would hope that inclusionary units would not be segregated to the building’s ground level, but instead arranged throughout the building. 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.

6. 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, and implications for public services including schools and libraries, and usable open spaces for the entire area, in keeping with the ongoing work of the Envision Cambridge process to which so many of us have contributed.

7. Environmental Concerns. Given the site’s past history of contamination (MassDEP case # RTN 3-27850 for both Lead and Cadmium), we would ask for additional detail around this important local topic. What contaminants are present on the site? What is the expected process for site remediation? 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 environmental developments? In light of recent events in Houston, it is important to ensure that contaminated soil, if flooded by storm water, doesn’t spread these contaminants to neighboring areas.

8. Climate Change Resiliency. Finally, very few details were presented in the narrative regarding how this project provides resiliency to the clear dangers of climate change at this site. As Dr. Sarah Slaughter makes clear in her recent letter to you, these threats are both serious and increasing. As such, we would ask for additional detail about how the project will:

  • Accommodate flooding: utilize rain screen construction methods, provide compensatory storage, protect property of tenants/owners (including cars), store wastewater, protect utilities, elevate backup generators and electrical rooms above ground level, limit paving, infiltrate and filter runoff from small storms to protect water quality using green infrastructure.
  • Protect the safety and welfare of the residents: eliminate residential units on the ground floor as was done at Lanes & Games, inform prospective owners/tenants of the dangers of flooding, provide safe shelter in places, spaces, and systems, provide emergency egress via operable windows in all units.
  • Improve downstream water quality: improve water quality by both limiting and delaying water releases from the site to the watershed.
  • 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.
  • Comply with Net Zero. How the project will comply with the city’s Net Zero Action Plan.

 We recognize that such steps may represent a significant investment on the part of the developer. That said, The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that each dollar spent on flood mitigation saves $5 in future flood damage. As such, we believe that such steps to improve climate resiliency are wise investments.

Thank you for considering our comments; we look forward to continued discussion. 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

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