Citywide Plan to Focus on Alewife Area First

Suggested Study area. the area of impact extends well beyond the map's borders, making residents of adjacent areas stakeholders in the study process.

Suggested Alewife Study area. The area of impact extends well beyond the map’s borders, making residents of adjacent areas stakeholders in the study process.

The citywide master planning process is now underway. The first step in the 3-year process is an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) for a scope of services and deliverables from the to-be-named planning consultant. The Community Development Department, which is overseeing the plan, released a draft RFQ and invited the community to send comments by May 8.

Here are comments the FPRA officers submitted. Our comments address the Alewife Study, which has been promised as an early phase/first area of focus of the citywide plan. The final RFQ will be issued the week of May 25. According to the city’s timeline, a consultant will be selected by the end of the summer, and the planning process will begin in September 2015. Read on and stay tuned!  Continue reading

New Street Redesign: Plans Prioritize Safety for Walkers & Cyclists

Proposed design for crossings at New St and Concord Ave

Proposed design for crossings at New St and Concord Ave

Last month the Department of Public Works held a second public meeting to review designs for the planned reconstruction of New Street, a critical infrastructure improvement that the FPRA has championed for the past year. The designs presented at the meeting are now posted on the DPW site.

Option 2 was preferred by those who attended the meeting and will be the one implemented. We are pleased with the progress, and thank Kathy Watkins and DPW staff for being responsive to residents’ concerns.

Continue reading

New Street Redesign: Recommendations on Street Trees

New Street needs a complete overhaul.

New Street needs a complete overhaul.

A second public meeting on the anticipated redesign of New Street will be held on Thursday, January 15 at 6 p.m. at the Tobin School. The DPW will present its latest concept designs, building on the discussion that began at the first meeting on October 22. We have not yet seen the new designs — and we expect they will include sidewalks and bike paths along the length of the street — but we shared with city staff the following recommendations for the placement of future street trees. The photos with the continuation of this post illustrate the urgent need for improvements to New Street. Continue reading

Boston Globe Covers Alewife Development “Boom” (More to the Story)

389 units were constructed  on Fawcett St

389 units were constructed on Fawcett St

On Monday The Boston Globe ran a story on the Alewife development “boom” that highlighted the success of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance in lobbying for more holistic and inclusive growth planning. The article sparked a robust online discussion, attracting over 110 comments and driving traffic (the good kind!) to the Globe’s website. Given the space constraints of a daily newspaper, this week’s 993-word story could only scratch the surface of a complex set of transit, infrastructure, environmental, and housing policy challenges. Globe editors, please take note: Development in Cambridge is clearly a topic of great interest to your readers, and the story merits continued and more in-depth coverage in 2015.

In the meantime, I’d like to like to use the luxury of the Internet’s boundless space to expand upon some of the thorny issues the article raised: Continue reading

The Big Chill: Civic Engagement & the Planning Process

Iceberg2014 will go down in the annals of Cambridge political history as the year long-simmering frustrations with the Planning Board boiled over, as more and more residents began to realize the People’s Republic had left them out in the cold while the city’s planners stoked the white-hot real estate development market.

After months of intense and intensifying scrutiny, the Board paused to reflect on its own procedures and process during an unusual public hearing on October 28 and again during a Roundtable discussion with the City Council on December 1. At the October hearing Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy stated that the city is committed to making changes to ensure “an open, transparent and accessible process.” During the December Roundtable, Board member Ted Cohen acknowledged that by the time development proposals have their first public hearing they are “fairly frozen,” while Chair Hugh Russell remarked that 99% of the planning is done by CDD and that what’s discussed at the public hearings is the “tip of the iceberg.” Continue reading

New Street Redesign: Prioritizing Safety & Connections

Sidewalks on New Street make the location too pedestrian unfriendly for the project to be considered "transit-centered."

As currently laid out, New Street is poorly suited for residential development. A complete redesign is in the planning stages.

Our group’s concerns about the proposal to construct a 93-unit “transit-oriented” residential development on New Street, which lacks the continuous sidewalks needed for a safe pedestrian route to and from public transport, has prompted a public involvement process to inform a complete redesign of the street in 2015. Following well-attended public meetings held by the city’s Department of Public Works (on Oct. 22) and the FPRA (on Oct. 29), we have developed the following list of concerns and priorities to guide city staff as they develop concept designs for the next meeting (in December or January). The plans and survey that DPW presented on Oct. 22 are posted online. Continue reading

88 CPD Post Mortem

The dotted line shows the scale of the original proposal (9-10 stories vs. 6-7)

The dotted line shows the scale of the original proposal (9-10 stories vs. 6-7)

As reported today in the Cambridge Chronicle, the Planning Board approved the McKinnon Company’s 254-unit residential development at 88 CambridgePark Drive last night — pending the resolution of one sticking point before the final decision is recorded (no later than November 21). Continue reading

Proceed with Caution

 

Walking tour of Alewife with Cambridge planning board (8/12/14)

Walking tour of Alewife with the Cambridge Planning Board & CDD staff (8/12/14)

Today’s Boston Globe column by Paul McMorrow of Commonwealth Magazine on the Carlone amendment and the planning crisis in Cambridge sparked a lively string of comments online. Taking a step back from the debate about the politics of the city’s special permitting process, let’s think for a moment about who else is affected by our planning decisions, and what’s at stake. My letter to the Globe editor follows:

To the Editor:

Columnist Paul McMorrow is right that Cambridge urgently needs a new approach to development. However, the “terrifying prospect” is not that that the Cambridge Planning Board would be “gutted” as he wrongly suggests. It is that large-scale development in the Alewife area will continue in the current haphazard fashion in the absence of a citywide plan that threads the needle between promoting economic and housing growth and preserving the area’s livability and floodplain environment. The Alewife area is the caboose on the Kendall Square engine, long neglected as the industrial fringe but suddenly desirable as the city’s last frontier for redevelopment. The area presents great opportunity and even greater urban planning challenges. Cambridge is not an island; our planning decisions will impact residents of neighboring communities as well — those trying to commute through the Alewife bottleneck and those who share its vulnerable floodplain environment. We will all be living with the results of piecemeal planning for years to come. Proceed with caution.

Jan Devereux

Coming soon: About 475 apartments on these parking lots

Coming soon: About 475 apartments on these parking lots behind CambridgePark Drive

Late summer twilight (and lighter than usual traffic) on Alewife Brook Parkway

Late summer twilight (and lighter than usual traffic) on Alewife Brook Parkway

Consider the Record

Building green on Concord Ave & Wheeler Street

Building green on Concord Ave & Wheeler Street

A fact for your consideration:

Since the creation of the Project Review Special Permit in 2001, the Planning Board has never voted to deny a developer’s application for Sec. 19.20 zoning relief, with 49 approvals, 0 denials, and 2 withdrawals during the recession of 2003.

Think about it: NO very large project has been deemed a detriment to traffic and EVERY large project adheres to the urban design guidelines. 
 
Seriously? Then I’ve got a bridge to sell you! 
 
Come to City Hall Annex (344 Broadway) tonight (8/5) at 7pm to hear the Carlone petition’s case for giving the City Council final say over this category of special permit while the city develops a new Citywide Master Plan. 

In Case You Missed It: Planning Debate Heats Up

Large crowd at last week's Ordinance Committee hearing on the Carlone Amendment

Large crowd at last week’s Ordinance Committee hearing on the Carlone Amendment

ICYMI there’s been a lot of going on this summer, as city officials of all stripes scramble to respond to the growing public perception that the planning and permitting process in Cambridge is broken. This post will catch you up on the key issues.

Carlone Amendment: A Timely Response to Our Immediate Concerns*

Councillor Carlone’s zoning petition to temporarily give the Council the final say over granting one category of special permit (Sec. 19.20 large project review, which relates to traffic impact and urban design guidelines) came before the Ordinance Committee last week, and citizen supporters outnumbered opponents (big developers and real estate interests) by about 3 to 1. On Tuesday, August 5 at 7 pm, the Carlone petition will come before the Planning Board itself. This should prompt an interesting discussion, to say the least.

The Carlone amendment is the best proposal on the table to address our immediate concerns. It is not a Trojan horse for a development moratorium. It’s a stopgap measure that is urgently needed while, collectively, we develop a master plan and repair a planning and special permitting process that is widely recognized to be “broken.” It adds another layer of review for large developments that have far-reaching impacts.

Important Note: If the Council passes the Carlone amendment, then any proposal requiring a large project review special permit that is currently before the Planning Board would need to be heard by the Council. For example, if 75 New Street was permitted at its next hearing in September, and the Council subsequently passed the amendment before the petition expires at the end of October, then the New Street proposal would have to go before the Council for another layer of review. The petition is a safety net that increases accountability to voters.

*Immediate Concerns: A Refresher Follows. Please Read on:

I. Planning Board: In Dire Need of Repair

The planning void of operating without a citywide plan (see Immediate Concern III. below) aggravates the problems of operating with a Planning Board that itself does no planning and views its role as principally administrative. The Board instead relies on project review memos prepared by CDD staff, which offer gentle critiques of development proposals that for the most part skim over the larger urban design and context issues. Five of the members’ terms expired several months ago (including that of the Chair, who has served since 1988), and the Board appears frustrated with, even resentful of, the increasing volume of public comment demanding that they take a bigger picture view in reviewing large projects with far-reaching impacts.

The City Manager, who appoints the volunteer Board, put out a request for applications to the Board (due August 1), but we don’t know which or how many members will be replaced (there is one vacancy in addition to the five expired terms). The Manager has also promised training for members to improve their communication, but fundamentally the problem cannot be solved through changes to personnel and communication style – the Manger must also empower the Board to exercise the discretion it has under Massachusetts case law. They can, and must, do more than tick off a checklist of criteria.

Responding to the public outcry over the state of the Planning Board, the Council just approved a policy order to create an advisory committee of community members to review the Planning Board’s procedures and to recommend improvements to the process. An advisory committee could complement the master planning process but, as we all know, forming a study committee is a great way to kick a problem down the road. It would take months for any committee to do this work, and there’s no guarantee its recommendations will be implemented. What happens to the development projects under Board review in the meantime?

II. Area Development Projects: More Hearings Ahead, Put that Rubber Stamp Away!

There are currently two large projects in our area that are crying out for the big picture view that, time and again, our Planning Board has declined to take, despite the clear authority it has to do so under Mass. case law. Their “obligation” to grant special permits is a fiction of their own creating, one they have used to justify never denying any large project review special permit that has come before them.

88 Cambridge Park Drive (formerly known as 180R) will have its second hearing at the Planning Board on Tuesday, August 19 at 7pm. In response to the concerns the FPRA and the Board expressed about the building’s scale, the developer intends to radically reduce the number of units (from 378 to 258) and parking spaces (revised net gain of 95 versus 220 originally). We have not yet seen the new design, so we cannot comment on whether a smaller building (6 stories rather than 9-10) better meets the urban design guidelines for the area, and there are still outstanding questions about the traffic and environmental impact. We expect the new plans to be available for public review and comment the week of August 11.

75 New Street will have its fourth Planning Board hearing on Tuesday, September 16 at 7pm. At the most recent hearing (on July 22), the Board appeared poised to approve the project, pending answers to a few unresolved questions about details. They did not get a chance to address the FPRA’s questions about the dangerous levels of toxins found in the soil at the site. We expect the environmental issue to be discussed at the September hearing. A redesign of New Street’s sidewalks and roadway has been promised to improve access to the T, but the details and timing remain to be worked out in a public process this fall.

III. Citywide Master Plan: Keep the Pressure On, We Need a Real Plan

The series of “Cambridge Conversations” facilitated by urban planning consultant Kathryn Madden in concert with CDD staff yielded a 15-page report at the end of July. The “preliminary summary of process and input” collects snippets of feedback and ideas from residents responding to three broad questions:

  • What’s special about Cambridge?
  • What could be working better?
  • What should the city’s priorities be?

The consultant acknowledges that the 18 community meetings and drop-in sessions held over six weeks were unable to reach some segments of our diverse community, so outreach will continue into the fall. The report makes no attempt at analysis and does not document the frequency of comments expressed on each topic. So it’s hard to see how this compendium of soundbites will help frame the scope for a Request for Proposal from an outside team of planning consultants to undertake a two- to three-year citywide planning process – if the Council votes to recommend this course of action. The report’s conditional language re-opens the question of whether the process will move forward.

We must keep the pressure on the Council to reaffirm its commitment to going forward with a citywide planning process. They left some wiggle room in the language of last spring’s compromise policy order – we cannot let them off the hook.

Flooding on Fawcett St after last week's deluge

Flooding in front of the new building on Fawcett St after last week’s deluge