Save the Forest, Save the Garden

Old growth trees in the Silver Maple Forest could be clear cut by a developer

Old growth trees in the Silver Maple Forest could be clear cut by a developer.

Open space has always been at a premium in Cambridge’s dense urban environment, never more so than in today’s overheated real estate market. Citizen-led petitions to save two imperiled open spaces have resulted in policy orders on the City Council’s July 28th agenda, which we strongly endorse.

Both the Silver Maple Forest and the Whittemore Avenue Community Garden are in the Alewife floodplain and both are off the well-beaten path, but resident activists have been working overtime to raise awareness of their value to the broader community. Continue reading

What Lies Beneath: The Brownfields of New Street & Vicinity

Pile of dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

In the rush to transform the former industrial area along New Street into a residential neighborhood, there has been a troubling lack of discussion about what kind of industry historically took place there, and an unfortunate lack of public awareness about the types and amounts of hazardous waste those prior uses have left behind.

Just days before the Cambridge Planning Board’s July 22 public hearing on a proposal to construct a 93-unit apartment building on the industrial parcel at 75 New Street, we learned that the site contains dangerously high levels of heavy metals (lead and barium), toxins (arsenic), petroleum byproducts (TPH), and known carcinogens (at least three hydrocarbons, including benzo[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, and benzo[b]fluoranthene). We learned this not from the developer (AbodeZ Acorn New Street LLC) or the City, but from a “Notice of Release Form” filed with the Mass Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) on June 4th. The July 22nd public hearing was the third on this project (the first was in early March), and the subject of the site being a brownfields has never been mentioned. Not once. Continue reading

Piecemeal Approval Process Lets Developers Off the Hook

180RCPD AerialThis week’s Cambridge Chronicle has a guest editorial by FPRA officers Jan Devereux and Doug Brown.

Here’s how it starts (read the full piece on Wicked Local Cambridge):

The Cambridge political landscape has changed this year with the election of four new city councilors and the appointment of a new city manager. There also has been a marked surge in activism among residents, much of it focused on development and urban planning issues. Along with councilors Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen, neighborhood organizations across the city have begun to change — and elevate — the conversation about the goals, values and priorities that will inform the city’s new master plan.

As leaders of the newest resident group on the scene, we think this is a healthy change, and one that we aim to further through our work. For too long, the city’s permitting process has pitted residents against developers in an adversarial process that forces us to play “whack-a-mole” on a playing field that is far from level. Under the former city manager’s quarter-century regime, our volunteer Planning Board followed a narrow checklist approach to evaluating large projects that ignored some of the broader policy issues at stake. Too often, residents were cast as obstructionist when they tried to raise reasonable concerns about community benefits and the public good.

If you have not already signed the Carlone Petition to make the City Council the special permit granting authority, please do so here.

Carlone Zoning Amendment: A Positive Step

Wheeler St & Concord Ave development

Wheeler St & Concord Ave development

As those on the FPRA’s listserv and others following local development politics know, Councilor Dennis Carlone introduced a zoning amendment that would change the process by which special permit decisions are made while the city is in the midst of a master planning process. If passed, the Carlone Amendment would make the City Council the exclusive special permit granting authority for “Project Review Special Permits” as described in Section 19.20 in the city’s Zoning Ordinance. The change would restore a power that the Council (our elected officials) has had all along, but had delegated to the Planning Board, volunteers appointed by the City Manager. Unlike a moratorium, which many residents have called for to pause large-scale development during the master planning process, this procedural change would not affect smaller proposals or any “by-right” development.

The Carlone Amendment represents a reasonable response to citizens’ concerns that the rapid pace and scale of development, especially around Alewife and Fresh Pond, undermines the citywide planning process, and that special permit decisions during this critical period should be made by the policymakers who are directly accountable to voters.

Quoting the text of the online petition that Councilor Carlone is circulating in advance of the June 30 meeting when the Council will take up the amendment:

As we move forward with a process to create a citywide Master Plan, this procedural change will enable the City Council to impose reasonable conditions on large, new development projects as part of the ongoing planning process.

Under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A, Section 1A, the Cambridge City Council may act a “special permit granting authority” — but as stands, the council has delegated this oversight to the Planning Board, an unelected body.

To be sure, the professionals who volunteer to serve on the Planning Board deserve our gratitude and respect – but when it comes to the big decisions, such as redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse, or large-scale development along the Alewife floodplain – we think elected policymakers ought to assume a more meaningful role in the process.

Under Article 19 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, Project Review enables the special permit granting authority to encourage the production of affordable and middle-income housing, mitigate against the impact of added traffic, promote the use of alternative modes of transit, apply strong Urban Design criteria, and more.

Perhaps most importantly, City Council Project Review will create a better system of “checks and balances” — we will continue to draw on the expertise of the Planning Board and the Community Development Department. But with this change, the City Council will also have a say on projects that are likely to have a significant impact on abutting properties and the surrounding urban environment.

Sign the petition in support of the Carlone Amendment.

Residents may also wish to email City Councilors and to attend the June 30 meeting to express their views on this proposed change. The Council meeting will be held in Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room at 459 Broadway (where the School Committee usually meets), not the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.

View of Wheeler St project from the Trader Joe's parking lot.

View of Wheeler St project from the Trader Joe’s parking lot.

 

All Mixed Up

This building will offer 398 units (all 1 & 2 BRs). In the foreground another building will offer 244 units.

160 Cambridge Park Drive. This new, 100% residential building will offer 398 units (all 1 & 2 bedrooms). In the foreground, another already permitted building (165 Cambridge Park Drive) will offer an additional 244 units.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the concerns we have over the large development projects currently in the Alewife pipeline is that they are almost exclusively single-use, 100% residential buildings, when one of the stated goals of the 2005 Concord Alewife rezoning was to promote mixed-use development. The area’s 2005 rezoning was intended to further the planning study’s vision, which emphasized the following: “creating a people oriented sense of place; developing a neighborhood gathering-place for people who live, work, play, and shop in the area; overcoming barriers and creating much needed connections to achieve a walkable neighborhood; and enhancing the environment.” Continue reading

Citywide Summit Calls for New Approach to Planning

"Keep Cambridge Livable" was the summit's theme.

“Keep Cambridge Livable” was the summit’s theme.

The FPRA presented at the Cambridge Neighborhood Summit on June 7 in Central Square. (Our presentation is below.) Organized by the Cambridge Residents Alliance, the first-ever citywide summit brought together residents and activists from all parts of the city for a full afternoon of discussion on “How to Keep Cambridge Livable.” Continue reading

Conversations on Master Plan to Begin in June

Is this how we want the Cambridge of the future to look? (160 Cambridge Park Dr.)

Is this how we want the Cambridge of the future to look? (160 Cambridge Park Dr.)

Below is an email the FPRA and other neighborhood groups received on May 30 from (Ms.) Iram Farooq (Acting Deputy Director for Community Development) regarding the initial public meetings to inform the city’s master plan process. A subsequent email informed us that Kathryn Madden of The Madden Planning Group will facilitate these preliminary “conversations” with residents.

Please note that the first conversation will be held on Tuesday, June 10 from 6:30-8:30 pm in the Tobin School gym. Residents of any area may attend any meeting; they are not neighborhood-specific. A strong turnout would show residents care (we do!). We also hope to see many of you at the FPRA meeting on Wednesday, June 4 at 7:00 pm in the Tobin School auditorium. Continue reading

All According to Plan? Concerns Aired at May 13 Meeting

FPRA_meeting051314Well over 100 residents and a cadre of city officials attended our May 13 meeting, filling the Tobin School cafeteria for two hours of vigorous debate. On hand to listen to our presentations on planned, proposed, and possible new development in the Fresh Pond-Alewife area were: Cambridge Mayor David Maher, City Councilors Dennis Carlone, Nadeem Mazen, and Marc McGovern. Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy, Director of Community Planning Stuart Dash, and School Committee Member Patty Nolan attended as well. Continue reading

The Great Alewife Disconnect

Alewife Geometry Quiz

Given: the Quad and the Triangle are contiguous shapes.

Given: the Quad and the Triangle do not intersect.

Given: a straight line (or lines) could connect The Quad and the Triangle at various points.

Theorem: Connecting the Quad and the Triangle would dramatically improve circulation, enhance quality of life for residents and commuters, and increase property values in both areas.

Proof: The theorem is true Q.E.D., but planning vision and political will to act are sorely lacking.

Alewife study areas

Alewife study areas (note that New Street alls outside the study area)

For those not well versed in the geometric jargon of the The Concord Alewife Planning Study, the Quad and the Triangle are the names given to the 190 acres lying west of Alewife Brook Parkway and bounded to the north and south by Concord Avenue and Route 2. They are contiguous but not connected by virtue of the Metro North commuter rail tracks running east-west between them.

The Quad (130 acres) and the Triangle (60 acres) present both tremendous opportunities and immense challenges for future planning and development at the western frontier of Cambridge. In the past ten years, these two districts have added almost 2000 units of housing, and at least 1100 more are in the known pipeline. (Note that these numbers don’t include development immediately outside the study area, including large projects and proposals on Rindge Avenue, New Street, Bay State Road, and at the former Tokyo Restaurant site). Yet none of the new vehicle, pedestrian, or bike connections envisioned in the 2005 study has come to pass. A long talked-about pedestrian and bike bridge across the railroad tracks from (somewhere on) Fawcett Street in the Quad to (somewhere on) Cambridge Park Drive in the Triangle is finally being studied, but such a bridge is years — and several million dollars — from completion.

And no one is talking about new connections for cars and buses, even though traffic congestion along Fresh Pond Parkway through Alewife, the rotaries, and beyond is a perennial and growing source of frustration. To insist that traffic on the parkway is a regional problem that Cambridge cannot control ignores the impact that adding thousands of new residents to the Quad and Triangle is bound to have. Even if the majority of these new residents do commute by public transportation, as hoped, many of them will still use cars in their daily lives. And without new crossings, the already overburdened parkway remains the only road connecting the Quad, the Triangle, and all points beyond.

The surge in residential development in the Triangle (1000+ new units along the Cambridge Park Drive, plus hundreds more on Route 2,) is appropriately transit-centered, as the Alewife T is easily walkable from within the Triangle district. (To note, Cambridge Park Drive is a cul-de-sac and those buildings and Vox On Two share a single vehicle egress on and off Route 2.) But the massive development spree underway in the Quad cannot be justified until similar connections for pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and buses exist there, as well. Property values in both areas would most certainly increase with improved circulation, so why isn’t the City demanding that developers of these parcels help underwrite the cost of constructing new roads, multi-use paths, and railroad crossings within and between the Quad and the Triangle?

For that matter, with so much new development clustered on both sides of the commuter rail tracks, why isn’t Cambridge pushing Metro North to provide a new rail station at Alewife, similar to what is happening at Boston Landing in Brighton? Such a project would better serve both commuters transiting the Route 2 corridor and the many new local residents moving into the area.

In the end, the lack of connections reveals a failure of both vision and political will. It’s not a geometry or an engineering problem, or even a budgetary matter. No, it’s simply the Great Alewife Disconnect, and it’s a crying shame.

From the 2005 Concord Alewife planning study

From the 2005 Concord Alewife planning study

New connections were are "priority" a decade ago so why don't they exist today?

These new connections were are “priority” a decade ago so why don’t they exist today?

Additional infrastructure included in the planning study hasn't come to fruition.

Additional infrastructure included in the 2005 planning study hasn’t come to fruition.