Join us for FPRA Meeting on June 7th at 6:30

The developer of 605 Concord Avenue (the former Bank of America building) has asked for a meeting with the community and members of the FPRA in order to gather feedback on their latest plans for the project. Phil Terzis of Acorn (the developer) has reserved the auditorium at the Tobin School on Tuesday, June 7th at 6:30 pm. The main agenda item is a review of Acorn’s latest design, with a question & answer session to follow the presentation.

At the same meeting, Mike Stanley will also give a short presentation on his Transit X project. This is an innovative attempt to solve a number of major transportation problems currently faced by the Fresh Pond-Alewife region and other, similarly dense urban areas. The effort proposes the development and construction of an automated transit network with high-capacity and low visual impact using personal pods running on an elevated track. More information on the concept is available at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/transitx-carbon-free-mass-transit#/ and at http://www.transitx.com/.

If time allows, we would also like to use this opportunity to update the community on the current status of a number of other pending efforts, including:

o   HURON A: http://www.cambridgema.gov/theworks/cityprojects/detail.aspx?path=%2fsitecore%2fcontent%2fhome%2ftheworks%2fcityprojects%2f2010%2falewifesewerseparationproject

o   HURON B: http://www.cambridgema.gov/theworks/cityprojects/detail.aspx?path=%2fsitecore%2fcontent%2fhome%2ftheworks%2fcityprojects%2f2012%2falewifesewerseparationprojecthuronb

o   CONCORD AVENUE: http://www.cambridgema.gov/theworks/cityprojects/detail.aspx?path=%2fsitecore%2fcontent%2fhome%2ftheworks%2fcityprojects%2f2013%2falewifesewerseparationconcordavenueneighborhood

o   NEW STREET: http://www.cambridgema.gov/theworks/cityprojects/detail.aspx?path=%2fsitecore%2fcontent%2fhome%2ftheworks%2fcityprojects%2f2014%2fnewstreetstreetscapeimprovements

Finally (also if time allows), we may also take the opportunity to consider what might come next for our area:

Note that this will be our final meeting prior to the Summer break. We look forward to a lively and constructive discussion. Thank you for your continuing support of our efforts.

Message to the FPRA from Doug Brown, VP.

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

75 New Street: Comments to the Cambridge Planning Board (11/25/14)

NewStfromDanehyThe proposed 93-unit development at 75 New Street will have its fourth hearing before the Cambridge Planning Board tonight (Tuesday, November 25) at 8 p.m.. The FPRA sent these comments to the Board and other city staff for their consideration:

To the Chair and Members of the Planning Board:

We write on behalf of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance to offer our comments on the most recent proposal for 75 New Street (“Park 75”). We appreciate the good-faith efforts by the proponents (AdodeZ and Acorn Holdings) to address residents’ and the Board’s concerns. While there is no question that the design has improved since the project was first proposed last February, we feel the overarching concerns about scale, massing and mixed use, as well as questions about traffic and environmental impact, remain unaddressed and that further design changes are needed to satisfy the requirements and the intent of the ordinance. We offer the following recommendations for consideration: Continue reading

What’s on the Council Agenda? (9/22)

All aboard for Alewife!

All aboard for Alewife!

Items of note on tomorrow’s City Council meeting agenda:

Policy Order #5 Asks the CDD to undertake a study of “emerging business types” in order to update the zoning ordinance to reflect more home-based businesses.

This is a good step, given that technology has changed greatly since the early 1960s when the table of uses was written. More home-based businesses (and co-working spaces) could help reduce people’s commutes.

Policy Order #6 Seeks to require earlier community outreach by developers of large projects to neighborhood organizations and residents. The CDD and the Planning Board are asked to begin testing strategies to create new policies and procedures for soliciting more community engagement and input prior to hearings.

We support the intent of this order, but would like to see residents involved in developing the procedures, rather than leaving it to CDD and the PB to determine what’s most effective. We also wonder about the status of the study committee proposed in an earlier order that was supposed to be looking at Planning Board procedures — wouldn’t this have been a key item on the study’s committee’s agenda?

Policy Order #7 Asks the City Manager and staff to look into the feasibility of conducting series of walks in the Alewife area to prepare the councillors for their roundtable meetings with the Planning Board in Dec and January.

This likely came about because Vice Mayor Benzan said at the last Council meeting that he hasn’t had too much chance to visit the Alewife area and would like the Council to get on a trolley bus to tour the area.

Also a report on the council’s transportation committee hearing held in June at Tobin has been posted for the official record. 

Complete list of policy orders.

You can email your opinions to council@cambridgema.gov (cc dlopez@cambridgema.gov) or call 617-349-4280 on Monday morning to sign up to speak. The meeting begins at 5:30 and will be held at CRLS in the Henrietta Alves meeting room where the School Committee meets (entrance on Broadway).

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

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