Council resists pre-election zoning vote, tells neighbors to wait

Supporters of the Bishop zoning petition, which would shrink a proposed North Cambridge project, rally outside Wednesday’s candidates forum at Cambridge College on Massachusetts Avenue.

Sixteen North Cambridge residents urged city councillors Monday to act on the Bishop petition, the citizen-written proposal to limit the size and density of development looming over them from three projects totaling more than 125 new units of housing. Councillors, however, told them they should wait.

Passing their petition wouldn’t get them as much as they could get by negotiating with Fawcett Oil, the owners and developers of the largest and most worrisome project, councillors said.

And some blasted Craig Kelley, the councillor trying to speed the project along to a vote before the Nov. 8 election, “when people are more focused,” and before the citizens’ petition expires Dec. 6.

That didn’t sit well with Marjorie Decker, who said Kelley had “a cynical view of the council” and told residents the council would “do the right thing whether there was an election or not.” While acknowledging that he saw the “cynical gamesmanship” aspect, Leland Cheung also applauded Kelley’s “energy and enthusiasm in trying to tackle this.”

“I do support the Bishop petition,” Cheung said, echoing nearly every councillor who debated Kelley’s fast-track proposal. “But I would still like to try to make it even better.”

Talking points for a better deal

While residents argued that without the petition in place, their negotiations had no teeth, councillors told them that if the petition went through they would lose the power to get other improvements they might want. “To pass this downzoning tonight takes off the table so many other things this neighborhood needs,” Decker said. “There are so many other nonzoning issues that need to come out to get the best possible outcome for the neighbors … and even if we pass this petition, you still want a legal agreement signed.”

Councillor Sam Seidel told them much the same thing: “We need some reason to be talking. If the petition goes away, the reasons to talk diminish.”

Few specific nonzoning improvements were mentioned; councillor Ken Reeves wondered why there couldn’t be fountains at the end of the dead-end streets in place of the current chain-link fences.

Residents such as Bob Cyr, of Cottage Park Avenue, have bitter complaints against the Fawcett family dating back to 1972, and the hints of great things to come by Decker and Reeves were discussed with some skepticism later.

First, though, Kelley reminded the council that the Bishop petition had been submitted 82 days earlier and had a hearing in the Ordinance Committee in September along with three other citizen-written proposed laws, making it seem to him as though it were moving slowly, not being rushed.

The council agreed unanimously to move the Bishop petition to its unfinished business — using a mechanism that also leaves it in the committee led by Seidel — but rejected Kelley’s attempt to address it quickly enough that it could be voted on before the election, because the pace didn’t give the Planning Board enough time to discuss it and give the council its assessment.

Tight timelines

The Planning Board wouldn’t be able to report to the council before Oct. 24, and Oct. 31 is the more likely date. That leaves only a week before elections.

“That we would move ahead without them seems a little quick to me,” Seidel said.

“The best decision-making is not done to do it before an election. These are tight timelines,” Reeves said.

Upon hearing the councillors’ intent, residents said they doubted there would be action before the petition expires. Some may have resigned themselves to refiling it as soon as they heard Mayor David Maher mention that some needed to be filed two or even three times.

“I’m sad the work wasn’t done ahead of time. It should have been done ahead of time so we could have voted before the petition expires,” resident George Diep said.

Fawcett Oil told neighbors in January of its plans to convert its site from a business to 104 apartments. The plan, especially in combination with those for the nearby Cambridge Lumber site for 20 condos and conversion of the former J.H. Emerson factory on Cottage Park Avenue to 16 condos, would change the feel of the area and make traffic on the narrow, one-way streets difficult to navigate, neighbors say.  The Fawcett changes would take a dead-end street with 14 cars and force residents there to deal with some 70 cars a day, Cyr said.

On Thursday, Fawcett lowered the number of apartments it was proposing to 91, but residents want the number to go at least as low as 77.

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One Response to Council resists pre-election zoning vote, tells neighbors to wait

  1. Mike-

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 11:52 am

    By allowing for the possibility of a vote before the election, having a second reading would have put pressure on the developer to quickly come up with a better plan for negotiation rather than risk losing a lot more if the election circus brought the petition to a vote then it was subsequently passed due to intransigence on the part of the developer. We have a cynical view of the *developer*; it was amusing that Decker turned things back to being about her. As Reeves alluded, Kelley’s motion was brought forth at the request of quite a number of the neighbors, such as the ones who showed up at the meeting requesting a fast vote.

    The motion did have the effect of having councilors voice support of the petition in a public forum, which might still have the effect of putting pressure on the developer. Note that the Bishop Petition still allows much more than neighbors really would be comfortable, but it was brought forth to put some cap on development that had a chance of passing without a protracted process. It may not be the very best for the neighborhood, but it is better than the proposed development, and it would shorten the time spent away from our families dealing with this issue. If we were all willing to put for a long effort, the starting number would have been lower.

    Most of us are most concerned about safety associated with traffic caused by larger numbers of units, and are less interested in the color of the lipstick on the pig. Usually the only concessions in a neighborhood-developer negotiation over a large, externally financed project is in the location and number of trees, not in any signficant number of units.

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