Council consistency loses its virtue when applied to developers

The Fawcett Oil site could become 91 apartments, but neighbors are fighting the development. Brookford Street doglegs to connect the company’s plant with Massachusetts Avenue. (Photo: Google)

Whatever you think of the City Council’s approach to the big apartment complexes that keep popping up over the city, threatening to overrun neighborhoods with renters and cars, you have to admit it’s weird.

“Weird” may not sound like a nice thing, but it’s a compliment compared with the alternatives: “mystifying” or “hypocritical.”

The most recent example is the Fawcett Oil project along the linear park in North Cambridge, where the Fawcett family wants to turn an industrial site into 91 apartments smack dab in the center of a few twisted, tiny streets leading into the worst traffic patterns in the city at nearly any hour you care to try them. Given the size and difficulty of the roads and the nature of the neighborhood around them, residents want no more than 77 apartments there and care so much about it that they even crafted their own zoning for the city, PowerPoint presentation and all, to show the unintended consequences of the rules now in place along that beloved trail park.

But the council, with the exception of Craig Kelley, resisted setting the zoning up for a quick vote (quick meaning before Election Day, which is Tuesday) because the Planning Board hadn’t weighed in on it and because if the petition went through neighbors would lose the power to get improvements beyond just shrinking the project.

“To pass this downzoning tonight takes off the table so many other things this neighborhood needs,” councillor Marjorie Decker said. “There are so many other nonzoning issues that need to come out to get the best possible outcome for the neighbors.”

“If the petition goes away, the reasons to talk diminish,” Sam Seidel told the residents.

“Zoning is a crude tool,” Mayor David Maher said. “The City Council can change zoning and still end up with ugly projects.”

There was even talk of what the neighborhood could get in return for holding off, such as lovely fountains at the end of blocks now dead-ended by chain-link fence. (Ideally, the city would prove it can maintain the fountains it already has, such as the sculpture at the gateway to Kendall Square, before contemplating new ones.)

None of this is weird, though, unless you think back a year to the law the council wanted — with, again, Kelley being a prominent exception: the sign ordinance that would have set rules about size, placement and lighting for companies who wanted signs atop their office buildings.

Consistency

The reason councillors, some businesses and their attorneys liked the sign law is that it brought consistency to a process being done regularly “on a wink and a nod,” according to one of the most prominent winkers and nodders in town, lawyer James Rafferty. His public comments during debate was all the more striking because it came from someone confessing to gaming the current system of eliciting a special permit or variance by claiming some bogus “hardship.” But the legislators had the same appreciation for the virtue of consistency, with councillor Leland Cheung saying the changes meant an end to “treating companies across the street from each other differently.”

Now, a year and a day after councillors were forced to retract their 6-3 law in the face of a citizen petition — signatures obtained through sleazy means, but legitimate citizen signatures all the same — the majority stick to the argument that through the slow torture of mediation between neighbors and developer they can extract special considerations and promises, project by project, that will be better than that crude zoning so beloved by the same, simple, silly people who’ll have to live with construction and then doubled density for the rest of their residence. You know: the people who wrote, presented and pleaded for it, and the same sort who made pleadings when blueprints for the Alexandria project, Norris Street units or others rolled out across officials’ desks. The same sort who have to live with developers’ broken, unenforced promises.

(Or as councillor Henrietta Davis exclaimed during the debate over the sign law: “How long does it take for us to enforce a zoning violation!”)

Councillor Ken Reeves never misses an opportunity to complain about the empty-feeling University Park, finished in 2005 and extracted from developer Forest City as part of a deal for a Massachusetts Institute of Technology project, and he just launched eminent domain proceedings for a parcel deeded by The Bulfinch Cos. in 1998 to a neighborhood group as part of a deal for development in Area IV.

But he’s also the councillor who proposed fountains for the North Cambridge residents who wrote the Bishop petition, who want no such thing.

What they want is a maximum of 77 units replacing Fawcett Oil, which means they want their zoning passed. And if they gave it some thought, they might also want an answer to the question: Why is consistency so good for dealing with companies that want to put up signs and so bad for developers who want to put up buildings?

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3 Responses to Council consistency loses its virtue when applied to developers

  1. HeatherHoffman

    November 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    The Councillors who claimed that the neighbors would lose their ability to influence the development by downzoning are deluded, uninformed or lying. Any development of the size proposed by Fawcett, not to mention the others in the pipeline, requires a special permit. The hearing process for a special permit allows for exactly the sort of neighborhood and city input these councillors claim would be denied if they passed the Bishop petition.

  2. HeatherHoffman

    November 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    To be fair, Henrietta Davis and Sam Seidel also voted against the sign ordinance, along with Craig Kelley. Councillor Seidel took the most public heat from his colleagues for that vote, which might explain why he went out of his way to trash the citizen opponents and the signature gatherers in a recent candidates forum.

    Councillor Davis, to her credit, at the same forum just said that she thought the ordinance was a bad idea. However, I will note that right after the original vote she circulated an email explanation for her opposition that, at least to my conspiratorial mind, impliedly insulted the entire East Cambridge neighborhood that had almost unanimously opposed the Alexandria upzoning that she eagerly voted for and strongly supported. She said in that email that she voted against the sign ordinance because people she considered reasonable and thoughtful opposed it. My immediate conclusion was that, assuming that she was open to listening to “reasonable and thoughtful” people, it appeared that we must not have any in East Cambridge or she would have voted against Alexandria as well.

  3. Mike-

    November 6, 2011 at 3:00 am

    Follow the money. How many Councilors have Mr. Rafferty as their #1 contributor?

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