Fight against biolab was lost, but with an affordable-housing victory

We are writing to thank the many Cambridge residents who participated in the efforts to limit the size of the proposed Forest City biolab building at 300 Massachusetts Ave. and to protect the affordability of 168 apartments for current and future tenants in nearby Auburn Court and Kennedy Biscuit apartments at University Park.

While we lost the fight to limit the biolab to the size allowed under current zoning, we contributed to an important affordable housing victory. Neighbors’ letters, phone calls and testimony at City Council meetings, along with more than 500 signatures on our “Keep Cambridge Livable” petition, altered the terms of debate and helped secure the housing victory.

In exchange for the zoning change allowing a much taller and bulkier building than current zoning allowed, Forest City was forced to ensure, through a letter of commitment, that the affordability of 168 housing units it had previously developed in University Park will be extended for the 52 years remaining of its ground lease from MIT and that rents will be limited to 30 percent of a tenant’s income. The affordability provisions of many of these apartments would have expired far sooner, forcing out many tenants. And the important 30 percent restriction is new.

The changes were negotiated among tenants, city councillors, Forest City, CEOC and Cambridge-Somerville Legal Services.  However, bringing Forest City to the table depended upon the mobilization of hundreds of residents belonging to the Area IV Coalition, the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, Essex Street Neighbors and the Cambridge Residents Alliance that helped bring the hidden issue of expiring affordability to the fore. On the City Council, it was Minka vanBeuzekom who at the hearing last July called attention to the danger that many of the apartments in University Park would lose their affordability long before the 75-year lease was up. (This of course was well known to Forest City, who owns the buildings and wrote the leases).

It is worth reviewing the community efforts that brought Forest City to the negotiating table. In the late spring, responding to criticism of their failure to build affordable housing on the Massachusetts Avenue site, Forest City proposed to build a 14-story tower filled with mostly small market-rate apartments in the park next to the firehouse in Lafayette Square. A robust mobilization of neighborhood residents opposed to the tower influenced the City Council and the tower plan was deleted.

In August, after multiple meetings packed with neighbors and tenants testifying, and at least four councillors – Marjorie Decker, Craig Kelley, Denise Simmons and vanBeuzekom – considering voting against it, the amended Forest City petition was not approved, and expired. The revelations on the expiration of affordability at University Park contributed to this outcome, and set in motion the negotiations that led to the letter of commitment filed with the city last week.

Earlier last year, neighborhood residents’ determined efforts around other development proposals also yielded significant results. The city had publicly presented plans showing half of Newtowne Court public housing torn down and replaced with a higher-rise, mixed-use, mixed-income development. Strong tenant and neighborhood outcry forced the city to back down and state that the Newtowne Court idea was “off the table” for now.

We remain deeply concerned about the scale of the biolab to be built at 300 Massachusetts Ave., with its potential for increased noise, pollution, traffic congestion and parking problems. Though Millennium Pharmaceuticals may prove a good tenant, they are owned by Takeda Pharmaceuticals and subject to global economic pressures.

The Forest City activity was part of a continuing effort to protect Central Square and the rest of the city from excessive and unplanned development by large realty corporations, whose fundamental goal is maximizing their return from our valuable land rather than ensuring the best interests of the community. The Cambridge Residents Alliance will continue working for a livable, affordable and diverse Cambridge.

Lee Farris, Jonathan King, Shelley Rieman, Nancy Ryan, Barbara Taggart and Charles Teague, executive committee of the Cambridge Residents Alliance

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2 Responses to Fight against biolab was lost, but with an affordable-housing victory

  1. JohnM

    Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Yes, Cambridge Residents Alliance was involved in raising public awareness about The proposals put forward by Forest Cities.

    That’s about where it ends. CRA was, until the very end, arguing AGAINST the agreement that was reached to approve the zoning change for the biolab. The work to reach agreement for the affordable housing was done by the coalition of affordable housing activists, some of whom spoke in favor of the agreement at the City Council meeting, the very same City Council meeting where members of CRA spoke against the agreement.

    So, thank you for saying NO last summer and fall. But thanks now go to the affordable housing coalition and the City Council, including Councillor vanBeuzekom, who had the good sense to not listen when you said NO this time.

  2. HeatherHoffman

    Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Surely you aren’t suggesting that the CRA opposed the good parts of the agreement, are you? You apparently believe that the price in greater noise and density, etc. from the proposed biolab and the likely precedent it will set is worth paying in order to get the improvements in the existing affordable housing units. Not everyone agrees with you. Does that make them evil? Or does it just mean that they don’t calculate relative values the same way you do?

    The fact is that the city is selling our neighborhoods to the highest bidder. What’s wrong with making sure they pay enough for what they’re getting and what we’re losing?

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