Surges in city population and construction laid out ahead of a master plan roundtable

A City Council roundtable about a master plan that will shape Cambridge’s future arrives Monday with two big new figures for participants to talk about: one showing surging population, the other showing a boom in housing construction that seems likely to surpass a target a decade ahead of schedule.

The population increased to 109,964 in July 2014, according to U.S. Census figures cited by city planners, a jump of 8.5 percent since 2000 – but still short of the city’s peak of 120,740 in the census from 1950. (The city’s low was a population of 95,322 in 1980.)

In a report last year, Metropolitan Area Planning Council analysts said they didn’t expect Cambridge to match that peak in population even by 2030, when there would be only an expected 118,625 people living in the city.

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But that figure is a 24 percent jump from the 95,802 people in Cambridge recorded in the 1990 census, which can be compared with an analysis released in May by Mike Connolly, legislative aide to city councillor Dennis Carlone, that saw a 30 percent jump in housing stock since 1990 – not by 2030, but by 2020.

The comparison was based on MAPC projections that set housing construction goals to “not only help ensure that every household in the region can afford a home, but will also help the region maintain a robust and growing workforce that forms the backbone of a competitive economy.”

“The city … seems likely to surpass a key target for new housing production – approximately a decade ahead of schedule,” Connolly said.

For Cambridge, the planning agency said between 3,100 and 6,200 units of new housing were needed from 2010 to 2030. But, Connolly said:

“When the 1,356 housing units that have been built since 2010 are added to the 5,408 units that are currently permitted and/or under construction, it is clear that Cambridge has already built and/or permitted 6,764 units of new housing since 2010, more than enough to surpass MAPC’s [bigger] housing target for the year 2030.”

Here’s what that looks like in a graph on Connolly’s report for denniscarlone.org:

060715i Connolly construction table

The report from Carlone’s office followed the council’s approval of zoning that would allow a project called Mass+Main to go up at the outskirts of Central Square, including 232 units of new housing (among them, 47 affordable units) in a tower of up to 195 feet. There had been pressure on councillors from many crying out for more housing and affordable housing. In an essay published in the Cambridge Chronicle, architect Mark Boyes-Watson urged approval of the zoning for Mass+Main by remarking on the “throttling of new housing supply [that] means that well-to-do, moderate-income and low-income folks are all competing for what is a too-limited, too-static resource.”

“This is a problem of not permitting enough housing, period,” Boyes-Watson said. “But every unit permitted and built relieves pressure on the existing housing stock.”

Connolly cited Boyes-Watson’s remark on the “throttling” of new housing in his blog post, but summed up his report with “the observation that the city is actually permitting and constructing new housing at a remarkable rate.”

When Tom Acitelli at the local Curbed.com examined Connolly’s report, he asked whether the new housing would be enough to bring down the city’s notoriously high rents and prices, and answered his own question: “The short answer is no,” he said. “Cambridge’s development pace may mitigate the city’s famously escalating housing costs. More supply can satisfy demand, [but here] said demand will remain steady, like, forever, given the city’s location and the universities within it.”

Carlone, an architect and urban planner, said he wasn’t surprised to hear of the boom in population, which might be even more remarkable because in 1950 there were bigger families living together in smaller spaces – six or seven people in a single unit.

Now that city officials worried about the disappearance of Cambridge families must make special pleas to get three-bedroom units built, a roughly equivalent population allowed by new construction in 2030 might look different than it did eight decades earlier.

A request for proposals from potential master plan consultants went out in late May, according to city planners’ official schedule, and are due back the week of June 22. Whatever company is selected to lead the process can ultimately make clear what a city of around 120,000 population would look like, but Carlone believes the consultant will need guidance of the kind that can be hashed out at Monday’s council roundtable.

“I asked early on when we talked about the master plan, ‘How big do we want to be?’ No one has any idea, and that really troubles me,” Carlone said last week.

The council roundtable/working meeting to discuss the master plan is 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square. There will be no public comment, and no votes will be taken. The meeting will not be televised.

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2 Responses to "Surges in city population and construction laid out ahead of a master plan roundtable"

  1. John S.   Monday, June 8, 2015 at 10:45 am

    This article vividly illustrates what worries so many long-time residents. Development is being pursued as an end into itself without any recognition that current demand vastly outstrips any conceivable supply the city could provide. Advocates are tossing around desired development numbers without any acknowledgement of approved units now in the pipeline. Practically no attention is paid to aesthetics and how new development fits in, or better yet, improves the fabric of the existing neighborhood. And finally, there’s no larger vision of where Cambridge is heading.

  2. jandev   Monday, June 8, 2015 at 11:20 am

    We are at risk of setting off on a long trip (the 3-year master plan process) without a clear destination (growth goals). It’s hard to know what to pack (into a small city) when you haven’t even decided where you want to go. Personally I’d leave that 500- or 1,000-ft tower at Volpe out of my suitcase unless we decide collectively that we’re headed to Manhattan.

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