Friday, April 19, 2024

Chestnut Hill Realty’s building on Langdon Street is one of 24 in Cambridge that could add basement apartments if a proposed change in zoning passes.

A proposal for basement housing returns to the Planning Board tonight, likely much changed from what the board heard — and rolled their eyes at — in January.

While the eight members who heard Chestnut Hill Realty’s proposal Jan. 4 were ultimately open to the idea of more basement apartments being carved out of existing, unused space, its branding as “work force housing” drew skepticism. Members of the public were also put off when the real estate company’s Matthew Zuker  describe the “strong need in Cambridge for reasonably priced apartments for retirees, young workers, working singles and couples and graduate students.”

During public comment on the plan, Heather Hoffman said she was surprised to hear students and retirees referred to as members of the work force. “I thought they were kind of by definition not, especially the retirees, so I think that this is misleadingly named,” Hoffman said.

Charles Studen was among the board members who felt similarly and, looking at the company’s statement of purpose in seeking special permitting, had other concerns as well: “You end [a] paragraph by saying that by doing this, you’re going to promote the protection of the environment and preserve the quality of life in the neighborhood. And I think actually in doing this you might do exactly the opposite,” he said.

Zuker’s family-owned company, which has been in Cambridge since 1969, owns and manages four city properties in Cambridge, three of which — on Langdon, Chauncy and Wendell streets — would fit within the nine criteria proposed for basement zoning, including already having at least one basement apartment unit and being near Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge Street or a T stop. So would apartment buildings owned by other companies, creating the potential for 173 more studio or one-bedroom units in 24 buildings; Chestnut Hill Realty might get 19 more units out of the zoning.

Proposed pricing

Proposed pricing for apartments intended for students, workers and retirees also drew attention from members of the public and board.

“I was expecting to see a significantly lower figure for these spaces because they’re existing spaces,” board member William Tibbs said to Zuker, citing the company’s example of a $1,657 rent in basements, compared with $1,800 on upper floors. “That’s not low enough for the real work force kind of people, at least in my mind, that you would be striving to get. So I guess I need to be convinced.”

“You thought it could be a benefit,” Tibbs said to board chairman Hugh Russell. “What’s the opportunity? Is it an opportunity for the city? … It’s clearly an opportunity for the owner. Is there an opportunity for the renter?”

Basement prices generally run 15 percent to 20 percent less than aboveground units in his buildings, Zuker said.

Thomas Anninger suggested his fellow board members should resist letting pricing be a factor in its decision-making and instead let renters respond how they wanted to the cost of small, basement apartments. But Russell wasn’t quite so ready to let go of the idea of imposing some affordability restrictions on basement apartments, whether for Chestnut Hill Realty or any other company that could take advantage of new zoning.

“Since we as a city are giving a benefit to the owner to allow them to build these units, we can also impose a restriction on the affordability of the units,” Russell said, noting the contrast here with a client outside Cambridge for whom he’s designed work force housing — for those in retail or restaurant service, for instance — running about $477 a month. “There isn’t much of that housing in Cambridge anymore. There used to be a great deal.”

Other concerns

Adding parking for potential basement dwellers also worried some board members, and others planned for a walk-through of Zuker’s existing basement apartments while pondering how to ensure new zoning wasn’t crafted to the exclusion of another 21 city buildings.

In a way, the biggest obstacle was a six-month study by the Public Works Department to assess flooding potential. Although Zuker said his buildings weren’t afflicted by the same flooding common in North Cambridge over the past rainy season, the study is a moving part that could complicate zoning and construction.

“I don’t fundamentally have an issue with units in the basement,” Tibbs summed up. “I guess my big question is why such a convoluted way to get at it? … If you’re saying that the city has a potential of good, quality units in the basement and you’re not able to tap that potential because of your ordinances, that’s a different conversation. But I surely wouldn’t call it ‘work force.’ That just really bothers me.”

“The ‘work force zoning petition’ is just a little pretentious,” he said. “Call it ‘basement housing zoning.’”

Member Steven Winter agreed.

“The way that the way that this project was presented, the materials, it was a little disconcerting to me. You know, this isn’t to plan for a social service program. You’re trying to figure out a business plan, and I think that’s what it ought to look like,” Winter said. “The fact that the proposal was just a little sly makes me want to step back and say, wait a minute, ‘I don’t want to do anything real fast here.’”

The proposal to amend zoning ordinances returns for a public hearing tonight at 8:30 in the second-floor meeting room at the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway.