Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A building belonging to the Longy School of Music in Cambridge was raised briefly Monday in a City Council conversation about zoning changes. (Photo: Yvette Wohn)

A vote on changes to city zoning law will wait until Aug. 1, city councillors confirmed Monday at their last regular meeting before a summer break, but the ordinance committee will look at the issue July 18.

“There is a lot of material in here, and I will confess I find that some of the formulas are complex and take a little bit to understand,” said ordinance committee chairman Sam Seidel, referring to ongoing changes to the language of so-called 5.28 zoning laws describing whether and how large, nonresidential buildings can become apartments in neighborhoods of single- and two-family homes.

It sounds like a dry topic — until such a neighborhood is faced with the situation, as North Cambridge’s Norris Street is, and forced to envision a future in which the number of people and cars on a small, one-way street doubles rapidly with renters considered likely to have less stake in long-term quality of life. What complicates the issue further is that the current, decade-old law doesn’t allow such conversion of buildings, a situation the mayor, city manager and other officials attribute to a mistake. They have said the intention of the law was always to allow the conversions.

In fact, 11 such conversions have taken place in the past decade, the officials say.

Some Norris Street neighbors and others around the city see the proposed changes as an “upzoning” adding population density likely to reverberate throughout Cambridge. (City planners including Stuart Dash, director of community planning, don’t recognize population density as a measure and say there’s no upzoning in 5.28 because it affects only “existing buildings.”)

Not all Norris Street neighbors claim an upzoning, though.

“A parting of analysis”

Kevin Crane, a Norris Street resident, lawyer and former city councillor, was eager to speak during public comment at Monday’s council meeting — he was the first person to sign up — to explain that he did not share the views of some of his neighbors or a flier distributed over the weekend by residents in the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods. His name had been included incorrectly and without his permission on a list of people who saw 5.28 changes as upzoning, he said.

“If there’s anything I cherish, it’s my reputation, and I will not sit by while people — for their own personal agendas — twist my words,” Crane said.

He noted that he’d written to the city’s Inspectional Services Department in November to say that the use of the former Catholic School building on Norris Street inspiring the changes wasn’t allowed “as then written.”

Since the changes haven’t been approved — the amendment in question expires Aug. 3, two days after the scheduled vote — the 5.28 language in use at the time of Crane’s letter is the same as it is now.

A message seeking clarification was left with Crane on Tuesday night.

But the issues of whether the conversions are allowed and whether the conversions equal upzoning were as mingled in his comments as they were on the flier.

“To then say that I’ve labeled this as an upzoning petition is beyond the pale,” Crane said.

“The zoning petition was filed at or around the time I wrote the letter,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, when you label this zoning petition as upzoning it’s no more than certain people [talking] that are not constructive and have never added anything to the political quality of life in this city. They’re just using it for their own political agendas. The specifics are that the language is clarifying the issue of multifamily use. Whether some people would say it’s an upzoning, that’s another thing. I never said it. I think there are a lot of property owners and developers who would say it’s a downzoning. There’s a parting of analysis.”

“I want everyone in this room to know, I’m totally disassociated with this Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods,” Crane said, tearing up a copy of the flier as he stood speaking at the lectern. “It’s a joke.”

When it was his turn to speak, Robert Casey’s merely called out from his seat in the audience, “I agree with Kevin Crane.” Casey is a resident of Drummond Place, a Norris Street cul-de-sac.

Grateful for the process

All of the street’s residents involved with the nine-month zoning amendment process, including several meetings with Mayor David Maher and city planners, acknowledged the the school has to be developed and that they would rather see it developed than stand empty and decaying. They have also thanked the mayor and city planners repeatedly for their work and say the zoning is coming closer to rules with which they are comfortable, especially in comparison with the potential 88 bedrooms first proposed for the 36,352-square-foot (and, under the developer’s original plan, 47,000-square-foot), 77-foot-tall school.

Development watchdogs from elsewhere in the city, though, have concerns about what will happen as other large buildings lose their business, government or institutional tenants and fall under 5.28 laws, and about the lack of citywide involvement.

Heather Hoffman, partner of association co-president Mark Jaquith, said during public comment that she was glad the flier went out and caught the attention of people from around Cambridge. City officials haven’t made a significant effort to do the same, she said, and the latest proposed 5.28 changes weren’t online Monday so residents could see what was going on.

“The Norris Street residents have done a fantastic job, but they’re not the whole city. The only thing we have wanted is for this to be a citywide discussion,” said Hoffman to the council, pointing to vigorous efforts to get public involvement in issues such as the future of Central and Kendall squares. “Whether or not this is a good idea is not the issue nearly so much as whether the people of the whole city have had the opportunity to consider it and understand what it entails and give you their ideas about it.”

When the council discussed the merger this month of Cambridge’s Longy School of Music and New York’s Bard College, councillor Craig Kelley wondered if it meant large Longy buildings in residential areas might someday join the list of 5.28 conversions. But the buildings started out as homes, councillor Ken Reeves said.

This post was updated July 1, 2011, to add the Norris Street school’s gross floor area in square feet and clarify that a larger square-foot figure was a developer’s proposal achieved by adding living space to an area that now has tall ceilings.