Monday, July 22, 2024

The bulk of this letter was read aloud as part of public comment at Monday’s meeting of the City Council before a vote changing section 5.28 of the citywide zoning law.

I’m here tonight to talk about a very scary word, so I’ll give you a moment to get the smelling salts ready before I actually say it. It’s a word that seems to prompt people to do and say ridiculous things, things that I don’t think they’d say unless this scary word was lurking about. The person who wrote, “It is my opinion that the proposed use of the building as a multifamily dwelling is not permitted in a Residence B zone pursuant to Article 5.28.2” is so spooked by the word that he had a hissy fit in this chamber and said that using the word in the context of adopting a zoning change that would make that use permitted and connecting the scary word with him affected his reputation and was “beyond the pale.”

By now you have probably guessed that this scary word is upzoning. You know, it’s really not so scary. This council has proudly and enthusiastically upzoned huge swaths of this city, especially in my neighborhood, but they’ve shared the joy with other parts of the city as well. All it means is changing the zoning ordinance to permit something that wasn’t allowed before, for example, certain commercial uses in districts where they are currently forbidden. Saying something is upzoning is obviously not a negative value judgment, given the enthusiastic upzoning I just mentioned, merely a statement of fact.

This scary word tripped up Stuart Dash, one of my very favorite people in the Community Development Department. He said the proposal before us couldn’t be upzoning because we were dealing with existing buildings. He couldn’t possibly mean anything that ridiculous. If that were the case, why would we have use restrictions or limit the number of dwelling units a person can put in a building? Does anyone really think that changing the zoning ordinance to permit a steel mill or a rendering plant or a nuclear reactor in an otherwise residential neighborhood as long as it was put in an existing building wouldn’t be upzoning? Of course it would. Just acknowledging that something is upzoning says nothing about whether adopting such a change is a good idea or not.

The mayor made a similar mistake, his brain apparently fogged by the aura around the scary word. He said that the commercial uses this proposal would allow in districts that are currently residential only couldn’t be upzoning because the suggestion came from the Norris Street neighbors, not the city. It is an interesting notion that the source of an idea rather than its content is what determines whether it’s upzoning or not, a notion that I don’t think any of us would agree with. Again, whether or not this is a good idea is completely separate from the question of whether it’s upzoning.

So while we’ve been going around and around on whether to use the scary word, most of Cambridge has been blissfully unaware of the substance of what’s before you today. In truth, it’s been such a moving target that it would be difficult for anyone to be sure what’s actually up for a vote today. Another version was released sometime last Friday. Not only that, but the city’s failure to reach out to those of us who would be affected by this change, i.e., the residents of Cambridge, perhaps by scheduling meetings in the various neighborhoods to explain what you’re thinking and to discuss what this might mean for different parts of the city — you know, democracy and talking to your constituents — is at least as scary a proposition as the word upzoning.

It’s so scary that councillor Sam Seidel was reduced to claiming that this had been going on far longer than it actually has by pretending that councillor Tim Toomey’s proposal last spring, which was aimed at bringing affordable housing to neighborhoods where it currently can’t exist because multifamily housing isn’t a permitted use (a general proposition that I wholeheartedly support) was actually part of this proposal. He assured us that we had had plenty of public hearings, although I will note that there have been more private meetings with the Norris Street group than there have been public hearings, and that they had been widely publicized. Apparently, as far as he’s concerned, putting the required legal notices in the Cambridge Chronicle and at City Hall and sending an e-mail to neighborhood groups asking them to let their members know about the public hearing two weeks ago is more than enough publicity.

It’s interesting to me that I can get robocalls about theater performances at the high school (well worth your time, by the way), but the city can’t figure out how to get together with people in their neighborhoods to talk about a citywide zoning change or make any actual effort to tell them about public hearings. Not only that, but there’s a qualitative difference between hearings, where we speak into the void and councillors may or may not even attend, and the back and forth that is possible at neighborhood meetings. I’m certain that the Norris Street group understands that their private meetings have given them far greater access to the decision-makers than the rest of us, for all the good it may ultimately do them. Really, what would be wrong with having meetings where we can hear neighborhood, developer and city perspectives on the economics of these conversions and what uses people would like to see made of these buildings and actually have a conversation? Is it too terrifying to find out what your constituents think and for them to become informed about what’s going on?

My neighborhood hosts several successful redeveloped buildings, including several factories, two churches and a rectory that I’m aware of, which have become office buildings, retail, restaurants and homes, and none of which were done under this section. One project keeps getting put on the list of 5.28 projects, even though it was abandoned and a different owner is doing an entirely different project. It’s half a block from my house, so I’m very familiar with it, 77 Hurley St. Despite what we keep being told, what is actually happening there is one dentist’s office and one dwelling. Two others, Blessed Sacrament and Immaculate Conception churches, resulted in lawsuits. The disaster that is St. John’s is another. That makes more than a third of the list of 5.28 projects, so I’d take that piece of information with a grain of salt. What has this section really done to make Cambridge a better place to live in? Why shouldn’t we let this tweaked, retweaked and re-retweaked proposal expire and start over and do it right this time? Let’s start by figuring out where we want to go, and then decide how to get there, rather than just setting out blindly on the road, hoping we’ll arrive someplace good.

Heather Hoffman, East Cambridge