Saturday, April 20, 2024

Construction along the linear park and running path in North Cambridge threatens to change its nature, including by putting up towering buildings lacking trees, citizens say.

You wouldn’t know it from the online city calendar, but the City Council’s Ordinance Committee has four public hearings coming Wednesday that could change Cambridge law on four significant issues: the affordable-housing formula affecting how big developers can build; giving city inspectors the power to issue fines for developers who break the law; stopping property owners from shining lights into residents’ windows; and defining construction in North Cambridge around a linear park and running path.

Only the final one is on the city’s calendar, listed as starting at 5:45 p.m., while the council’s hearing schedule shows the televised proceedings actually beginning at 4 p.m.

Especially with all four hearings properly publicized, the challenge for the committee led by councillor Sam Seidel would be to fit the hearings into the allotted times: a half-hour each for the affordable-housing and fining issues; 45 minutes for the lights; and an hour for the five changes in law suggested by the citizen petition that sparked the North Cambridge linear park hearing.

In fact, each of these proposals have been brought forward by citizens, with the linear park amendments bearing the name of Julia Bishop; the affordable-housing suggestions credited to Linda Andrews; the proposal to give city building inspectors fining powers from Lizzie de Rham; and the lighting order by Charles Teague.

The Teague petition

The citizen activists act generally from experience. Teague, for instance, said he suffered from lights shining into his windows from an office building parking lot at 2464 Massachusetts Ave., despite a Health and Environment Committee hearing on this same issue Feb. 24, 2009, and as a result hopes for some simple fixes to city law that could prevent the problem for him and others living near businesses.

“These would be tiny changes to our current zoning,” Teague said Monday, including letting inspections take place in daytime, since inspectors don’t usually work at night, and making the placement and direction of lighting part of designs the city has to approve before a building goes up. Fixes for glaring lights can be as simple as tilting a lens downward. Meanwhile, he said, city law lacks even basic definitions for terms such as “glare.”

The de Rham petition

Of course, the second part of having these rules is ensuring the city can enforce them, he said, noting that de Rham’s proposal results from her experience living by construction at Cambridge Crossing, the rental complex replacing the former St. John’s Religious Education Catholic school and convent at Rindge Avenue and Yerxa Road in North Cambridge. Neighbors say they complained about the work hours and lack of cleanup at the site for six years; last year the city acted, taking Perroncello to court., but on Dec. 27 a seven-month court case was dismissed when developer Joseph Perroncello finished cleaning that morning.

The neighbors had gone to the city’s Inspectional Services Department for help, only to get a rude surprise.

“The Inspectional Services Department does not have jurisdiction to impose fines,” City Manager Robert W. Healy has explained. “Only the judge can impose finds for building and zoning code violations.”

Adding to the exasperation was that the power the city did have — to deny certificates of occupancy, preventing people from renting Perroncello’s apartments — wasn’t used. A temporary certificate of occupancy was issued and, when it expired, the city took no action.

“We need a plan from the city about how this is going to be addressed, and a very transparent plan so we feel the city is there for us instead of for the developer, who clearly has absolutely no intention of following through on anything he ever promised to do,” de Rham said at the time. “We’re getting incomplete answers. We’re getting the inspectors to come down, but they in February told us that they were going to fine this man. Now we’re being told by the city manager only the courts can fine this guy. There was no plan, no transparency about what’s going to happen with this site, there is no hope that any of the city staff can help.”

Adding to the confusion: The department, led by Building Inspector Ranjit Singanayagam, enforces sanitation, refuse and Dumpster issues, noise complaints, graffiti and sidewalk problems, and the city issues tickets for citizen traffic, parking, trash and snow removal violations.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness,” said Charles Marquardt, a candidate for the council who backs the proposed changes to city law. “If you don’t shovel snow off your sidewalk, you can get a fine. If a developer doesn’t obey the zoning law on their property, there’s nothing the city can do but take  him to court.”

As power to issue fines goes from a judge to the city, they should also be maximized to the $300 daily allowed by the Massachusetts General Laws from $100, said Teague, who followed the Perroncello issue raptly.

“Give the commissioner the authority to do his job,” Teague said of Singanayagam. “It’s a common-sense proposition.”

The Andrews petition

Cambridge allows developers to add “density” to the city in exchange for units of affordable housing, but the Andrews petition notes that the method used to calculate the required 30 percent of affordable housing looks at “base” units and not “bonus” units, which Andrews and other proponents of change note are not terms defined in city zoning law. They cite plans for 29 units being built to replace Cambridge Lumber coming with three affordable-housing units (based on 23 “base” units) instead of the four affordable-housing units (based on 29 total units).

The Bishop petition

The linear park petition would roll back the amount of density allowed under a February 2000 zoning change.

“Everybody loves the park. They love it so much they’re killing it,” said Teague, drawing attention to a construction of towering homes that block out light and change the look and feel of the path — adding solid white fence instead of trees and putting air conditioners, generators and apartment trash areas by it, separated from runners and bicyclists by only a chain-link fence.

There are also concerns about increased traffic from the three projects in development around the park — some 150 units between projects at the Fawcett Oil, Cambridge Lumber and Emerson sites, although part of Wednesday’s proposal is to shrink the square footage for the Lumber and Fawcett projects and shrink the Fawcett units to 77 from 104. The area between Massachusetts Avenue and Route 16 is serviced mainly by already cramped streets, and access to Route 16 is legally limited for hours a day, adding to lengthy backups for drivers.