Mayor David Maher talks with North Cambridge residents concerned about development that would add 140 units of housing and accompanying traffic to the area around Fawcett Oil. In the background is a decaying greenhouse one resident says he’d like to buy. (Photo: Bob Sprague)

Mayor David Maher walked the walk Tuesday with 10 North Cambridge neighbors hoping he’ll vote their way on a zoning petition Oct. 20. With each step, longtime residents expressed less-than-sunny skepticism about delaying the push to limit density and height of a project proposed for the Fawcett Oil site.

“The council is not going to screw the neighborhood,” Maher said at the end of the mile-long walk, on Cottage Park Avenue. He urged direct discussion with the developer and warned that voting in limits now might lead to unintended consequences.

Julia Bishop, for whom the petition is named, said she plans to meet with the oil company’s Rob Fawcett and his development team Thursday in one of a continuing series of sessions.

With Maher’s visit, all nine city councillors have walked the North Cambridge neighborhood and heard concerns about the impact of development.

The walk began on Brookford Street, as development watchdog Charles Teague led the group past modest homes, some with red signs proclaiming their support for the Bishop petition. The measure would cut by 30 percent the Fawcett Oil plan for 104 rental apartments at Tyler Court and make permanent a negotiated reduction of a plan for the Cambridge Lumber site for 20 condos along Harvey Street. In addition, another developer is planning to convert the former J.H. Emerson factory on Cottage Park Avenue to 16 condos.

As the gathering ambled down Magoun, Maher went beyond chitchat. “Ideas?” he said. “Let’s do this right.” Neighbors on the walk said they would prefer a 35-foot height for the two Fawcett buildings rather than the proposed 40 feet.

Where Magoun hits Whittemore, the group stopped in front of a decaying greenhouse across from a community garden. One resident said the city wanted to buy the garden, but “Fawcett walked away.”

Mayor: “Zoning is a crude tool”

The suspicion toward the Fawcetts, who also own South Shore Fuel in Braintree, continued as the walkers turned at Madison into a lot near W.R. Grace, through a narrow opening in the fence to the bike path beyond.

There, Maher began to make his case, urging patience and negotiation rather than pushing the petition vote before the Nov. 8 City Council election.

Councillors “unanimously agree that something must be done to help the neighbors,” he said, adding, “zoning is a crude tool.”

He cited examples of projects that were built “by right” after zoning changes, meaning without need for a variance or special permit, that still led to unfortunate results. One, he said, was the squat, multistory office building with reflecting glass at Beech Street and Massachusetts Avenue near Porter Square.

“City Council can change zoning and still end up with ugly projects,” he said.

Urging a vote on the petition was Bob Cyr, a resident of Cottage Park Avenue for 45 years. “I don’t trust ’em,” he said of Fawcett Oil, citing involvement between neighbors and the company starting in 1972.

The alternatives

Bill Fox, who has lived in that neighborhood for 55 years, urged fairness for all neighboring streets affected by the traffic impact expected from the three projects.

Maher said that in a dozen years of dealing with zoning issues, he sees an overall advantage in direct talks rather than moving ahead now with downzoning. He said keeping the “threat” of the petition alive “has its own weight.” It expires in early December but can be refiled, he said.

Councillor Sam Seidel made a similar pitch in an earlier neighborhood walk, Bishop said, but she wanted to know: “Where are the guarantees?”

Maher said he expects a recommendation about these issues from the Community Development Department on Oct. 24 or 31.

“You have a decision before you,” Teague said, referring to issues he said were vetted in 1998. “It’s not rocket science.”

The Bishop petition effort got moving this summer after word about the Fawcett development became public last winter.

A leaflet circulated by supporters cites two scenarios should the effort to pass it fail:

  • Remove the development bonus allowed by the Bishop petition and downzone to where it should really be to match the neighborhood, with its two-family homes (in city zoning lingo, the area is deemed a “Residence B” area).
  • A lawsuit.