Sunday, April 14, 2024

A test basement apartment program is almost, but not quite, in place for 13 buildings in Cambridge, having been stalled for a week in a parliamentary maneuver called “reconsideration.”

After a 6-2 vote on Monday by city councillors on the Chestnut Hill Realty petition, which would create dozens of basement apartments in an elevated area considered by city planners as relatively unlikely to flood — but with the apartments still requiring separate water and sewage plumbing in case it does — councillor Craig Kelley filed a motion to reconsider the vote. It only takes one councillor to get a reconsideration, and with the filing in place it doesn’t matter that the petition formally expired Tuesday.

Kelley is unlikely to get enough councillors to reconsider their votes Monday to nullify a four-vote margin.

“All I can do is hope my powers of persuasion are enough to get some councillors to change their minds,” Kelley said Tuesday, explaining that he will talk with fellow councillors as he sees them to make it clear why he opposes the apartments. He was joined in voting against them Monday by vice mayor Henrietta Davis, who found her worries about flooding mostly addressed but remained worried about parking and “the potential to create a second class of apartments in a building, ‘where the basement people live.’”

While the zoning petition restricts the test apartments to areas near bus and T stops (mainly along Massachusetts Avenue in areas such as Agassiz and lower Avon Hill) and handles resident parking case by case, “I share councillor Davis’ concerns about the parking and I for one don’t place enough faith that the Planning Board will come to the same conclusion about availability or impact on on-street parking,” Kelley said. The Planning Board rejected two versions of the basement apartment petition — originally filed as “workforce housing” — but didn’t get a chance to vote on the most recent.

The city engineers also have great discretion when it comes to allowing or refusing specific basement apartments, said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, and they already can go only into buildings that already have at least one such unit.

An amendment forcing property owners to create affordable-housing units equal to the number of new basement apartments, whether or not they were all in basements, also failed by 6-2, although in that vote Kelley was joined by councillor Denise Simmons.

“Zoning should not be for the benefit of private individuals, particularly companies. If this does go forward, let it go forward with a provision for an equal number of affordable units, which would in fact do some some good for the city, making it actually affordable for our work force,” said Mark Jaquith, a member of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, the group that suggested the amendment.

But Matthew Zuker, a principal of Chestnut Hill Realty, said had the amendment passed it would have eliminated any interest he had in building the apartments, which will already be priced some 20 percent below the market-rate units in the building above. “The units are expensive to build, making them a real long-term commitment,” Zuker said.

“Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Yes,” he said of the petition and its revised wording. “No proposal is completely beneficial to anyone.”

He had no projected date for when apartments might begin renting. Although the winter weather has been good, he didn’t expect construction to begin anytime soon, Zuker said. In fact, although the controversial petition has been kicking around since January, design work hasn’t even begun.