The future of North Cambridge was on the table Tuesday, with residents and city officials trying to limit an incursion of housing — residents by refiling a petition aiming to keep developments from crowding around and towering over a linear park, the city by coaxing ground-floor business space out of buildings along Massachusetts Avenue.

For the Planning Board and all concerned it meant revisiting old, unresolved business. In addition to the Bishop petition about crowding the park, the Teague petition meant to stop lights from glaring into neighbors’ homes and yards has been refiled, and an apartment building project that became a poster child for North Cambridge density fears returned as well.

(Image: Charles Teague)

The building, the former Ellis School and North Cambridge Catholic High School at 40 Norris St., was bought in September 2010 by a Somerville developer who hoping to fill it with between 33 and 37 apartments. But neighbors rebelled at the doubling of people and cars on the small street, and a slow municipal process has whittled the plans to 25 units.

On Tuesday, Somerville architect Jai Singh Khalsa showed proposed three-level apartments of “very dramatic space” and rattled off details of libraries, master suites and loft areas as well as noting the site’s proposed 27 parking spaces (including slots for visitors and a Zipcar), 25 bike spaces and an equal number of basement storage areas, 1,037 square feet of common area and ground-floor business or live/work space. Wary neighbors said the latest round of changes arrived without giving them a chance to weigh in adequately, and Planning Board members decided to bump the project to its Feb. 21 meeting while gathering more written comment.

Neighbors “are still very much concerned with the density of this project,” resident Young Kim said — perhaps using it as a proxy for the 1,400 units estimated to be on the way in addition to the 333 that have been built in the area in the past five years.

Among the proposals was replacing the Fawcett Oil site with 77 units of housing — down from 104, attorney James Rafferty reminded the board and packed audience — but the plan hasn’t even been filed. During public comment about the Bishop petition, board chairman Hugh Russell had to ask speakers repeatedly to stop commenting on the Fawcett plans. (Rafferty said the project, expected to be filed within the next four months, was almost completely within Bishop petition zoning rules.)

But the site is at the center of a multistreet traffic triangle defined by Massachusetts Avenue, Route 16 and the linear park, a tangle of small streets, massive roadways, illegal turns and already lengthening rush-hour traffic jams. Charles Teague, whose name is on the glare petition but who gave presentations on both citizen-written zoning proposals, testified to counting 54 illegal turns within 45 minutes by drivers trying to avoid getting trapped in traffic.

“The intensity and density is becoming overwhelming,” Brookford Street resident Merhi Sater said. “We are adding traffic after traffic. Our streets are becoming a nightmare.”

Among several people commenting on the effect the density would have on the character of their neighborhood was Gary Dmytryk, representing a 42-unit condo association at 2440 Massachusetts Ave., who said that some residents “even think the Bishop petition is too high” in the development it allows. Councillor David Maher, who dealt with the petition as mayor last year, is proposing in a policy order to be heard Monday that a hearing on it be held at 4 p.m. Feb. 8.

Teague petition looks at lights

There was also plenty of citizen support for the Teague petition, but Teague’s attempt to find simple language defining intrusive lighting and an easy test for city inspectors to follow didn’t win over the experts. There was even concern about the language from an expert who was also a citizen: Glenn Heinmiller, of the Cambridge-based Lam Partners Inc. architectural lighting design firm.

“I totally, totally support the intent of the petition. I’m constantly amazed by what my fellow citizens put up with in terms of light trespass. Obviously a remedy is needed,” Heinmiller told the board. “I’m a little concerned about the language, [which would mean] just about every light in Cambridge would be a glare source and potentially in violation now. Maybe some improvement in this language is required.”

When the board asked for his input on proper language, he called it “a daunting problem” verging on the subjective. “I don’t really have anything for you, to be honest,” he said, having suggested that an alternative to a citizen trying to write law addressing common light complaints would be for the city to write “a proper lighting ordinance.”

Overlay district encourages businesses

One thing the city has been writing: a North Massachusetts Avenue Improvement Study aimed at keeping the area between Porter Square and Arlington a lively mix of housing, services, restaurants and other businesses that encourages people to walk or at least get out of their cars long enough to spend time and money. The result could be an “overlay district” in which parking requirements for restaurants are loosened to encourage outdoor seating and building density can be greater so long as a developer installs ground-floor business space and not just housing.

It “removes the current disincentive to creating mixed-use buildings,” according to the study, by maintaining the allowed size of purely commercial buildings, decreasing the allowed size of purely residential buildings and letting developers go bigger if they include commercial space. The study includes a chart showing the proposed change, with the allowed size of housing-only structures shrinking by 43 percent while housing with retail or office space would be allowed to grow by up to 22 percent.

(Image: City of Cambridge)

This post was updated Jan. 21, 2012, to add Maher’s suggestion for a hearing on the Bishop petition.