Cambridge Residents Alliance presents platform for livable, affordable, diverse Cambridge
As a member of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, I’m proud to present our platform for a livable, affordable and diverse Cambridge. Developed over the course of many months, these common-sense guidelines and suggestions can help you – and your neighbors – crystallize your thinking about how to plan for development that preserves the character, charm and community of our beloved city. At the same time, these guidelines present a positive vision for how to grow Cambridge in ways that inflict minimal damage to its diverse makeup and livability. As for affordability, we believe there are ways to grow our city and increase its density without adding fuel to the fires of gentrification and rising rents. We respectfully offer this resident-centric and neighborhood-centric blueprint to help guide all of us as we debate the future of Central Square and the city itself.
Cambridge is at a tipping point. The city is facing more than 18 million square feet of recent and possible new development. We can make choices that support a well-planned, healthy city for present and future residents or we can rush headlong into commercially driven over-development. The city is experiencing the rapid growth of high-tech and bio-tech companies and the construction of huge market-rate and luxury housing complexes. If development continues at this pace and scale, it will continue to drive housing prices up, increase traffic congestion, burden our infrastructure, threaten our environment and push longtime families out of the city. The hope that our children will be able to buy or rent a home here will disappear.
We are calling on city agencies and elected officials to slow the process, study carefully he citywide and cumulative impact of all new zoning proposals and work with neighborhood organizations to make wise decisions about our future. Regarding Central Square, the next major target of developers, we ask that city officials respect the historic blue-collar and mixed-income character of the surrounding neighborhoods and the strong sense of community developed over many decades. Development should be on a human scale and designed to protect and reinvigorate the economic diversity that made Central Square what it is today.
The Cambridge Residents Alliance is a network of individuals and households dedicated to preserving and improving the quality of life of all Cambridge residents by ensuring that development in our city enhances the livability, affordability and diversity of our neighborhoods. We submit the following proposals to the public and city officials as the basis for a citywide discussion of the future of our city:
The need for additional affordable housing – meaning available for below 80 percent of area median income, which the city is calling $75,520 for a family of four; for other family sizes, click here – is of primary importance, especially because so many low- and middle-income people are being forced out of Cambridge by rapidly rising rents and housing prices in recent years, due in part to Massachusetts Institute of Technology students and commercial expansion. The primary function of Central Square should not be that of a “bedroom community” for high-tech Kendall Square workers, if building expensive units for those workers continues the trend of replacing one population with another. The economic and ethnic diversity of our community has already been eroded by market forces and faces even greater challenges in the coming years.
Preserving existing affordable housing is just as important as new affordable housing. We call on city officials to:
Protect public housing in the city, especially Newtowne Court and Washington Elms, as massive Kendall Square development looms around them.
Each year, seek all possible means to extend the affordability of those housing units throughout the city that carry affordability requirements that are about to expire. Affordability should be extended “in perpetuity.”
We reject inclusionary zoning as the primary way to develop affordable housing by including a small percentage of affordable units in large towers of market-rate housing. In fact, those developments have a ripple effect on surrounding neighborhoods, driving rental prices up and leading to a net loss from the city of residents who need affordable units.
We support construction of affordable housing, even when that means some increased density, with its pressures on traffic, transit and infrastructure. We want more focus on affordable housing as the primary goal of certain developments. For example:
City-owned parking lots along Bishop Allen Drive and in Cambridgeport are important to the future of Central Square. We propose that they be used solely for affordable housing and open space. The city should:
maintain ownership of the lots rather than selling them to private developers;
work with nonprofits to develop 100 percent low-, moderate- and middle-income housing on some parking lots;
require that the height of construction be low- to midrise, in keeping with the neighborhood;
retain at least one-quarter of the total Central Square parking lot square footage as attractive open space;
replace any removed public parking with equivalent public parking that is affordable to low- and moderate-income residents within the Central Square overlay district.
A significant increase in density and height can be brought about in Central Square by development on a human scale that stays within the limits of the current zoning law. Current zoning allows heights of 80 feet with special permit and a floor-area ratio of 2.75. We support some increase in housing density, achieved by building to heights and FAR allowed by current zoning and, in some cases, by increasing FAR. We do not support buildings of 14, 16 or 18 stories, and certainly not the 285-foot towers proposed by one developer. Tall towers would not be in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods and would degrade significantly the quality of life. We feel micro-unit housing, which has been proposed for some of these towers, is not a priority for Central Square at this time.
Cambridge needs to encourage or require more middle-income family housing, especially three-bedroom apartments. Middle-income family housing is focused between 80 percent to 120 percent of area median income, and Cambridge says for a family of four, 120 percent of AMI is $113,280; however, Cambridge provides assistance to households with up to 100 percent of AMI to buy homeownership units. Cambridge says for a family of four, 100 percent of AMI is $94,400. The Cambridge Residents Alliance supports providing homeownership assistance for families with up to 100 percent of AMI.
We support expanding the city’s limited-equity first-time homeownership program, which includes middle-income families, to increase such housing. We do not support public subsidy of middle-income rental units. We could accept a modest increase in density in exchange for the inclusion of middle-income units, if 100 percent of them were two- and three- bedroom units and 75 percent of them were homeownership units.
We call on the city to explore innovative funding mechanisms for low-, moderate- and middle-income housing. We propose the following measures:
Use surplus commercial tax revenues to build affordable housing as well as to lower property taxes at the end of each year.
Increase the inclusionary zoning formula to require that 25 percent of all units in new developments be affordable, rather than the current 15 percent of base units in new developments. (Do not increase the allowed density bonus.) Of this, 20 percent of the units should be set aside for low- and moderate-income residents and 5 percent should be for middle-income families. All the middle-income units should be family-sized, meaning two- or three-bedroom units.
Add a requirement that all proposed new four- to nine-unit buildings come under the inclusionary zoning law, using a proportional rate depending on the number of units.
Ensure that any increase in density must benefit the community in addition to the property owner. If the increase does benefit the community, any upzoning should require a contribution of $50 per square foot or more to the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust, instead of $10 per square foot as in Kendall Square.
We call on the city to require that MIT, an institution with a $10 billion endowment, provide dedicated housing on land it already owns for the majority of its 5,000 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who do not live on campus. Their search for affordable housing puts tremendous pressure on the housing market in Cambridge, driving up rents and reducing available apartments.
We support changing the zoning ordinance to limit tall rooftop mechanicals. We propose that rooftop mechanicals above 10 feet or 20 percent of the roof area should count in the calculation of a building’s height and FAR. Renewable energy components should be exempt from this new limit.
Traffic and transportation
We are greatly concerned by the lack of a realistic and accurate traffic and transit plan to deal with the combined impacts of Kendall, Central, Alewife and NorthPoint developments, which are predicted to bring at least 50,000 additional car trips per day and 50,000 additional transit trips per day into the city, according to city and state consultants. We urge the city to adopt a policy of planning for transportation before approving zoning that allows more development.
The city should conduct a traffic study around Central Square that includes bikes and pedestrians. The study should state the number of vehicle trips per day that key streets can sustain, without: causing waits of more than three light cycles at an intersection; or transforming a 10-minute trip under non-rush-hour conditions into a 30-minute trip at peak times. The study should highlight the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Prospect Street.
The city should develop a plan to deal with the existing and future traffic bottlenecks in the Central, Kendall, NorthPoint and Alewife areas. The plan should insulate residential neighborhoods from commuter traffic trying to divert around bottlenecks.
The city’s transit analysis should reflect the actual crowded conditions red line and bus riders already experience and accurately predict new red line and bus capacity that would be needed for any new development dependent on public transit.
The city should make development decisions based on these realistic traffic and transit assessments.
Development policy should encourage affordable stores in Central Square that meet the daily needs of community residents for groceries, clothing, hardware, medicines, stationary and other necessities, and for affordable quality restaurants appropriate for family outings.
Open space and community space
We need to maintain neighborhood environments in which people can see the sky, breathe clean air and cross streets safely and where children can have open spaces in which to play. A significant amount of public space in Central Square should be devoted to some combination of parks, playgrounds, outdoor markets, pedestrian walkways, urban agriculture, public art and other open-air uses. The city should encourage a private developer to include an indoor market space as part of a proposed commercial or residential development in Central Square.
Net zero: We support the Connolly zoning petition and “net zero” efficiency standards for the future development of all large buildings in the city. The city’s reports say that more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from daily building operations. To avoid the worst possible effects of climate change, such as catastrophic flooding, frequent blackouts and dangerous air quality, we need to reduce our carbon emissions and broaden our notions of sustainability.
The Connolly petition restricts the use of fossil-fuel energy in developments larger than 25,000 square feet by requiring mitigation plans and periodic reporting of energy usage. To reach the net zero standard, developers may take advantage of design efficiencies, on-site generation of power and off-site purchases of renewable energy. All of these steps have been shown to be feasible and economically viable right here in Cambridge.
More broadly, we embrace an expanded definition of what it means to be sustainable. We recognize that reuse of existing structures is often more efficient than new construction. We affirm that there are natural and practical limits to growth and call for design that allows for equitable access to sunlight and open space. We believe that climate adaptation, ecological water flow, urban agriculture and civic engagement are all vital elements to the sustained livability of our city.
Ethanol trains: We are extremely concerned about the safety hazards of transporting ethanol on trains through Cambridge and other adjoining dense urban areas. Permitting such transport would also expand the use of corn ethanol, which consumes nearly as much energy to produce as it yields; farming corn for ethanol releases enormous amounts of nitrous oxide (from fertilizer), a greenhouse gas more than 200 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Updated and comprehensive master plan
Zoning proposals are being considered piecemeal, without regard for the impact of other proposals. More than 18 million square feet of development (in the Kendall, Central, NorthPoint and Alewife areas) has either been built since 2010, is under way or would be allowed under upzoning proposals if passed.
Cambridge needs an updated and comprehensive master plan for growth and development over the next 20 to 30 years – one that includes an accurate and complete analysis of the combined total impact of all major upzoning proposals on housing prices, traffic, transit, infrastructure (water, sewer, gas, electric), the environment and sustainability – before approving any major upzoning petitions. We need an environmental impact statement that addresses air quality, noise and other potential impacts.
According to state law, a master plan includes goals and policies set by an interactive public process; a land use plan that relates density to the capacity of services; housing for all residents; economic development; protection of natural and cultural resources; open space and recreation; current and future services and facilities; transportation; and an implementation schedule and costs.
We strongly oppose allowing the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to control land in Central Square. Authority control would take away the ability of the public to interact with elected, accountable officials in decisions about land use.
We call on the city to observe a one-year moratorium on the passage of any large-scale upzoning changes while a citywide plan is developed and published and the neighborhoods have time to absorb and debate these proposed changes.
We support a genuine and open “community-led planning process” in which participants are not appointed by the city manager and meetings are not led by the Community Development Department.