A little less money, but vote maintains formula for housing, Magazine Beach (update)
The revival of Magazine Beach gets $100,000 and the city can rescue some of the 670 units of low-income housing due to go market-rate within the decade, thanks to Monday’s approval of Community Preservation Act funds by the City Council.
The $10.3 million, which will follow a long-standing formula of putting 80 percent toward affordable housing, 10 percent toward open space and 10 percent toward historic preservation, was called “an incredible amount of money” by City Manager Richard C. Rossi. “This goes a long way toward saying Cambridge as a community will take advantage of anything it can to make this a more livable, effective community for its residents.”
The money, though, is about $400,000 less than the Community Preservation Act funds voted a year ago, in part because there are more communities taking advantage of state contributions. Cambridge still gets a $1.9 million state match for the $7.4 million put in by Cambridge from a surcharge on local property taxes, councillor Minka vanBeuzekom noted.
But from 2003-08 the state gave Cambridge a dollar-for-dollar match, dropping to 65 percent in 2009, to 29 percent in 2010 and then to 28 percent for the next two years before landing at the current 25 percent, said Louis Depasquale, the city’s assistant city manager for fiscal affairs. Voters adopted the act 13 years ago.
“In the early years there weren’t as many communities who had voted the acceptance, so therefore we were pretty heavy – I think we were getting the most, we were getting essentially a dollar-for-dollar match, which is pretty significant,” Rossi said. “That has changed as many other communities have adopted the CPA.”
In a sign of the tightening, each year’s distribution is funded in part by left-over money from the previous year and a small amount of earned interest, and that’s been between $2.9 million and $3.1 million for the past four or five years, Depasquale said. This year it’s about $1 million.
The formula suggests that in the coming year of spending there is about $8.3 million for affordable housing and $1 million each for open space and historic preservation. The council isn’t allowed to change the formula on its own, only to approve or reject it – a determination made clear when councillor Tim Toomey made a protest amendment changing the disbursement to 70 percent affordable housing, 20 percent open space and 10 percent historical preservation.
The protest was based on a by-now perennial complaint that affordable housing is directed to East Cambridge and North Cambridge and that when opportunities arise to create it in other, richer neighborhoods the city manager and his staff fail to act. Under the just-departed Robert W. Healy, former Jesuit housing near Harvard Square and other properties went to private developers instead of being snatched up by the city for conversion, Toomey said.
He has asked for a meeting with the Affordable Housing Trust, for which Rossi serves as managing trustee, to see if there will be a new approach with a new city manager.
“It frosts me,” Toomey said. “It just plays into my cynicism, and I hate being cynical on this issue, but it really frosts me, as I said, and I’m being polite when I say that word … The map is pretty clear, you just can’t deny it.”
Rossi pointed to recent use of CPA money to keep low-income housing where it is no matter the neighborhood, including at the Chapman Arms building in Harvard Square, and reminded Toomey of the city’s work to save the senior housing at the nearby 2 Mount Auburn St. While Toomey wanted units created rather than preserved, Rossi argued that “It goes hand in hand. We can’t lose units and then just create new ones. We have to preserve and find new, and that’s what I’m committed to.”
Community process, community benefits
Priorities for the money were set through a community process that over the summer brought in some 50 speakers and additional e-mails and petitions, said Lisa Peterson, a deputy city manager and chairwoman of the Community Preservation Act Committee. The funds included $600,000 to playground improvements at the Haggerty elementary school; $430,000 in improvements at Sacramento Field; $235,500 to replace window sills and install interior storm windows at City Hall; $54,500 to firehouse repairs on River Street; $70,000 for work on the city clerk’s archival vaults; $40,000 for headstone and tomb restoration at the Old Burying Ground and $30,000 for granite stairs and enclosures at Cambridge Cemetery; and $100,000 for repair of the 1818 Powder Magazine at Magazine Beach, including restoring the roof, re-pointing the masonry, restoring windows and doors and adding security lighting, possibly for use as concession stand for people using the area for recreation.
The councillors’ vote at Magazine Beach means that the state Department of Conservation and Recreation will kick in another $100,000, state Rep. Jay Livingstone said at Monday’s meeting. The department has yet to say if it will match the $13,000 raised by individual donors to reclaim the 15-acre riverside park.
“This is a major win for historic preservation in Cambridge. The powder magazine is one of the oldest buildings on the Charles River Basin and for decades has begged for attention,” said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.
Like affordable housing, Magazine Beach is a social justice issue, said Cathie Zusy, chairwoman of the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association’s Magazine Beach Committee. “This isn’t just a beautification or historic preservation project, but a social justice one,” Zusy said. “For generations, families without the means to vacation elsewhere have picnicked there.”
Update on Sept. 21, 2013: The state will match the city’s $100,000 with $125,000 rather than dollar to dollar, Zusy said, and has agreed to match money raised by individual donors as well – by a factor of three, or for $39,000 in state money. All told, it’s about the $300,000 needed to stabilize the powder magazine building.