Wednesday, July 24, 2024


A path leads into the Siver Maple Forest in Belmont. (Photo: Tim T.)

A path leads into the Siver Maple Forest in Belmont. (Photo: Tim T.)

Last week, climate specialists and citizens proposed a deep cut in new-building emissions with a municipally popular “net zero” petition to the Planning Board. About 25 people advocated for stringent pollution reduction requirements on new buildings. There is currently no enforceable, across-the-board environmental standard to limit the type of large-scale development that brings about large increases in greenhouse gases. In addition, there are no citizen oversight committees for the two vital municipal permitting agencies, Community Development and the Cambridge Conservation Commission.

Overdevelopment at Alewife should be seen in the context of the open space plan and the Federal Emergency Management Agency map showing where flooding will take place. The area is a model for damaging development that occurs when professional and scientific oversight is absent. “Flipping,” or turning over buildings for fast profit, has been enabled by “spot zoning” with no cumulative water-rise assessments of buildings, allowing the piling up of residential building projects ignorant of their combined impact on flooding as far away as Somerville or Medford or even Chelsea. The entire area on Cambridgepark Drive, now densely permitted, is shown as floodplain on a FEMA map in a city Open Space and Recreation report good through 2016.

Overdevelopment at Alewife

City planners and architects developed the 1992 Alewife area design as a whole, not in fragmented pieces. Individual departments such as Community Development and the Conservation Commission, though, have no environmental standards by which to administer the area as a whole and have ignored the 100- and 500-year floodplain warnings of FEMA for cumulative review. As a result, two years ago FEMA, a nonenforcing federal agency, told concerned citizens that the new Route 2 buildings – the 250-unit Residences at Alewife – were unacceptable for placement in a federally ascertained floodway, but they went up anyway with local special permits.

Another example is 165 Cambridgepark Drive (a property of Blackstone Equity, one of the world’s largest hedge fund-supported real estate companies), which, with permits obtained by the local McKinnon Co. for 255 units, was immediately flipped to Texas-based Hanover Co., specializing in luxury housing units. McKinnon has permits for Route 2 buildings on the floodway and two other crowded giant buildings on cul-de-sac Cambridgepark Drive. Erin Baldassari in the Cambridge Chronicle says 1,000 units are planned, but that must be added to the 600,000 square feet on Route 2 leased for commercial purposes, as advertised by Bulfinch Co. (nearly two acres of Discovery Park open space is pending development) within the 100-year floodplain essential to maintain vital flood protection. It also provides “a buffer zone for a successfully restored three acres of rare wetland meadow,” Harvard botanist Walter Kittredge said. The restored meadow was previously a parking lot, but now it faces a threat from increased air, water and noise pollution.

In addition, there are expansive “revitalization” plans for the quadrangle on Concord Avenue that promises 600-plus new housing units. This Alewife sub-watershed area has not been permitted by the city since the days of industrial steel in the 1940s because of its FEMA floodplain location and the environmental sensitivity of the overall upper Alewife Basin of the Mystic River watershed. (There’s a study from last year by Horsley & Witten Co. here that’s worth reading). Previous conservation commissions have not allowed it – the city passed unanimous resolutions seven times to conserve and protect the Alewife Reservation and Cambridge/Belmont Silver Maple Forest – so how is it that developers could suddenly move forward this year? While the new storm water/wetlands restoration is a benefit for the watershed, it will be undermined with this level of residential use. An additional special environmental hearing by then councillor Henrietta Davis forbid Silver Maple Forest developer Brian O’Neill from running sewer lines through Cambridge until after a legal appeal is completed.

Taken all together, the addition of these housing units will deliver such a significant impact – not only for climate effects, but also on traffic, city services and the special Alewife wildlife reservation – that they are making housing headlines in Boston business real estate magazines. Need we look to other global climate change examples of wetlands blunders with devastating impacts?

Stormwater control in the floodplains

The city and state’s storm water/wetlands project on the floodplain via Little River is nearly complete on Department of Conservation and Recreation-owned reservation and might protect the watershed from flooding and water pollution if allowed full use and attention. The DCR Reservation is a fantastic educational center on a major metropolitan transit stop for understanding wetlands ecology, and the city is building an outdoor, granite-engraved amphitheater for it. City planners and business managers will require instruction and education to protect the ecologically rich reservation from overdevelopment of the contiguous areas in the floodplain. We have ignored long enough the last wildlife refuge in the only remaining undeveloped floodplain.

Silver Maple Forest

If precious locally rare wildlife and our floodplain are to be conserved in the face of fast-moving climate change, the Silver Maple Forest in Belmont and Cambridge must remain integral to the Alewife Reservation. Old forests such as this are the best at providing environmental services, from reducing CO2 emissions to reducing flooding by soaking up rainwater; reducing water pollution; and providing habitat for wildlife.

State legal appeals by locals and the Friends of the Alewife Reservation will go to the Massachusetts Supreme Court if a petition is accepted from the plaintiffs (the Coalition to Preserve Belmont Uplands, a dozen neighbors around Belmont’s Little Pond and Friends of Alewife Reservation). Their standing was questioned recently by a new set of judges in the appeals court after going through two years of state Department of Environmental Protection hearings with the Belmont Conservation Commission appealing as well. Scientist witnesses were denied their standing at DEP and “due process” basics circumvented. The case could be precedent-setting for nature defense, as it includes “upper floodplain habitat,” requiring developers to assess animal habitat in all aspects of the general woodland/marsh area. But in 2009, the DEP court refused to consider the “upper floodplain,” which is full of deer, coyote, mink, otter and 40 species of nesting birds that use this critical area. The loss of this unique remnant of old forest would be devastating for wildlife throughout the local area.

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Ellen Mass is president of Friends of Alewife Reservation.