Monday, May 20, 2024

The planning situation in Central Square is not in very good shape. City officials set up two committees – both called the Central Square Advisory Committee – whose purpose and membership was completely different. Confusion was natural.

One of the committees – after city staff drenched them with PowerPoint – signed onto a “plan” that would almost double the allowed building heights in Central Square. Staff then assembled a draft rezoning proposal for discussion by the Planning Board last Spring. In late December the Community Development Department circulated two “final reports” for Kendall and Central squares. There had been no public hearings on the plans and no consideration of alternatives, traffic, shadow, wind, parking and other impacts.

Last June, a well-known developer made a surprise proposal to double again the allowed building heights at Central Square. The Twining Properties recommended a height limit of 285 feet – inspired by New York’s Flatiron building of the same height. The unanimity of the developers was shattered. The rezoning effort stopped dead in its tracks.

This past fall, the Ten Essex Street proposal attracted positive attention because it filled in an open parking lot and did so within existing zoning. Local reviews were surprisingly supportive, except for one citizen who suggested we would be condemned by future generations because we did not build to the maximum possible high-rise density.

The result is that the development community has been split in three directions. With the plan defective and incomplete at Kendall Square and Central Square, the prospects for a successful completion of the two-year-long Kendall and Central planning study are not upbeat.

Rezoning plans are stalled. Twining Properties has sponsored a website to seek response to some of their general ideas, but without mention of the 285-foot height proposal. A recent push to engage public response to an on-screen survey seems to have fizzled.

At the moment, the public dialogue has taken a step backward toward a basic issue: How do we increase and maintain affordable housing in Cambridge? This discussion is long overdue.

Some citizens expressed their concern that a development frenzy would simply result in all housing costs going up. There would still be no stability. Only one specific housing proposal has been placed openly on the table – and that is by Fred Salvucci, former state transportation secretary and now lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has proposed that the universities provide housing for all their students and take the pressure off the local housing market.

Development advocates have countered – saying it is better to build high-income housing and get about 10 percent of the units as “affordable.” They have tried to change the debate so that “middle-income housing” is introduced into the discussion, with the possibility that only high- and middle-income housing would be built, but no affordable units.

These density advocates have sought to support their claims by pointing to a large body of “academic work” saying we must build more housing no matter what the price. Unfortunately, these conclusions are not necessarily accurate, unbiased or consistent. One local expert two decades ago was touting his highly partisan economic analyses of weaknesses in our capitalist economy. In more recent years, he had taken a posture closer to the construction lobby. One conclusion is that he simply shifted his biases.

We should never trust any study until we know where the funding is coming from. The funder becomes the client and often controls the results. Study conclusions can be too easily manipulated, so we must always be on the lookout for bias. Economic studies are particularly vulnerable to bias; the field is severely crippled by its inability to take into account the effects of advertising, and trying to draw an economic conclusion without considering advertising is like judging the performance of a car with all its wheels off. Economists also fail to account for economic “bubbles” – think of the dot-com and housing bubbles we lived through in the past couple of decades.

For Cambridge, what do these defects in economic and academic thinking mean? All it takes is for a Kendall Square publicity committee to use their media and Web contacts to get the word out that “Cambridge is the place to be.” Next the young professionals will come flooding to Cambridge from areas across the country and even around the world. This increased demand translates into higher housing costs.

Over the decades our housing initiatives have failed to stabilize housing costs. If Cambridge does nothing at all, added demand will drive up housing costs. If Cambridge builds new high-income housing and whoops it up, the demand also increases and drives up housing costs. There is no ultimate difference for the person seeking affordable housing.

The worst thing we can to is to conclude that the economists and the academics have this all figured out.

Steve Kaiser