Thursday, June 20, 2024

whitespace

A developer's rendering shows the proposed 93-unit development at 75 New Street  in the Fresh Pond area. (Image: AbodeZ  + Acorn Holdings)

A developer’s rendering from April 7 shows the proposed 93-unit development at 75 New Street in the Fresh Pond area. (Image: AbodeZ + Acorn Holdings)

The Planning Board was scheduled to decide Tuesday whether to grant special permits, and what conditions to mandate with them, for 75 New St., a 93-unit development in the Fresh Pond area opposite Danehy Park that is modeled on the neighboring 87 New St., by the same builder.

No decision took place.

Residents – including many from the newly formed Fresh Pond Residents Alliance who are concerned with the impact of development on the area’s neighborhoods – filled a packed room in City Hall Annex. The board tried to change its procedures to guide public comment and increase the likelihood of reaching a decision, but instead galvanized angry crowd members who objected, fearing they would not be heard.

The board has been struggling with how to manage the volume and direction of citizen feedback. Historically it has permitted real estate developers unmetered time to present their proposals, followed by three minutes of public comment per person. At its April 29 meeting about the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse, the board let neighborhood associations pool time, which led to more coherent and effective community response. But at that meeting, public comment went on so long the board did not have time to deliberate and postponed its decision, now scheduled for July 8.

Perhaps in response, board chairman Hugh Russell outlined a different process Tuesday. The board would hear updates from the developer, Phil Terzis of Abodez, and the board would “start to work through the project.”

“I think this will be also kind of informative to the public, because you’ll understand what it is we actually have to do,” Russell said. “I’ve prepared a checklist of all of the pieces and I also went through the 40 or 50 pages of written testimony and made a list of concerns that I heard.”

Russell also expressed concerns that many public comments fell outside the special permit criteria in the ordinance. “There are a number of special permits that are being requested by the project,” he said. “Each of those special permits have specific criteria written into the ordinance, and if we find that they meet the criteria, then we are obligated to grant the special permit. That’s the way the law works.”

“I think we also ought to talk about the concerns we’ve heard, many of which are outside our scope of endeavor,” Russell said. “I think it’s good for us to explain that.”

Hue and cry

Members of the public interrupted to complain about the change, and the board was clearly taken aback. Repeated calls came for the board to confirm it would hear public testimony at all, as well as to confirm it would not vote beforehand. While Russell told the audience it would have the chance to speak before the board voted, many in the room did not seem to believe or credit it.

Additionally, while copies of Russell’s memo were made available to members of the board before the meeting, copies for the public were not generally available.

“We don’t count – our voices do not count!” resident Carolyn Shipley called out.

“You should have given us a schedule! When do we speak?” said one resident. “We came here to speak, not to listen to you for three hours!”

Russell responded: “The problem is that we’ve already had a hearing that was about an hour- and a half. We’ve received 40 or 50 letters. We believe we’re quite well informed about what people think. The problem is, if we start off with another hour and a half of testimony, we won’t be able to do our job, which is to deliberate this case.”

They never got to deliberating.

A rendering of the proposed front of 75 New St. shows wider sidewalks and additional street trees. (Image: Abodez)

A rendering of the proposed front of 75 New St. shows wider sidewalks and additional street trees. (Image: Abodez)

Hearing begins

Stuart Dash, of the Community Development Department, began the hearing at 7:20 p.m., summarizing concerns and a negotiated “approach” to improving the quality of the walking experience on New Street in consultation with the developer. That included widening the sidewalk, adding street trees and replacing an asphalt sidewalk with concrete.

Dash suggested the city could help, widening the street on the Danehy Park side to accommodate traditional bike lanes, travel lanes and a sidewalk with trees.

Dash was followed by representatives for the developer, who spoke for 30 minutes about small tweaks to the project, including the widened sidewalk; extending the landscaping improvements to include part of the existing building at 87 New St; and increasing the number of three-bedroom units and reducing some other units to studios. They also summarized the traffic study.

Terzis, the lead developer, tried to sell the project by noting its family-friendly nature and that “a little over 40 percent” of the 87 New St. units have children, “which beats the average in Cambridge.” A little over half the residents use the T regularly, Terzis said.

Board tries to deliberate

At 7:50 p.m., the board started to enumerate the special permit criteria and evaluate them. They did not get very far.

There was some confusion about process, and after board member Tom Sieniewicz inquired about voting on each criterion, members of the public interrupted again, concerned the board might vote before the public was heard.

“What we can do is identify the issues and the areas and what our concern is, and then it is up to the public to comment on those issues we have identified,” said H. Theodore Cohen, vice chairman of the board.

But after several more interruptions and a brief recess at 8 p.m. in response to an extended interruption, by 8:15 p.m. the board concluded the process was not working. Cohen suggested moving to public comment, which the board did after briefly discussing the bicycle aspects of the project and some of the traffic study. It mentioned the small number of additional trips the project was expected to generate, despite the acknowledged serious traffic problems in the area.

Public comment

From 8:15 to 10:30 p.m., the board took public comment, all in opposition to the project or neutral to it.

But the board’s review of permit criteria had an effect. Many speakers noted they modified their comments to conform, and others expressed concerns about the process on whether the board’s interpretation of its duties were too narrow.

Many offered concerns about the roadway and its lack of safety from automobile traffic. Worries about a widened street coming in exchange for a reduction of the public park area were raised. Concern was offered that this development might foreclose a reasonable connection to the Alewife shopping center and access to the MBTA. It was questioned whether this was truly transit-oriented development, given the difficulty of reaching the T station. Concern was raised about the isolated nature of this plan, and the context of other nearby developments.

There was repeated disbelief that there would truly be no traffic impact, and lack of confidence in the developer’s traffic study and the city’s assessment of it were regular themes. Concern was raised that the development would be detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood, including the park, which provides athletics services for the entire city. Worries were offered about what happens when a street serves as a cut-through. Dodging traffic was “basically a video game,” in the words of Steven Bercu.

The board declared that owing to the hour, it was not feasible for it to resume its deliberations, and negotiated a deadline extension on the special permit through July 31 with the expectation the hearing would be July 22. Nearly all of the audience had left by this point.

For a few minutes, there was an opportunity for some members of the public to ask questions of the board, and they relaxed their stance and allowed themselves to answer and explain themselves. Russell explained he had taken three hours off of work that day to reread the ordinance and review prior public comment and testimony.

Responding to a question from board member Steve Cohen about the traffic study, Russell said, “I hope the staff will communicate with their colleagues in the traffic and transportation department … and think about what they’ve heard tonight and take some appropriate action.”

Steve Cohen, new to the board as of last year, reiterated his praise for Russell’s memo and said, “I really think it’s important that we make those criteria available to the public well before the hearing. So the public understands this process and can address the actual criteria.”

The board then, at 10:30 p.m., took up other business for the evening: recommending to the city Council that no action be taken on the Hathaway Lofts zoning petition; granting an extension for 57 JFK St; and hearing an update on the status of Kendall Square/Central Square zoning, and recent related projects.

Board reflects on discussion

With a little distance from the angry crowd, at 10:45 p.m. board member Ahmed Nur started a discussion about “how to handle that type of pressure.”

“We’re volunteers, we’re not paid employees,” Nur said. “I think we ought to sit down together and figure out how [to handle the situation].”

Board members complimented Russell for being “calm and even-tempered under very trying circumstances,” and Russell said he was “really very happy” that H. Theodore Cohen suggested that the Board shift course away from deliberation toward public comment.

Sieniewicz expressed frustration at the lack of civil discourse: “Why am I putting myself through this?” he said. “There were very few voices that chose to take the high road.” Sieniewicz, while new to the board from 2013, served for many years on Cambridge’s Board of Zoning Appeals, including as its chairman. He described feelings of “a very high level – not of anger – [but of] sadness, frustration and a sense that the work of this board is being stifled by an impracticed public. That’s a tough place to be thinking about my fellow citizens.”

“You can’t resign,” longtime member Pamela Winters said – twice – to Sieniewicz. “We’re not letting you,” she joked.

“For me one of the central problems is this fundamental misunderstanding of the difference of the Planning Board’s role when we’re doing planning … and when we’re acting in a quasi-judicial role, dealing with a specific application,” Steve Cohen said. “They’re two different hats that we wear, and I think it would be important to somehow or another help the public understand the distinction between those two roles.”

“I think there was a lot of vitriol,” Steven Winter said. “The very very sad thing is that this was the level of discourse Cambridge was in about 25, 30 years ago. Every single board meeting. Every single commission. This is the first time I’ve seen it back in my time on the board … It was disheartening.”

The board will meet twice in June, but its next major contentious hearing is expected to be on July 8 for the courthouse at 40 Thorndike St., followed by the return of 75 New St. July 22. On June 17 it will hear a proposal for 180R CambridgePark Drive, which is also in the Alewife area, and may bring some of the same neighborhood response.

The board has one vacancy.

line gray

Reporter John Hawkinson spoke during public comment with observations about the board process: that despite the anger and confusion, letting the public hear the board’s thinking and respond to it was valuable and elevated the level of discourse substantially from the usual; that the public doesn’t understand the special permit process and it is incumbent upon the board and its staff to work to counter that; that the city’s website needs to be better and it does no good if the proponent submits materials well in advance if they do not make it to the website, as happened Tuesday; that the chairman’s summary memo seemed like a great idea, and if similar documents could be disseminated in the future that would help a lot; that the board’s statutory master planning function means that when it gets legitimate comments outside the special permit criteria, that means the board needs to give real thought to changing the criteria and proposing changes to the ordinance; and that since a city community development staff member attended the jam-packed Fresh Pond Residents Alliance meeting recently, summarizing the tenor of the community to the board would have been within scope of the community planning update that begins every board meeting.