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City councillor Dennis Carlone address the Planning Board on Tuesday about a zoning petition that would take a permitting power away from the board. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

City councillor Dennis Carlone addresses the Planning Board on Tuesday about a zoning petition that would take a permitting power away from the board. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

The Planning Board voted unanimously against the Dennis Carlone petition at its meeting Tuesday – the board does not believe the City Council should take authority to grant large-project special permits away from the board.

The vote came after 90 minutes of public comment and 45 minutes of debate among board members, as well as a presentation and dialogue between city councillor Carlone and the board. Board member Pamela Winters was not at the meeting.

The zoning petition originating from Carlone had its first serious hearing Wednesday before the council’s Ordinance Committee, which ran out of time before it could debate or discuss. (The committee has another hearing on the petition scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 27.) The board, by contrast, was able to discuss and offer feedback on many aspects of the proposal. The city’s planning department is preparing a memo summarizing board concerns that will be transmitted to the council for its eventual vote.

Carlone began the evening presenting his proposal, emphasizing that he was “appearing on my own behalf as a resident” and identifying East Cambridge and the Alewife/Fresh Pond area as two places the council should take a more active role.

Sense of place

Carlone criticized the board repeatedly for not successfully creating a “sense of place” in the developments at Alewife, especially along CambridgePark Drive near the MBTA station. Board member H. Theodore Cohen asked “Why do you think that adding 4,000 people to an area that was moribund … will not create a sense of place?”

Carlone responded that “some housing developers do not get retail. They just don’t get it.”

Cohen suggested this was analogous to Kendall Square 40 years ago, but Carlone replied: “The difference is, that was commercial development. And people could go home and get all the things they needed. We’re building a residential neighborhood. There isn’t even a place to congregate unless you go into the wetlands.”

Board record: 49 approvals, zero denials

Initial discussion focused on a summation of the board’s record: approving 49 project review special permits and denying none of them. “I’d like a clarification,” Ahmed Nur said. “We always deny it first.” Only after amendment and revision are Article 19 large-project review permits eventually approved, Nur said.

“You eventually approve every one of them,” Carlone replied. “That’s all I’m saying. When it’s 49-0, maybe the process is much too weak. Because not every project has been superb.”

“Do you have an opinion of which ones we should have denied?” chairman Hugh Russell asked Carlone. “Alewife,” said Carlone, who expressed a concern that ambulances and fire trucks would not be able to gain access fast enough in an emergency. He also cited current and proposed developments along New Street, opposite Danehy Park, but Russell pointed out that the Planning Board did not approve the existing 87 New St. development (it was not a large enough project to come before the board), and it has not yet approved or denied the pending application for 75 New St.

Later in the meeting, Russell went into further depth: “It’s not just that we will modify projects. Or encourage modifications … Developers don’t come and ask us for what they want. They come and ask us for what they think the ordinance will permit them. The ordinance is quite restrictive. And that’s a big difference than say, the City of Boston, which basically has negotiated zoning.”

“My [Boston] clients say ‘Oh, don’t worry about the zoning,’” Russell said. “You go and you negotiate with the Mayor’s Office and the local councilors and the [Boston Redevelopment Authority], the planning agency of the City of Boston. It’s a highly politicized agency. You make a deal. And then the BRA board, which is like the Planning Board – they just rubber stamp it. You go in and the meeting lasts 10 minutes. Because it’s all been worked out in advance.”

“That’s the way negotiated zoning works,” Russell said. “It means you don’t know what the rules are. The rules are constantly in flux. What happens in those situations is you usually get more than what the rules say, not less. Here, you get less. That’s a big difference.”

Russell went on to give his prediction if the Carlone petition passed: “I think development would probably stop for that 2.5-year period,” he said. “It’s really probably a moratorium, because the process would be so difficult.”

Not afraid of stormy seas

“I firmly believe that the discussion of both property rights represented by the citizens that are sitting in the audience every night and the proponents of development proposals are rights that need to be very, very carefully guarded and carefully considered,” board member Tom Sieniewicz said. “The messy sausage-making factory that is the legislature is a place where I can’t imagine that happening fairly and properly; and so that’s my deepest concern about the petition, and reasonable people can disagree.”

In public comment, Jan Devereux, president of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance President, had called the city’s development process a “perfect storm,” and said a “citywide master plan could provide a new chart; the Carlone petition would let the council take the wheel. It could be a lifesaver for your board, why not grab it?”

Sieniewicz responded with his own sailing metaphor: “I’m not afraid of the stormy seas if you’re well prepared,” he said. “If you are a captain or navigator of some experience. That’s the way we may differ from the City Council, with all due respect.”

Sieniewicz said the board was made up of city planners, lawyers, architects, transportation engineers and contractors. He cited the collective experience of the board exceeding “50 or 100 years of planning board experience.”

“That is not insignificant,” he said.

“There ought to be a law”

Board member Steve Cohen addressed Carlone’s statements that some parts of the zoning ordinance are too weak. “There ought to be a law, you said? You’re right there ought to be a law. We’re not the folks who pass laws. The City Council are the folks who pass paws. We’re not the folks who pass zoning ordinances. The City Council are the folks who do that,” he said.

“I agree with you we could use some help, perhaps,” Cohen said. “I agree with you that the City Council perhaps can lend a hand. But they have that power to do that already. They have the responsibility to do that already. They set the land use policies in the city.”

Board welcomes some changes

Suzannah Bigolin started Monday as the Community Development Department’s urban design planner. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Suzannah Bigolin started Monday as the Community Development Department’s urban design planner. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Throughout discussion, many members of the board suggested potential changes to the process and echoed some heard from members of the public, many of which would require changes to the city’s ordinance.

Catherine Preston Connolly noted that developers are already encouraged to meet with neighborhoods before filing special permit applications, but “that’s something we would love to see required.”

“Suggestions for process improvement are critically important,” board member Steve Winter said. “There are problems with the process; and we need to fix that.” He said there was misunderstanding of the roles of the board, Community Development Department and zoning ordinance, and that “if there is misunderstanding about that, it’s up to us to clear that up.”

Winter suggested that the board needed to look at requiring independent consultants to look at traffic, wind, noise and water, rather than letting the developers hire those consultants. That is something Carlone had proposed the council might do. Assistant City Manager Brian Murphy, who runs the city’s planning department, has not responded to repeated questions over the past month asking why the city does not mandate the hiring of independent experts.

“We need to work on the zoning,” Russell said. “The council should devote their efforts for the next two years to that activity and not try to take on a very time-consuming process which is the development approval,” he said.

Carlone’s reaction

“I’m not surprised” at the board’s vote, Carlone said after the meeting.

“I was trying to also help the council get much more involved. Maybe we’ll do it in a different way.”

The meeting was also the first attended by Suzannah Bigolin, the Community Development Department’s urban design planner who started Monday and replaced Roger Boothe, who retired in February as director of urban design after 35 years with the city. Bigolin has worked in the United States and Australia after earning degrees at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The urban design staff member advises the Planning Board and works with developers to help encourage good design on projects before, during and after the board’s approval process.

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