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The Tokyo Restaurant near Fresh Pond has been closed for more than a decade and is eyed for development. (Photo: Google)

The Tokyo Restaurant near Fresh Pond has been closed for more than a decade and is eyed for development. (Photo: Google)

Recent events have made clear there is city management and City Council support for upzoning West Cambridge, and that large, dense projects can be built there right now despite the lack of a housing or citywide development master plan.

Analysis box

While a recent Cambridge Chronicle article reported on an un-televised council meeting with the Affordable Housing Trust, it did not report that councillors supported upzoning West Cambridge for dense affordable housing projects despite frustration from councillors Craig Kelley and Nadeem Mazen with the lack of housing plan and goals. The Community Development Department is responsible for that lack of housing plan, one of the required parts of the state-mandated master plan – and the master plan won’t be started until 2015 and will take years to complete.

Incentive, inclusionary zoning

CDD, together with the council, is also responsible for the failure to raise the “incentive” fees to fund affordable housing that left about $4 million on the table. Now that a review has started after 12 years, incentive fees remains about one-third of what Boston asks of developers. Mazen asked apologetically for an explanation of delays, then supported increased funding for the department.

The department is to eventually contract a separate review of the “inclusionary” ratio, in which projects get a 30 percent increase in density in exchange for making about 11 percent of those units affordable. Changing the ratio would immediately increase affordable unit production. Many feel this would not decrease development in the superheated Cambridge market. There was no discussion of decreasing the demand for affordable housing by slowing gentrification and the displacement of long-term residents.

Rooming houses, apartments in single, two-family districts

Councillor Tim Toomey called for affordable housing “in other parts of the city that have no affordable housing at all” and said a reduction in the fourth giant rental apartment project on the dead-end CambridgePark Drive near Fresh Pond “sends the message that certain [western] parts of the city are off limits.” He called out “certain residents alliances,” saying that by reducing project sizes “we are going to lose several hundred units of affordable housing.” This is unrealistic, as only about 11 percent of a project is affordable. (There are also a few affordable units in West Cambridge on Aberdeen Street.)

“We can provide single room occupancy [affordable housing] at a very affordable price,” said Toomey, referring to repurposing buildings such as very large single family houses and specifically the Hickey Funeral Home. “We could put easily 10 units of single room occupancy in that.”

Agreement on upzoning to increase density

Responding to Toomey’s now-traditional call for upzoning, Susan Schlesinger of the Affordable Housing Trust said, “We need to get fierce” and asked about upzoning “areas of the city that now allow one-family houses only.”

Chris Cotter, CDD’s director of housing, said the department looked “predominantly in the areas of the city that have fewer affordable units,” adding that a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot site in West Cambridge “is being redeveloped as two single-family homes, maybe three units. It’s the same size, if not a little bigger, than the property on Harvard Street that is going to be built as 20 units.” Cotter added if the city were presented with a proposal for affordable housing in neighborhoods zoned for one- and two-family homes, it could “look at” zoning standards from neighborhoods zoned for greater density.

Bill Tibbs, who was on the Planning Board for almost 20 years and now is with the Affordable Housing Trust, said that since “affordable housing is more dense,” the city simply has to say that that “density is not always bad.”

“It may just be an education process for the neighbors,” Tibbs said.

Mazen supported increasing density too, saying, “I fully expect that you will have council support … for doing dense, fully affordable projects as part of a special plan for individual parcels or maybe even as a citywide program. I also hope and expect that the neighborhoods that have traditionally spoken out against density will be in full support.”

Councillor Dennis Carlone went further, supporting increased density for market-rate projects that produce some affordable units: “I have no doubt that this [City Council] would pass that each neighborhood should supply a certain amount of affordable units.” He then obliquely referenced a contentious New Street project, asserting good design and good location solve issues of increased density. “There are going to be neighborhoods that hate this notion, but then we have to locate where that can happen at logical locations, not just throughout the whole neighborhood, but overlooking a park, at the intersection of major streets,” Carlone said, opining that the “inelegant” design of new market-rate apartment buildings “hurts building in higher-end neighborhoods.” Finally, he referred to Forest Hills in Queens, N.Y., to say that good design “can make a four-unit, 1,000-square-foot each fit into a 4,000-square-foot-house neighborhood in an elegant way.”

Kelley: Key issues not addressed

Kelley was unhappy that CDD failed to supply basic statistics on affordable units – how many, where they are, who is living in them, how many children there are – and said the affordable housing discussions were” less than optimally useful” without including the school department. “I have no idea what our long-term goal is,” said Kelley, as he has for many years. “It will be impossible, absolutely impossible to sell a major rezoning if we can’t explain where we are going.”

Kelley did vote against the 2011 rezoning that allows multifamily and commercial uses in single- and two-family districts via conversion of nonresidential buildings such as schools and churches into residences.

Maher agrees on upzoning, has list of sites for housing

Mayor David Maher closed the meeting saying that “every neighborhood has a responsibility” for affordable housing and that the city has not been “aggressive” enough in taking land by eminent domain for affordable housing projects. Maher made a quick list of possible affordable housing sites, “looking at the Tokyo [Restaurant] site, Mass. Ave and Magoun Street, the lot at the corner of Huron and Cushing Street” and Vail Court.

While Mazen and Kelley don’t know what CDD’s housing goals are, Maher is ready to build.  The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority can take land by eminent domain without council approval and can finance and build using its own resources. With existing zoning, the Tokyo Restaurant can become about 30 apartments or maybe more than 100 rooms in a “lodging house.” If the density is doubled as CDD suggested, it’s possible that more than 200 affordable rooms can be created.

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