Sunday, April 14, 2024


A Fawcett Street building with 389 units in Alewife.

A Fawcett Street building with 389 units was among projects worrying some about rampant development in the Alewife area. (Photo: Fresh Pond Residents Alliance)

Something smells rotten in Cambridge.

The city is experiencing runaway development and explosive growth that critically endangers its character, diversity and quality of life. Or so say a growing number of city residents and neighborhood groups.

Opinion box“Not so!” say city “planners” and “leaders” who, far from planning or leading anything, are marching to a tune played by Cambridge’s pro-development cabal.

“Not so!” say a majority of City Council members who consistently vote to allow unfettered development and who recently turned down an opportunity to take approval responsibility for projects of more than 50,00 square feet – projects too large and too potentially destructive to be trusted to a Planning Board that has never learned to say “no” to a developer.

Those same councillors cynically – or perhaps ignorantly – hide behind the urgent need for low- and middle-income housing to justify support for developments that will spike local rents and most likely displace the people they profess to be helping.

If they truly worried about displacement they’d ask the Community Development Department or city manager to report on the net gain/loss of affordable units through the special permit process.

But why ask a question whose answer you don’t want to hear?

Or perhaps they realize what most of us already know – that we can’t trust any of the city’s administrators when it comes to dealing honestly with the problems of wide-scale, unfettered development.

Could we trust Susan Clippinger, now the former director of Traffic, Parking & Transportation, who never found that a proposed development significantly added to traffic problems, not even in Alewife? Of course, in her rush to approve projects, Clippinger consistently resisted the temptation to measure the combined impacts of developments.

Can we trust Susanne Rasmussen, the city’s director of environmental and transportation planning, who publicly said, “The amount of traffic on the street in Alewife has been pretty flat over the past 15 years.” This of course the same Suzanne Rasmussen who made a presentation to the Central Square Advisory Committee citing 40 percent available capacity on the red line during rush hour; who also cited “50 percent of residents within a quarter-mile of the T as having no cars.” I don’t dispute the numbers – only the fact Rasmussen neglected to mention her survey included student dorms.

Can we trust a city manager who responds to a groundswell of anger against the Planning Board by appointing new members, all of whom appear just as beholden to the development community as their predecessors?

Can we trust a council that agrees to a master planning process and puts it under the direction of the agency whose lax work and arrogant behavior contributed to the public outcry demanding that process?

Speaking of Community Development, can we trust a planning agency that seems intent on ramming through zoning changes and creating de facto zoning policy? Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for Community Development, recently said CDD would not put forth zoning recommendations developed by the K2C2 committees, and would instead deal with zoning changes project by project, shutting out the council and the city’s residents from any hope of a coherent, transparent zoning process.

In the past four years, Cambridge has seen almost half the construction projected for the next 20 years either built or permitted. Far from creating a growing sense of community through our zoning process, we are growing our city chaotically, almost totally driven by market forces that, left to their own devices, will gentrify our city, expunge our racial and economic diversity and create something far different than the Cambridge we love.

Yes, something smells rotten in Cambridge. And if our “leaders” and “planners” have their way, the smell will only get worse.

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Paul Steven Stone is a novelist and essayist living in Cambridge. He can be reached at [email protected]. Share your own essays by e-mailing [email protected].