Board set to okay Ames Street residences, but affordable-units count a sticking point
The Planning Board is poised to approve a 280-unit Kendall Square residential project – 88 Ames St. – at its meeting Tuesday, after years of delay and uncertainty. But affordable housing advocates have questioned whether the building will allot the required number of units under the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, a debate of 36 vs. 42 units.
This residential development has been under discussion for more than a decade, and was originally planned for the site now occupied by the Broad Institute’s new building at 75 Ames St, across the street from the site. The 88 Ames St. project will be a slender tower rising above Boston Properties’ parking garage and overlooking the Cambridge Center rooftop garden.
The board nearly approved the special permit for the project March 3, but stopped short to support the city staff’s negotiating position on traffic mitigation; the board did not discuss the affordable housing issue.
The city had initially asked Boston Properties to subsidize half the cost of a monthly bus and subway CharlieCard for the first 12 months of residence for all tenants, and also to fund $50,000 in consulting for Kendall Square transit improvements. The developer’s counteroffer was for one month of CharlieCards. While the board could have approved the special permit contingent on the city and the developer agreeing, it chose not to do so, which had the effect of increasing the city’s leverage.
By March 10 the two sides had agreed. For each resident, Boston Properties will provide three months of a subsidized CharlieCard and one year of Hubway membership. It will also contribute $50,000 towards consulting services, install a Hubway station and install two electric vehicle charging stations.
Arguing for 15 percent
Cambridge’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requires large residential projects to provide 15 percent of their dwelling units as affordable units. But usually the result is 11.5 percent of units because the ordinance grants a 30 percent bonus in density to a project, raising the total number of units after the 15 percent is calculated, and lowering the effective percentage (11.5 percent is 15 percent divided by 130 percent).
The 88 Ames St. project is different, advocates say, because it is in a special zoning district that has no density limit: the Cambridge Center Mixed Use Development, or MXD, District. Instead of limiting development with a floor/area ratio for each parcel, like most parts of the city, the MXD District limits the gross floor area for the entire district.
“This is something that is really important. You should get the entire 15 percent,” East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffman said at the March 3 Planning Board hearing. “There are no bonuses. … The only limitation on the number of units is the building code and the laws of physics.”
Subsequently, city councillor Marc McGovern wrote to the board, saying he finds it “egregious that we would allow anything under the 15 percent minimum, given the size of this development.” McGovern asked the board to not approve the project’s special permit “until Boston Properties revises their petition to include 15 percent to 20 percent affordable housing.”
Jan Devereux also wrote the board, asking its members to condition the special permit on the developer providing 15 percent affordable units. Devereux, the president of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, has announced her intention to run for City Council in November.
Similarly, the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods wrote to the council about this, saying that “as we read the law, we should expect not less than 15 percent of this new housing stock to be affordable. If there are 280 units planned, then there should be 42 affordable units, but only 36 units are listed in the special permit application, a shortfall of six units.”
McGovern and Devereux also suggested that two- and three- bedroom affordable units be included. The current proposal includes 8 percent two-bedroom and no three-bedroom units, because of a perceived lack of need based on the project’s location in the heart of Kendall Square, which draws mainly workers in the innovation industries, rather than families.
Confusion over calculation
It’s not clear how Boston Properties arrived at its 36-unit number, which is 12.8 percent of 280. That is higher than the typical 11.5 percent (36 units), and lower than a straight-up 15 percent (42 units).
The city planning department has not been able to clarify.
Both Stuart Dash, director of community planning, and Iram Farooq, acting head of the planning agency, indicated that they thought there was an explanation for Boston Properties’ 36-unit number, but were not sure what it was. They referred questions to Jeff Roberts, the zoning and land use planner in their office.
But Roberts said, “We don’t apply inclusionary requirements at the time of the special permit,” explaining that it gets enforced at the building permit stage, well after special permit approval. Roberts said it was “premature to get into the details.”
Chris Cotter, the city’s Housing Director who runs its inclusionary program, said he was not familiar with the details of the calculation for 88 Ames St., and had not looked at the specific project. Cotter said Thursday he would try to look into the details, but has not yet responded.
Boston Properties declined to explain the 36-unit calculation, but said that they would comply with the city’s zoning ordinance, and that the number of inclusionary units would be determined by the city.