An image from a Utile presentation Monday shows some initial notes from preparing for a master plan process.

An image from a Utile presentation Monday shows some initial notes from preparing for a master plan process.

Sudden, surprise concerns that the cost of a nascent citywide development master plan would balloon to $6 million got a pair of answers Monday at a roundtable meeting: City managers and staff said the current estimate of $3.3 million was comprehensive and that spending would be watched carefully, while elected officials said the end result was more important than the price tag.

The meeting was the first with a portion led by the city’s chosen master plan consulting firm, Utile, yet the company’s presence was technically unofficial, since councillor Tim Toomey had used his “charter right” powers the previous week to freeze money underlying the signing of a contract for a three-year process starting this fall, led off by a focus on the Alewife neighborhood starting in January.

“I know some people felt that was some kind of devious maneuver,” Toomey said of his use of the the charter right. “I’ve had concerns about this since the beginning. My first concern, obviously, is the cost. Just a couple of months ago the price tag was $2 million. Now it’s $3.3 million … and I would venture to say before this is over it’ll be close to $6 million.”

Anticipated results

The reasoning behind Toomey’s feared final figure wasn’t asked as fellow councillors focused on the expected results of the process, which is expected to chart out development in the city for the next 20 years.

“If it’s above, it’s above,” councillor Craig Kelley said of budget estimates, noting that a coming climate change assessment could even hike the estimate higher. “This plan will be transformational for the city. Anything less than that I’d view as a failure. We cannot look back to what we did in the past and think ‘This is going to work.’ We have this amazing opportunity to build the Cambridge of the future, and I want this plan to help us get whatever it is we need … let’s not focus on the $3.3 million, let’s focus on getting us something that gets us the best possible Cambridge.”

“I want to spend what we need to spend to do this right,” councillor Marc McGovern said, and councillor Dennis Carlone pointed out that the length of the contract means the city would be spending just over $1 million a year – a tiny fraction of the city’s overall budget. “Yes, it sounds like a lot of money, but this is comprehensive. I’ve been here 41 years, and the city’s never done this.”

Development boom

Behind the process is a decades-long development boom, recently alarming residents who felt there was little coordination between projects or acknowledgment of their overall effect on stressed traffic and transit systems. The Alewife area drew special concern by quickly surpassing the amount of development expected by 2024, with essentially all of the development being residential rather than a mix of housing with office, retail, municipal and open spaces described in 2005 planning documents. Planning Board representative Hugh Russell noted Monday that while the board followed policy in Alewife, “things happened that nobody really anticipated.”

Residents and officials such as Carlone began agitating in the spring of 2014 for a process to “provide a cohesive vision for how our city will grow and mature in the years to come.”

In April, two City Council orders were combined to call for a new process. Until then – and heard as recently as a council candidates forum this month – some city officials agreed with the Community Development Department that the city already had a master plan, albeit one made up of a wide-ranging, somewhat complicated set of documents.

“The mind reels”

Tim Love of Utile presents Monday in City Hall

Tim Love of Utile presents last summer, watched by members of his team. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Utile’s founding principal, Tim Love, said his firm’s role was to run a community engagement process and incorporate previous, partial efforts to “make sense of them more holistically relative to citywide goals and objectives … instead of just letting the market decide.”

“We hope to make sense of all those plans as a single narrative for the citizens at large,” Love said. “Even a planning professional sees that list and the mind reels, right?”

The plan can educate citizens about “how the development process works financially and how choices are actually made,” he said.

Development doesn’t have to stop while the process is underway, he said, and Utile could even use the implementation of a bike plan to help hone the future of transportation in the city.

No wasted processes

102715i master plan six monthsToomey and Mayor David Maher, among others, pointed to the possibility that residents would be cynical about taking part in more planning after having participated in past studies that seemed to be shelved, including the so-called K2C2 processes envisioning the future of Kendall and Central squares.

“If we spend $3 million or $6 million and we get this beautiful report and we don’t enact [it], that would be a shame. We can’t do that,” McGovern said, saying that even $1 million would be wasted on a master plan if the result went unused.

Other officials – City Manager Richard C. Rossi, Assistant City Manager for Community Development Iram Farooq and Russell – insisted that no planning process had been wasted. “They have all been translated into zoning that has been adopted by the council,” Farooq said.

Few development opportunities?

There was a surprising emphasis on the notion there wasn’t much development left to be done in the city, save in the neighborhoods of Alewife, NorthPoint and Kendall Square, where the federal government’s Volpe land could become, in Carlone’s words, an “instant city.”

“We only have certain development opportunities left, realistically,” Carlone said, while vice mayor Dennis Benzan said, “We don’t have that much land left … and we’re not going to be developing every neighborhood” and Mayor David Maher said that, while he wanted the city to be nimbler on such things as adding apartments for elderly parents into existing homes, his thoughts about the master plan were largely “about the big tracts.”

Love himself said he saw Cambridge as having “such limited areas where growth is still possible.”

Unmentioned

Central Square, which has dominated development discussion in the past council term because of its buildable municipal parking lots and potentially precedent-setting Mass+Main tower zoning, went barely mentioned during the two-hour roundtable; the discussion of infill and general concept of adding density to existing neighborhoods were brushed off in a sentence or two, although there have been various examples of such projects in recent years – sometimes based on turning nonresidential buildings into homes, such as on Norris Street, New Street or at the Fawcett Oil site, with the potential for change citywide because, in the words of Russell, in 10 years the city could be “bursting at the seams again.”

Another of Toomey’s concerns is that the master plan process would somehow be subverted to keep density and affordable housing in East Cambridge, sparing other sections of the city, but Farooq assured him the goal was “equity.”

Alewife and other areas with the potential for sudden jumps in density show, Rossi said, “that all these plans we have do have utility … but proves to us, though, you can’t do one and just let it sit. You have to update periodically.”

“We are anxiously awaiting our appropriation so we can move forward,” Rossi said.