Saturday, May 18, 2024

Despite Election Day coming Tuesday with the potential to change the makeup of the City Council, and development and affordable housing being among the key issues of the past and coming terms, officials refused again this week to produce a document referred to repeatedly by one of those candidates as shaping the future of Cambridge.

The roughly $25,000 report will also be redone, a city official said, because the first version found problems but wasn’t intended to provide answers.

Mike Connolly, former aide to councillor Dennis Carlone and now running alongside him for one of nine council seats, has been beating the drum about a missing report that he believed could have affected the past term’s vote on zoning in Central Square that allows a tower of residential units called Mass+Main, as well as other projects and a citywide development master plan awaiting a council funding vote.

“We have to answer the question: When we build enormous luxury housing towers, do we help affordable housing or do we hurt affordable housing? I’ve researched the issue and there’s every indication that enormous luxury housing towers hurt … in 2013, the Planning Board asked the city administration that question and economic consultant Sarah Woodworth was hired and started looking at it,” Connolly said at an Oct. 6 candidates forum, reflecting comments made throughout the campaign. “We never got the answer to that question.”

“That wasn’t the question”

The Mass+Main complex is supposed to be built with 47 of its 232 units available for rent at prices below market rate, or 20 percent – well over what most other developers of big projects promise. But Connolly and others have warned that the mainly luxury tower will raise property values in the square and nearby neighborhoods enough that far more than 47 households will be pushed out.

Iram Farooq


Iram Farooq, the city’s assistant city manager for community development, said she would make the study available this week, then failed to produce it or answer messages asking about the study’s whereabouts.

But she said that what’s in the study isn’t as Connolly describes it.

“No, that wasn’t the question. It was on the feasibility of provisions proposed in the C2 recommendations,” Farooq said, referring to the city’s years-long process of envisioning the future of Central Square, accompanied by a study of Kendall Square for a K2C2 package costing about $350,000. The recommendations, never voted, now could be folded into the citywide master plan.

Connolly’s recounting of events does have a basis in the words of Planning Board members. Member Catherine Preston Connolly said in May 2013:

“I guess the first thing that I would be interested in hearing more about is the impact of additional market rate housing on the existing housing stock. There was a point raised that luxury high rises end up having a net negative affect on affordable housing available in the whole area, even for the – even where there’s a percentage of affordable included in that luxury high rise. That was an intriguing idea to me about the larger market effects and I guess I’d like to get some staff input on how true that is and what evidence we have one way or the other.”

In the next month, two more members sought harder data. H. Theodore Cohen, referring to C2 findings, said, “Maybe what the committee came out with was the right decision, but I just feel like I don’t have enough data to try to reach some conclusion.” In wondering at the gentrifying effects of the proposed development, Steven Cohen said he thought that people who “suggest that changes need to be made to encourage development – the words are interesting but not enough. I think we really want to see some financial analysis to support that premise.”

K2C2, Mass+Main, then study

Consultant Goody Clancy was hired in April 2011 to run the process, and its final report was completed in 2013, with a final report posted that December – trailing by six months the May 7 draft zoning language submitted by Mass+Main developers Twining Properties and Normandy Real Estate Partners.

On Jan. 7, 2014, exactly seven months after the developer’s zoning proposal was received, then assistant city manager for community development Brian Murphy told the Planning Board that a consultant had been hired to look at economic assumptions made for Central Square in the process and was “working on a report now. We hope to be [before] the Planning Board with that in the near future. [We’ll] sort of be testing some of the underlying assumptions and whether or not it actually makes sense and to try to come back in with K2 and C2 zonings for discussions.”

Original Normandy/Twining zoning for Central Square

Normandy/Twining zoning for Central Square began with the concept of two residential towers up to 285 feet high. (Image: Twining Properties)

The consultant was indeed Woodworth, principal of the Annapolis, Md., firm W-ZHA, who had already worked with Goody Clancy on K2C2. Her solo contract was for $24,950.

Nearly a year later, the report was not yet final, Murphy said, because “some of the research informing the analysis, such as interviews with relevant parties, took longer than expected.” He said he expected it to be complete by this past January, roughly 11 months ago.

But when spring came, accompanied by a debate over approving the Mass+Main zoning, city councillors found themselves with the same questions as had faced the city two years earlier. A March 30 policy order by councillors Carlone, Craig Kelley and Nadeem Mazen asked again the whereabouts of the report by Woodworth.

Stopped at a draft

No reply came, according to council records, but Farooq – Murphy’s successor and inheritor of these questions – confirmed on Monday that the report had long ago been received. “There’s a draft. We stopped at a draft,” she said, agreeing the study was available: “Yes, we have a council order to that effect.”

“We do respond to council orders. It’s just that sometimes it takes a little longer,” she said.

It was unclear why the same answer as to the study’s completion as a draft hadn’t been simply provided to the council in the seven months since the councillors’ request, or why Farooq’s department failed to provide the document this week after promising it, despite reminders.

But Farooq said the city had just signed a contract with a new on-call economic development firm to pick up where Woodworth left off, although the firm hadn’t yet been assigned that specific task.

“We decided we needed to have more flexibility to do more robust analysis,” Farooq said, after finding Woodworth’s study “very focused on one area and not as useful a tool as we had envisioned. She pointed out some of the difficulties, but the scope didn’t include ways to rectify those difficulties. [Her study looked at] if C2 was financially viable, not how to make it viable.”

Third description

Sarah Woodworth


Woodworth, though, has a take on what her study was about that sounds different from the versions described by Connolly and Farooq: “The issue was, how do you diversify land use … to make it more amenable to people of different income groups?” she said Tuesday from Maryland.

She wasn’t free to discuss the report further, she said, because it is the property of the city.

Farooq looked back at the time Woodworth was working on and filing her study. With Normandy/Twining already on the table with a zoning proposal credited by the Planning Board as essentially following C2 proposals – although in June 2013 the project sought towers of up to 285 feet, and now the maximum height is 195 feet – Farooq referred Monday to Woodworth’s study being “focused on Mass+Main.” With a zoning vote long since passed, it was now too late “obviously for Mass+Main.”

The narrowness of Woodworth’ study meant “it was not as useful a tool as we envisioned,” Farooq said, and it’s “not in a very well formulated state.”

But she doesn’t blame Woodworth. “I didn’t say she did something wrong at all,” Farooq said.