Flooding in the Alewife area

A photo from the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance shows flooding in the Alewife area.

Plenty of debate is due over environmentally sensitive rules for building in the Alewife neighborhood – where flooding is due to be more frequent and hot days more extreme, thanks to a lack of trees – when a citizen zoning petition is heard by the City Council. It began Monday, as councillors and nearly 20 residents weighed in at length despite knowing the only action taking place would be referral to a committee.

In a by-now familiar conflict, many were alarmed by the zoning’s potential to slow the construction of housing or decrease the number of units built when people continue to be squeezed out of the city by a lack of options, especially affordable ones.

“Many of the petition’s environmental recommendations severely undermine other critical city policy goals, such as the creation of much-needed affordable housing,” said Jesse Kanson-Benanov, a leader of the group A Better Cambridge. Still, he said, “much of what is proposed in this petition deserves serious review and discussion by the Planning Board and City Council.”

The petition for “Zoning Amendments for a Flood- and Heat-Resilient Cambridge” would expand the boundaries of what city planners recognize as the floodplain, as well as calling for specific changes in architecture and landscaping, such as raised structures and more room for trees and greenery that can absorb rain and river flooding. It also lowers requirements for parking spaces, allows more height on buildings and encourages “green roofs” with plant life, though Kanson-Benanov saw some rules as at odds with others in the petition, such as allowing a development more height but not more population density.

The petition is “sincere, but nevertheless deeply flawed,” he said, saying his group “looks forward” to discussion in coming months.

Others took a darker view of the petition. Toby Hyde, a Better Cambridge member, called it “a housing moratorium dressed in the language of climate change.”

Shock and support

There was plenty of citizen support expressed for the petition as well, with environmental activists saying action was past due and could be enacted without reducing construction of affordable housing. Social justice was a theme, with Lee Farris of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, a group that often weighs in on housing matters, saying “I don’t want to see housing built that can endanger its residents’ lives” and Charles Franklin warning against a repeat of what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina: “What good is affordable housing that gets washed out to sea?”

Eric Grunebaum, part of an Alewife working group for the Envision Cambridge citywide master plan process, said the citizen zoning petition was necessary because he’d come to question whether the city could be trusted to manage development in the neighborhood. That doubt had passionate support from former councillor Katherine Triantafillou, who said she was “utterly shocked” to move back to Cambridge to see – and would actually want a moratorium on – the “expensive but cheap” development in the area.

When the authors of the petition spoke, they too underlined the environmental crisis facing the city that would be faced by Alewife first and most dramatically.

“We decided that the time for action was not 2030, or 2045 or 2070,” said Doug Brown, naming dates used by city planners as landmarks in onrushing environmental crises, “but today, as buildings constructed now will still be here in 50 years.” He noted that expected displacement of 13 million Americans by sea level rise has already begun in North Cambridge, where 51 families have been relocated from basement apartments because of worries over constant moisture, mildew and other poor living conditions. 

Co-author Mike Nakagawa noted how careful his family had been to buy a home outside the Alewife floodplain – only to see the floods come anyway and floodplain borders expanded to include his address.

Council reaction

The petition was welcomed for analysis by councillors including Quinton Zondervan and Dennis Carlone, co-chair of the Ordinance Committee that will hear the petition, and by vice mayor Jan Devereux. While she said she didn’t want to see the city lulled into thinking that marginal improvements in construction rules would keep residents safe from flood and heat, Devereux also noted that many of the petition’s proposals were similar to rules already in place or being considered, and its blunting of development would be limited by it being an overlay district.

Mayor Marc McGovern wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy to talk about how this is going to impact housing. Any time you add more requirements, more expense, you impact what’s going to be built,” McGovern said, imagining how many proposals would be buildable when requirements piled up. “You limit what can be built and where, so it absolutely directly impacts development. I’m not saying that’s the intent.”

More Cambridge workers are being forced out to live as far out as Brockton, Framingham, Lawrence and Lowell, he said, underlining the need to build, though “I have no problem with holding developers to high environmental standards.”


This post was updated April 25, 2018, to remove one part of the zoning petition description and broaden how the Cambridge Residents Alliance is described.