Mike Nakagawa and Doug Brown present their zoning petition Wednesday to the City Council’s Ordinance Committee. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A citizen petition shaping development in flood-prone parts of Cambridge was under pressure Wednesday after an alarm was sounded it could kill the $110 million rehabilitation of 302 units of affordable housing for the elderly and disabled.

Though ultimately the “green factor” zoning filed by residents Mike Nakagawa and Doug Brown was kept by the City Council in its Ordinance Committee, officials spent much of the four-hour, 40-minute meeting talking through other options – a defeat, a withdrawal, a delay, a rewriting of city law or anything else to make sure the affordable housing project could go forward after it arrived subject to the timing of the suddenly problematic petition.

Millers River housing in East Cambridge is expected to get a $110 million revamp. (Photo: Apartments.com)

Zoning petitions expire 90 days after their first council hearing. That would keep Nakagawa and Brown’s petition on the books until late September, and the affordable housing permit is being heard this summer.

“The zoning board could not grant us a permit while this was outstanding. We wouldn’t be able to move forward,” said Margaret Donnelly Moran, director of planning and development at the Cambridge Housing Authority. “If we continue to be in limbo through the end of the summer, the project would definitely be jeopardized.”

Complicating the situation: Rejecting the petition or getting Nakagawa and Brown to withdraw it would mean that no provisions in it could be heard again by the council for two years, and almost universally officials and residents speaking during public comment said there was much in the petition they liked or at least saw as worthy of more exploration. That included saying how much tree canopy, open space or ecological innovations such as walls or roofs covered in vegetation could be ordered to help handle the coming effects of climate change, such as flooding and extreme heat; setting parking requirements and building height to make up for having to raise structures over floodwaters; demanding that emergency plans and infrastructure be prepared; and creating a “green factor” score to encourage developers to aim high in complying with the proposed zoning.

Starting the clock

The zoning was filed April 5 and was accepted by the council April 23, with no further action until this week. Nakagawa said the authors went into this week’s pair of meetings knowing the petition “wasn’t perfect” and that the process would bring adjustments to the text.

Meanwhile, an application was filed Wednesday to rebuild Millers River on Lambert Street in East Cambridge, one of the most deteriorated developments in the Housing Authority’s portfolio. The $91.5 million bid for contractors is dated July 12, and the Housing Authority expected it to be before the Board of Zoning Appeal in August. “That would seem to suggest the board would have some period between now and then to move this forward,” Moran said. “If you would run the clock for 90 days [on the petition], while it was alive the Millers River project would be in limbo. The further we go into August and September, the less likely we’re going to be able to meet conditions of the financing that we actually have a building permit in hand” by Nov. 15.

The City Council is on break for July and August, typically holding only one summer meeting midway through. Either the council or its Ordinance Committee, which is led by councillors Dennis Carlone and Craig Kelley and includes all nine council members, could meet again quickly to speed along debate about the zoning petition in light of the Millers River problem, and Carlone ended the meeting with orders for councillors, city staff, the Law Department and the petitioners to file memos by Monday on the petition’s pros and cons. “We will proceed [from there] the best way we can,” Carlone said.

Objection come to life

The Planning Board heard the petition Tuesday, ending the night with associate member Nikolas Bowie favoring it, six members against and Corinne Espinoza abstaining (another member, vice chairwoman Catherine Preston Connolly, was absent and unable to vote) after the first of two night of lengthy and divided public comment. Even Jesse Kanson-Benanav, of the citizens housing group A Better Cambridge, said there were aspects of the petition worthy of more discussion, though he wanted to see the conversation started over again “from square one.”

“It was an interesting meeting. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many compliments and still not got a date to the prom,” Brown quipped.

Wednesday’s hearing heard testimony that the city was already working on environmental zoning that covered much of what Nakagawa and Brown were trying to accomplish, including in the Envision Cambridge master planning process. On each night, there were criticisms that the petition was overly complex and carried the risk of big unintended consequences – some of which could limit the building of affordable housing, though Nakagawa and Brown believed those projects would likely be exempted from its requirements. (The city’s primary builders of affordable housing, Just-A-Start and Homeowners Rehab Inc., oppose the zoning.)

The sudden appearance of the Millers River project was an unintended consequence for affordable housing writ large.

Against withdrawal

Councillor Alanna Mallon asked Nakagawa and Brown whether they’d be amenable to withdrawing their petition to work with it in a committee outside the formal governmental process. “We all feel like there’s more conversation to have here, but we’re feeling stymied by this particular project,” Mallon said.

But while Nakagawa and Brown considered the option, legal experts advised that the withdrawal would trigger the two-year non-consideration period – and some councillors made it clear they didn’t want to see every aspect of the petition removed from possibility for that long. 

“There’s a lot of good things. The green factor it itself makes all the sense in the world to me, and I’ve looked into what’s happened [with it] in Seattle and the way it’s working, and there’s something there,” Carlone said. “Talking with the petitioners and the city’s representatives on this, my gut is to make it work for everybody. I know that sounds a little naive at the moment, but we can’t just throw out the good things here.”