Last week the City Council’s Ordinance Committee met to discuss the affordable housing overlay petition submitted by the city’s Community Development Department. This was the second hearing since it was submitted as a proposed amendment to the city’s zoning laws. The meeting lasted for four hours, including two hours of public comment. The chairman, councillor Dennis Carlone, had asked the department to include more clear guidance for developers in the zoning language, for councillors to submit their list of amendments and recommendations and for a letter from the city solicitor on legal concerns.

The CDD gave a presentation outlining its new design guidelines, which as the council learned are just that: suggested recommendations, not requirements.

Meanwhile the list of amendments from councillors was vast; the letter from the solicitor was absent; an important opinion from the Planning Board isn’t due until Sept. 3; and the answers from the CDD were vague.

The only thing that was clear from the discussion at the Ordinance Committee meeting is that the overlay as submitted is not yet complete. Under the state’s zoning change procedure, it requires two more City Council meetings and a two-thirds affirmative vote from the council before the petition expires Sept. 30. That means the Ordinance Committee has only until Sept. 9 to send it back to the council.

Councillors made it clear there are still inadequate mandatory guidelines that would justify giving developers the “as of right” clause removing Planning Board and neighborhood input on design.

There are not enough details on the density implications by each diverse zoning district; few guidelines for transition zones; and no differences between neighborhoods and corridors. This flies in the face of the normal purpose and execution of city planning and zoning. And since this zoning proposal has never been implemented anywhere, there is not nearly enough information on any unintended consequences.

The city has invested more than $3 million in the Envision planning process, and residents have invested thousands of hours in good faith participation in its development over the past three years. So far this is the only housing proposal being acted upon. Further, there is still confusion and vague promises for protection of trees and green open and permeable space. The city’s own studies have shown that these are necessary for truly livable and equitable housing, especially given the impacts of climate change.

The Ordinance Committee should not be asked to actually write this zoning regulation, but under this very confusing and convoluted process that is exactly what the CDD is forcing the committee to do if it wants to meet the Sept. 30 deadline.

This is why the CDD should withdraw this proposal until it is properly written and ready for full consideration by the City Council.

Meanwhile, the ordinance meeting followed a six-hour meeting of the City Council on July 30, which included three hours of public testimony. It appears the CDD has many more outstanding issues that it has failed to address, which are starting to converge right before an important election season.

The outstanding issues include:

bullet-gray-small Effective cannabis zoning to generate a revenue stream, fill some empty retail spaces and enable business and job opportunities for affected communities;

bullet-gray-small Analysis of the impact of raising the inclusionary zoning requirement to 20 percent, which produces the bulk of our affordable housing – more than 100 units per year at no upfront costs to the city;

bullet-gray-small Allowing an electrical substation near the Kennedy-Longfellow elementary school, raising the question of whether the energy needs of this rapidly growing city have been accurately forecast;

bullet-gray-small Addressing a Kendall Square zoning petition attempting to remove residential land for more lab space;

bullet-gray-small Disposition of parking spaces in the city-owned First Street Garage that would allow development of East Cambridge’s former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse to proceed;

bullet-gray-small Release of the long overdue Alewife Envision Report, which led off a citywide master planning study, before the site is completely permitted and built out;

bullet-gray-small Policies expected from the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Displacement Task Force or the Envision housing report to protect existing residents from continued displacement;

bullet-gray-small A universal pre-K education proposal to the School Committee;

bullet-gray-small Recommendations and action items to support the transportation emergency declared recently by Kendall Square business leaders;

bullet-gray-small A plan for providing Inman Square businesses some solutions for parking issues during a two-year renovation project.

Yes, affordable housing is a top priority for our city. Even as we debate this zoning change we are adding more affordable housing. City developer of affordable housing Just-A-Start presented a plan recently for two seven-story buildings on Rindge Avenue, and our inclusionary zoning requirement continues to add units as the city adds housing.

So why are we halting the progress of our entire city by asking our city councillors, most of whom have very little training in urban planning, to write the rules for a zoning amendment covering the entire city for the Cambridge Housing Trust that may or may not result in 40 more affordable housing units?

It’s time for city councillors to ask the CDD to withdraw the affordable housing overlay petition until it’s written more effectively and they can simply vote to accept or deny it, like any other zoning petition submitted to the city for consideration. Let’s move on to addressing the growing list of important issues facing our city.

Alison Field-Juma, Mike Nakagawa, Alice Heller and Doug Brown, Fresh Pond Residents Alliance

The Fresh Pond Residents Alliance is a neighborhood organization and citizen advocacy group focused on issues of urban planning and sustainable development in the Fresh Pond/Alewife area of Cambridge.


This post was updated Aug. 7, 2019, to correct the identity of the authors.