Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Self Storage Group is proposing zoning for New Street, a rapidly developing area in the Alewife and Fresh Pond neighborhoods, that would change the allowed uses of two specific parcels, allowing more than a doubling of floor-area ratio and increasing maximum height to 65 feet from 45 feet for a self-storage facility. Among other features, it would also double the floor-area ratio and raise the maximum height to 65 feet from 45 for residential use, with changes applying to both parcels.

The petitioner would be getting more than twice as much space for storage than allowed under current zoning: 120,177 square feet. Housing in the plan would be 25,634 square feet, and the retail or gym would be 3,658 square feet. (This would be a huge reduction in the size of the Evolve Fitness Center, now 18,000 square feet, making it about the size of a fitness room in a Holiday Inn or other hotel chain; to claim that it preserves Evolve is not credible.)

Once the zoning change is approved, the second lot could be developed with 100 percent self-storage, 65 feet tall and with no setbacks. This outcome, not been shown by the petitioner, would double the negative impact on the area.

The Fresh Pond Residents Alliance has been very involved in this area for several years, working with the city to ensure it becomes a neighborhood that is an asset to the community and city as a whole. We have invested a tremendous amount of personal time working to ensure it develops in a way that supports affordable housing, climate resilience and improved transit-oriented development, and meets or exceeds the city’s Net Zero plan. Now we are commenting as the people who live, work, drive and walk on and near this street and recreate at Danehy Park, which it abuts – and we strongly oppose this spot zoning proposal for many reasons.

Several of us testified at a Planning Board hearing June 4 and we support the well-argued negative recommendation that resulted June 19. The recommendation states that if self-storage can be a good complementary use to residences, “then standards and criteria to regulate self-storage development should be established not just for this one site but for other similarly zoned lots throughout the city.”

One block away from the site is an existing locally owned, low-rise self-storage facility that provides 66,000 square feet of space. It has operated on Concord Ave between Birch and Fern streets for many years. This facility serves the community and provides storage for public uses, has safety features such as fences and a large amount of carefully tended lawn and trees, and fits in well with the surrounding residential, school and recreational uses. How many storage facilities are needed in this one neighborhood?

We have been assured there is a large pent-up demand for self-storage, but have seen no evidence supporting this assertion. Would this very large facility serve industry and commercial interests rather than New Street/Alewife area apartment, home or affordable housing dwellers? If so, why locate it in a residential area where other higher-value development including affordable housing could be built? The Self Storage Group builds traditional, fixed storage. The self-storage world is moving beyond that to PODS and other such moving companies that are more convenient. As well as PODS, there are already many self-storage facilities nearby, in Cambridge, Somerville and throughout the metro area.

As others have stated in communication from the FPRA, this spot-zoning proposal is in an area that is clearly transitioning from commercial (and very slightly industrial) to primarily residential with some mixed-use commercial. Currently, the land is zoned Industrial A-1 and is allowed a 1.25 floor-area ratio for non-residential uses and 1.5 for housing, with a maximum height of 45 feet and a lot area per dwelling unit of 700 square feet.

The immediate neighbors and current uses are primarily large, multifamily housing buildings, two day care centers, a small plant nursery and garden center, a restaurant, a fitness center and local small business offices. The only thing remotely “industrial” is an auto body shop. The proposed zoning aims to “encourage” the construction of housing and replace the small remaining industrial uses.

The petition would increase the density for storage and housing to a floor-area ratio of 3.0, increase the height to 65 feet and reduce the lot area per dwelling unit to 300 square feet. This totally contradicts the direction of development of the street that has been permitted by the city and the actual built neighborhood that has resulted. It also notably proposes that the lot should have “industrial zoning” setbacks – which are zero (there are no minimum setbacks or open space requirements for IA-1 zoning, so a building can cover virtually the entire lot. And this one would). Worse, the proposed zoning’s “special dimensional requirements for residential units” has no minimum setback requirements either, as if there was no difference between residential and industrial development. Is this the kind of affordable housing Cambridge wants be known to provide?

Zero front setbacks are totally inappropriate – no room for trees or any green infrastructure. How does this make sense in an era when we know we must add green space wherever possible to reduce the heat island effect? Zero side setbacks could easily condemn the abutting neighbors to continue commercial uses rather than develop housing, since who would want to live next to a five-story wall?

Note also that the low-income, affordable housing tenants would actually have to live within a self-storage building. Let us consider whether that message is appropriate. 

The proposed affordable housing now being offered by the developer is being made to sweeten a bad deal. If this site were developed for housing alone, more affordable units would result. This would certainly be a better outcome next to public transit and one of the largest public parks in Cambridge. Self-storage is by definition vehicle-oriented, but this proposal would reduce the amount of parking required: The covered parking area that takes a chunk of the ground floor – but is not included in the gross floor area – is calculated for the residential units at 0.75 spaces per unit (11), then five to seven spaces for the gym and several more for the storage center and a loading area under cover. The parking is based on an untested assumption that self-storage customers won’t visit very often and the tenants of affordable units won’t need much parking. Reduced parking ratios may be okay, but this assumption is not based on data; it seems based on wishful thinking.

Finally, we must recognize that since this has been submitted as a zoning petition rather than a project proposal (which is what it looks like), the developer has no legal obligation to adhere to the plan he has presented.

There are still alternatives available to the city and to the Self Storage Group rather than this proposal, which would degrade the area and set an unfortunate precedent without offering as much affordable housing as it could.

If all the points raised so far have not already been persuasive in showing that this petition should not proceed, please consider this: The petition creates a definition for “self-storage” that applies citywide but doesn’t create any guidelines or standards for it beyond the high density and height. Certainly, this is not a precedent to set. This is a spot zoning proposal – and spot zoning is poor planning and should only be used in exceptional circumstances. This particular proposal is designed to advantage one particular developer and the owners of the properties to be rezoned, who will profit enormously, over the planned legitimate uses and opportunities of the area. This zoning petition should not be approved.

Thank you for the opportunity to raise these concerns. 

For the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance: Alison Field-Juma; Robert and Lisa Camacho; Alice Heller; Ann Sweeney; Doug Brown; Manny Stefanakis; Robin Bonner; Margaret Barnes Lenart; Michele Sprengnether, residents