Sunday, June 23, 2024

It is time to have a serious conversation about “contract zoning,” the practice of local governments accommodating corporate interests by rezoning parcel by parcel. In exchange for a specific community benefit (such as a portion of the parcel being designated for affordable housing or sidewalk construction), developers get increased density – often multiple times bigger than what prior zoning allowed.

The poster child for contract zoning is Kendall Square, where a small group of developers rezoned the entire area parcel by parcel. Mitimco, the real estate investment arm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, paid $75 million per acre for 10 acres at the Volpe site. In exchange, it will replace a Department of Transportation building at the cost of $500 million. On the 10 acres it owns, Mitimco will build five towers between 300 and 500 feet tall. Initially, zoning allows a maximum height in the area of 85 feet.

While growth has benefits, contract zoning comes with several hidden costs.

The most obvious consequence is a skyrocketing speculative residential real estate market and accompanying affordability crisis. Real estate investors realizing the opportunity will pay top dollar for residential properties knowing what is to come. The acquired properties are either flipped or rented, generating a 15 percent to 25 percent a year return on investment. The practice puts pressure on the residential market, pushing prices through the roof. Residential taxes increase proportionally to the property value. Seniors and many other residents find themselves unable to pay or plan for such an increase. As a result, they call investors, cash out and move away from city centers. It is what drives gentrification. The property values keep climbing as residential investors compete with each other for a piece of the pie. City centers become unaffordable, except for the 1 percent.

A less apparent but more catastrophic consequence of contract zoning is that it takes away local government’s ability to plan its infrastructure holistically. Because each commercial parcel will undergo a rezoning, the density and use requirements are unknown. The other two main infrastructure problems we face are transportation and energy, both having a significant impact on our climate and intertwined with housing.

As we build our city centers through contract zoning, we neglect the accompanying transportation planning entirely. Who could think public transportation was not a requirement of growth? How can we not anticipate that more commercial density in a city center would not bring more people into the city? Without proper public transportation, people will have to use their cars. It means more vehicles on the streets, more congestion, parking issues and increased greenhouse gas emission, leading to an overall decrease in quality of life for us and our planet.

Another example of our failure is energy planning, best exemplified by the Eversource electrical substation at 135 Fulkerson St. near an elementary school, a park and two residential neighborhoods in East Cambridge and Linden Park. This station – a potential monster of a structure – is entirely inappropriate. An alternative solution must found.

According to Eversource, the density planned in Kendall Square, with data from 2018, is what requires the substation. Kendall Square will consume 100 megawatts of electricity, almost doubling the energy of the entire city. Eighty-five percent of this added electricity having fossil fuels as its source is in complete contradiction of the city’s climate emergency. To accommodate the development of Kendall Square, the city does not require net zero buildings until 2025. It is unconscionable. All new commercial buildings must be net zero, starting now. But more importantly, it is the result of an understanding that for contract zoning to work effectively, it must have the least possible resistance. Caring for our planet and each other is deemed an impediment to growth – resistance.

We know we are in a climate crisis and must act now. The practice of contract zoning has exacerbated the infrastructure crisis, from housing to energy, to an unsustainable level. We can and must stop it. We must instead, at the city and state level, plan holistically equitable infrastructures for a sustainable net zero growth. It is shameful to push the consequences of our actions onto future generations. We must act now, prioritize people and our planet, leading by example.

Ilan Levy, Spring Street

Ilan Levy is a candidate for City Council.