Friday, April 19, 2024

Our intent to create an East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District starts with a shared sense of place. We have lived in our East Cambridge houses for many years. We are long-term residents who thoroughly enjoy our neighborhood. Simply by walking along a street grid dating from 1811, we can experience rich architectural heritage, from workers’ cottages to vintage brick row houses and landmarks such as Bulfinch Square. In addition, we value and appreciate East Cambridge’s social history – from the abolitionists of the Civil War to 1873’s Tyler v. Squire, the first nuisance lawsuit in the country based on public health concerns, and demands for equal pay and rights for women working in the Foundry.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen a remarkable resurgence of East Cambridge. CambridgeSide replaced Lechmere Sales. Kendall Square emerged from empty lots. Cambridge Crossing is appearing, along with a new T station. These changes for the most part are for the better. At the same time, particularly over the past eight years, we have begun to see other changes, for the worse. When a house goes up for sale, often the buyer, instead of being a future homeowner, is an LLC, making it difficult to know who the owner is. Once the remodeling work begins, instead of leaving in place and restoring the architectural detail, often hidden by asphalt or vinyl siding, it is stripped off. What remains is a plain box building that reduces the architectural diversity of our neighborhood. It is clear developers have run their numbers and realize that one more dollar spent on the interior – Wolf ranges, Sub-Zero refrigerators, granite countertops – gives the greatest return, not one more dollar spent on the exterior.

Online videos of newly renovated and condo’ed East Cambridge houses prove the point: Marketing videos show interiors only, with copy emphasizing the location between Kendall Square and Cambridge Crossing. These points drive selling prices north of $1,000 per square foot. Advertised rents are greater than $7,000 a month for a three-bedroom condo. Conserving exterior architectural detailing is of no concern – it does not pay, and therefore does not matter.

About two years ago, a group of East Cambridge residents got together to discuss what options were available to address the escalating house flipping that is leaving us with plain box buildings. Fortunately, we live in Cambridge, a city that values its architectural history. And we did not have to invent a civic approach. The Cambridge Historical Commission has created, with neighborhood input, four conservation districts in other sections of Cambridge. Not the dreaded historical district, which requires approval of exterior paint color and door knockers, but conservation districts, which balance the need for growth, change and housing density with the value of conserving the architectural past. This approach offers a lot of flexibility. After pulling together our ideas, meeting with the East Cambridge Planning Team and holding neighborhood meetings, we asked the commission in October to begin the process of assessing whether it makes good architectural and civic sense to create a neighborhood conservation district in East Cambridge.

But opposition to an East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District has constructed a conspiracy theory involving self-absorbed and sinister forces. From objections to the proposal at the initial commission meeting to the disruption of a study team review in March, the theory can be summarized as follows:

There is a small group of “old, white and greedy” homeowners in East Cambridge who have banded together to identify an easy way to “make a windfall profit” by getting the city to designate their neighborhood a conservation district. They knew it takes only 10 people to initiate the process and even gave a public presentation on how this will work: More “architectural value” will immediately create more “economic value.” Housing prices will go up. Rents will escalate. Affordability will go down. Fortunately, those who are ever vigilant have revealed this conspiracy for what it is and are raising the alarm to stop this “deeply immoral” cabal in its tracks.

The real reason – our true intent to conserve the architectural heritage of the neighborhood we enjoy – is not nearly as confrontational, shrill and divisive. With the study period extended for one year, we have time to evaluate the costs and benefits of a conservation district that includes commercial and residential areas. The conspiracy theorists’ dire claims about East Cambridge’s future can be vetted. The value of conserving architectural heritage can be assessed. We can come to a fact-based consensus. I know it’s not nearly as provocative as conspiracy mongering, but it is consistent with the respect we owe and the value we place on the architectural and social history of East Cambridge.

John Whisnant is a resident of Otis Street in East Cambridge.