Fears of East Cambridge Conservation District are valid: It favors architecture over community
Supporters of the East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District try to have it both ways, claiming to “balance the need for growth, change and housing density with the value of conserving the architectural past,” to use the words of letter writer John Whisnant (“Conservation or conspiracy in East Cambridge? Let’s give Historical Commission time to study,” Sept. 27). As someone who is only a 20-year resident of Cambridge, and not a 50- or 70-year resident, I am sympathetic to the desire of an older generation to preserve the neighborhood from their childhood. But the focus on architectural preservation is a misplaced prioritization of material things over the well-being of people.
Since the 1950s, Cambridge has seen a stark reduction of families, with 87 percent of households being families in 1950 and only 39 percent of households being families in the latest census in 2010 (as on Page 12 of the Cambridge Statistical Profile). It’s no wonder, since Cambridge housing supply has not nearly kept up with the growth in jobs in Cambridge and nearby Boston, placing enormous upward pressure on housing prices in East Cambridge (for example, the number of jobs increased 47 percent since 1980, while the number of housing units increased only 14 percent).
To keep East Cambridge as a vibrant, thriving community of people, I would argue that what we should be preserving is not architectural features but affordability for young people and families who form the future of the community. To do this, we must listen to the many young families who have attended the Neighborhood Conservation District meetings to voice their strong opposition (and have taken pro-density stances on many other policy measures).
Proponents of the Neighborhood Conservation District may respond that they do support affordability and development, and that the district affects only the exterior of buildings. They may refute the idea that conservation districts raise home prices as a “shrill and divisive” conspiracy, even when an actual flyer from 2019 advertising the meetings says “research has shown that local historical designation adds value” and states “Goal: Add value – architectural and economic.” In reality, the Cambridge Historical Commission staff has indicated that several in-fill projects would be blocked under the NCD, and existing projects have seen increased costs.
Proponents should seek out young residents with families (or plans for families) and ask them about their fears of being priced out, fears of not being able to raise their children in the community they love, fears of not being able to contribute to the future of Cambridge. I hope the proponents will listen, and ask themselves why they are putting energy into a policy that preserves building facades rather than policies that preserve the fabric of our communities.
Sam Ribnick is a resident of Sixth Street in East Cambridge.