The empty lot at 35 Cherry St. in The Port neighborhood is due for action; the city has owned it since 2013. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A long-empty lot in The Port neighborhood is due for a community discussion over what kind of affordable housing will go there, after a Monday vote by the City Council decided against broadening the talk to include other uses and other vacant properties in the neighborhood.

The vacant lot at 35 Cherry St. was turned over to the city in April 2013 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of a zoning deal, though it was left unused long before that – which is why the city demanded it as part of negotiations. (“I think we’ve been discussing this for the 30 years since I’ve been on the City Council,” said member Tim Toomey.) Nothing’s happened with the lot since, but when councillor E. Denise Simmons pushed last week for the affordable housing conversation, councillor Quinton Zondervan used his “charter right” to pause discussion.

“Of course, we need more affordable housing, nobody’s questioning that. But we do want to see a little bit more of a public open community process to look at not just 35 Cherry St., but also other vacant properties in the neighborhood, and at opportunities for open space and economic opportunities,” Zondervan said.

One of the primary points of interest for Zondervan was 105 Windsor St., a city-owned property of 13,104 square feet a block away. The empty two stories and basement was last known years ago as a Concilio Hispano private mental health rehabilitation facility.

There was support for that expanded conversation among some public commenters at the meeting, with urban agriculture and other economic development opportunities mentioned. But there was equal call for specifically affordable housing, especially with a homeownership component, and impatience. “A process that takes forever doesn’t serve the community regardless of what the outcome is, because having a vacant lot here really isn’t adding a lot of benefit,” Christopher Schmidt said.

The impatience was mirrored by councillors, led by Simmons.

“I would hate to see it be mired down in a larger process. Do I want to process? Certainly. Do I support it? Certainly. I just don’t support it in this context,” said Simmons, who sees a community process as addressing who might be housed at Cherry Street. She gave as examples that the Cherry Street lot could hold workforce housing, LGBTQ+ friendly housing, transitional housing or family-sized housing and homeownership units.

Ire over staff inaction

Even Dennis Carlone, an urban planner who was harshly critical of the city’s failure to do consistent neighborhood planning and fill gaps from housing to open space – “It drives some of us crazy,” he said. “It’s outrageous, to be blunt” – felt the Cherry Street lot should “just move forward” as housing. Patty Nolan agreed, noting that the council had been waiting for three years for city staff to produce an inventory of city-owned lots that could be the first step toward “the opportunity to sit down and do this neighborhood by neighborhood.”

Zondervan, though unhappy to be figuring out planning parcel by parcel, said he would accept the will of the council. His amendment to expand the community conversation failed 8-1, with only Zondervan supporting his own proposal; the original order then passed unanimously.

The Windsor Street site deserved its own policy order, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said.

Neighborhood voices

Parcel-by-parcel development in the face of an overall planning failure wasn’t the only now familiar theme playing out Monday.

During public comment about the Cherry Street lot, East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffmann urged city staff to respect the input it solicited from residents of The Port. “In my neighborhood, I have experienced an awful lot of people who don’t live here telling us what we should want and how we should live our lives. And I do not wish that for the people in The Port,” she said.

When Schmidt spoke afterward, he presented essentially the opposite view: “While it is very important to serve the needs of the community … we’re a small city, and it is important to consider that we’re not neighborhoods fighting against each other. We are one city working together,” Schmidt said. “Those who are in the neighborhood, absolutely their voices should be heard and prioritized. [But] an open and inviting community process across the board is important.”