Sunday, June 16, 2024

For some years, 5 Temple Place (next to the YWCA) has been used as a kind of poster child for the alleged obstacles to developing affordable housing in Cambridge. The then owners of the historic Gas Light Building (holding a Bank of America) on Massachusetts Avenue objected to the project on the grounds it would rise above their building. Delays stemming from their litigation led to financing issues and a decision to reduce the Affordable Housing Trust-financed building to five stories from six, and it was subsequently completed. It is now a 100 percent affordable housing building owned and managed by the Cambridge Housing Authority.

Self-described (and rather obnoxious) “European investors” acquired the supposedly historically important Gas Light Building (the Historical Commission has never been asked to landmark the building, a call that could have been made by executive director Charlie Sullivan had he chosen to) two years ago. They propose to add a three-story addition for a boutique hotel that will now literally overshadow the CHA property behind it at 5 Temple Place. They also want to fill in the back of the building all the way to the property line, crowding the residents next door in yet another way. It seems ironic that the head of planning and development at the authority has now evidently signed off on a building that will do to their tenants exactly what the previous owners of the bank building complained was going to be done to them – about which the authority in turn complained!

But what about the tenants in this affordable housing? How do they feel about it? Do they even matter? It turns out that at the required “community meeting” held about a year ago at the Senior Center (with no discernible public outreach beyond residents of the building), the one elderly resident who was brave enough to speak up complained explicitly about the prospect of losing sunlight and openness on the western-facing side of the building where he lives. (I am quite sure he is not alone; but some of the tenants in the building face language challenges in being able to engage fully with this permitting process, which is already challenging enough.)

A loophole in Cambridge zoning allows hotels to be treated as residential uses. (Go figure.) Instead of closing this loophole, people who say they support affordable housing are backing a possibly nine-story building a quarter-mile from the Porter Square T Station, when there are now two boutique hotels within a block or so of the station that are only four or five stories each with common ownership, and another on the way across the Somerville line.

If you think there might be something just a little wrong with this picture, you might consider writing to and/or showing up for the public hearing at the Planning Board coming Dec. 15. If you believe that residents/tenants who actually live in affordable housing deserve to have a say in the conditions that may affect their lives and are more than just talking points for developers, please consider supporting their interest in being heard on this matter, whatever that interest may be.

James Williamson, Jefferson Park