Cambridge can do better on affordable housing
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic inequality and housing insecurity that were already plaguing the city of Cambridge. But instead of mobilizing a comprehensive response to the long-term needs for affordable housing, city authorities are being pressured to cut corners and support poorly designed quick fixes.
A proposed new affordable-housing development at 2072 Massachusetts Ave., near Porter Square, has become a lightning-rod for local debate that spotlights the larger issues.
Affordable-housing advocates, including some of my colleagues on the City Council, say the urgent needs for affordable housing justify the building’s nine-story (102-foot) height, and the proximity to public transport outweighs its placement on a busy, congested intersection. They urge immediate approval of 18 zoning variances to advance the project.
Neighborhood residents oppose the current design, arguing that its excessive size (more than twice the height and four times the density of base zoning laws for the location) will exacerbate traffic and safety problems and hurt abutters, including the senior and disabled affordable-housing residents next door. They are calling for a reduction in building height and a full project review, including a traffic impact study.
Based on decades of award-winning urban design work in Cambridge, I believe the project design has serious flaws. Affordable housing should blend seamlessly into its neighborhood, but this nine-story metal tower will appear alien and out of context in a historic neighborhood characterized by low-slung brick and wood buildings, 98 percent of which are six stories or less. Built on a small corner lot with no setbacks, it has more than three times the density of other nearby affordable housing projects. With no setbacks or at-grade green space, and only one elevator for up to 200 residents, it has significant design shortcomings. The proposed height qualifies the building as a high-rise, triggering regulations that will increase costs by approximately 30 percent per square foot, a questionable use of taxpayer funds.
Just as troubling, it appears the developers are trying to sidestep city zoning regulations and procedural requirements in the rush to secure a comprehensive permit with minimal review. After years of debate, Cambridge recently adopted an Affordable Housing Overlay, which limits projects such as this to six stories (70 feet) with the goal that they respect their neighborhood context. The developers are instead seeking a comprehensive permit through the State of Massachusetts Affordable Housing Law (40B), requesting 18 zoning variances, including height limits and project review. City and state funds will pay for the $3.6 million site acquisition, the still-undeclared building costs, site improvements such as street widening and the developer’s fee – at a total cost to taxpayers that may reach $30 million.
Debate over the project has intensified in the lead-up to a Jan. 7 hearing of the Board of Zoning Appeals. The conflict is driven, in part, by a lack of planning and shortage of affordable-housing sites, which creates an incentive to overbuild when scarce centrally located lots become available. The practice of “upzoning” – rewriting zoning laws to build unusually large buildings, as is proposed in this case through a comprehensive permit – sets a worrying precedent for future developments and weakens our regulatory frameworks.
It didn’t have to be this way. A citywide master plan for increasing the stock of affordable housing, using existing city-owned properties and new sites it acquires, would create a pipeline of well-sited, well-designed affordable housing units. The “Envision Cambridge” process set a target of developing 3,175 affordable units by 2030, which would require building more than 300 units per year. But the city lacks an implementation strategy to meet this goal. Our current affordable-housing budget covers the building of only 52 units per year – and even that is underutilized (in 2019, zero units were completed). A systematic effort is needed to identify and acquire building sites, then finance their development. This could be accomplished through strong leadership by the council, with the establishment of a special trust managed by a public entity such as the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.
Escaping from the current cycle of unplanned development, out-of-context building and regulatory corner-cutting requires strong political leadership and a determined, systematic approach.
It also requires a new mindset. We do not have to choose between good urban/neighborhood design and affordability – we can and must demand both. Families living in affordable housing deserve to live in buildings that are designed for safety, sustainability and quality of life while contributing to the economic and social fabric of their neighborhoods.
The BZA is now the last line of defense in determining whether and how to modify the design of the 2072 Mass Ave development. It is also at the forefront of defining Massachusetts Avenue’s future – one of towering high rises, or human-scale development designed for affordability and inclusion.
Dennis Carlone has served on the City Council since 2014 and has worked as an architect and urban designer in Cambridge for more than 45 years.