Thursday, July 18, 2024

I am a resident of the Leonard J. Russell Apartments, the low-income affordable housing for seniors and disabled people at 2050 Massachusetts Ave. in North Cambridge. I’ve lived in Cambridge for many decades and believe in the importance of civic engagement. That is why when plans were unveiled for a major new affordable housing development next door at 2072 Massachusetts Ave., I volunteered to help collect input from the residents of our building.

The residents of our building know the value of affordable housing; it is a lifesaver for our community members who could not otherwise afford to live in Cambridge. We want more people to have this opportunity – all the better if they are next door! But while we are the most highly affected of any abutter to the proposed project, we have been the least consulted or prioritized. 

We struggled to get specific visual renderings of the Russell side view of the project from the developers. Communication with our residents about the building plans was limited and ineffective (many residents don’t have computers, speak English as a second language or are afraid to speak out for fear of jeopardizing their housing). We have been ignored: We were not consulted on major design changes that would significantly affect our residents.  Despite these challenges, we engaged more than 60 percent of our community in providing feedback about the project. 

We realized quickly that the proposed building was not designed with its neighbors – or neighborhood – in mind. The enormous scale of the proposed building will tower over our home, bringing new traffic and safety risks to the front of the building and removing light, privacy and quiet from the back of the building. The Walden Street and Massachusetts Avenue intersection, already highly congested and risky for our seniors, will become even more dangerous. The construction process is guaranteed to be hellish for us, as the proposed building is only 4 feet from our apartment walls. We have shared our concerns with the developers and city officials, but they did not respond with any significant changes to the building design that address our concerns. 

Worst of all, the latest revision in the project design, to be presented at the Board of Zoning Appeal on Thursday, offers no improvements that respond to the needs of our community. It makes almost no reduction in building size and density, while actually expanding the part of the building that looms over our back windows and terrace. These plans were released too late for us to be able to submit comments on them in advance of the meeting. 

bullet-gray-smallThis project is being heard Thursday by the Board of Zoning Appeal. Meeting details are here.

The process leading up to this point has been disillusioning. We have watched developers and regulators (such as the Planning Board and city officials) make decisions without considering us or prioritizing our needs. We have seen community dialogue degenerate into insults, caricatures and ideological rants without considering the realities of our vulnerable population. We hear lots of people making speeches about the need to expand affordable housing at any cost – including the cost of the well-being and safety of the existing affordable-housing community here at Russell Apartments.

I’m disappointed that the City of Cambridge could embrace an approach to development that crams every possible unit into a small space without regard to neighbors or the context of the community. Our hope is that the building could be six stories on Massachusetts Avenue and three on Walden. The polarized, moralistic arguments about this project are not helping. We should instead be using visionary urban design, together with community consultation, to bring affordable housing that gives consideration to neighborhoods.

No plan is perfect. But in this case Cambridge is sacrificing one affordable housing community for another.

Margaret Rueter, Russell Apartments