Homes on Thorndike Street as seen in a Historical Commission presentation about a proposed East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District.

A study of whether to carve an architectural conservation district out of part of East Cambridge continues Wednesday, after a first try ground to a halt in March with the coronavirus lockdown. The first process had also grown notably nasty.

The first virtual meeting of a restarted process Jan. 20 had only 10 public speakers out of 40 people attending. With each unmuted and taking their time in turn, what happened was unlike the previous East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District study meeting more than 10 months earlier, even if public comment still seemed divided evenly on whether a neighborhood conservation district was wanted.

What was new were the pains taken by committee members to address what had gone so wrong last year. “I had the feeling that during the first part of the study, we weren’t really listening to the neighborhood, the people. And there was a lot of tension in the room,” member Ron Creamer Jr. said. “It’s time for a little bit of a gut check: Do we really want to impose this on the people of East Cambridge? I just want to make sure [we] have that conversation.”

Other members pointed out that a conservation district doesn’t freeze a neighborhood in time, but allows for new construction that includes affordable housing; that there was room for compromise “on all issues” related to the study; and that holding the study didn’t guarantee a district would be enacted.

“A number of studies have been terminated in the course of our 40 years of dealing with conservation districts. We’ve had an almost equal number of conservation district studies that have been terminated as those that have been designated,” said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, at a 2018 meeting of the City Council. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

One reason a study can be terminated, Sullivan said: If the seven-person study committee feels “there’s not sufficient public support … or that the threat to the neighborhood turns out to be not proportional to the amount of regulation and effort that would be required.”

“The commission has a fairly high bar,” he said.

A no to deciding yes or no

As with every such process, the study committee can end its work at any time, or make a report to the Historical Commission; the commission can end the process then, or make a yea or nay recommendation to the City Council. The council has final say whether a conservation district is needed – and councillors’ comments have made clear that passage is far from a foregone conclusion.

Opponents have argued that the study shouldn’t happen at all.

“Many of us wanted to take a vote to see if we can say no to the districting, especially when we decided that this harms the community,” said Eugenia Schraa, executive director of the political arm of the housing development advocacy group A Better Cambridge, referring to meeting attendees while recalling the dissension nearly a year ago.

“The contentiousness is evidence that this proposal is going nowhere,” tweeted Loren Crowe on Sept. 7 in the run-up to the renewal decision, urging the commission: “Stop wasting our time during a pandemic.” (He has since scrubbed his tweets from the period, which he said he does “every few months.” As of this writing, everything before Sept. 11 has been deleted.)

Clashes throughout

At the last meeting that could be held in person, March 2, some 50 people crammed into a room in East End House meant for fewer and lacking enough chairs for a meeting expected to last two hours. The atmosphere grew heated among a divided public, complicated by questions of representation of renters in the study sessions and over the presence of people from outside the neighborhood, many with A Better Cambridge. After clashes throughout, the room descended into such chaos that a Historical Commission facilitator ended the meeting 15 minutes early and left abruptly. According to Alex Wang, a resident who live tweeted the debacle, people stayed to fight instead of disperse. (A Better Cambridge said Tuesday that the East Cambridge group organizing against the NCD, “while we support them and encourage people to get involved, are not organizing within ABC per se.”)

“One neighbor said disagreement on these issues was common,” Wang said, “but that she had never seen a meeting get this contentious.”

Wang captured a photo, which he shared online in September, showing a clash between Crowe and study committee member Bill Dines. Wang said he’d asked for the whole study to be ended because of that moment. “I was discouraged to see a study group member treat someone like this,” Wang tweeted.

East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District study committee member Bill Dines gestures during a March 2 confrontation with meeting attendees including Loren Crowe, left. Committee member Gavin Kleespies is next to Dines. (Photo: Alex Wang via Twitter)

Looking back

East Cambridge residents said they were surprised by the packed house, based on previous – unremarkable – committee meetings. “There was a whole bunch of other meetings that explained why East Cambridge should be protected, what is a conservation district as opposed to a historic district, a whole bunch of meetings leading up to this, and none of them ever showed up for it. They just came to the meeting where they were starting to put together rules,” said Chuck Hinds, president of the East Cambridge Planning Team neighborhood group, recalling the March meeting nine months later. “There was so much noise you couldn’t talk. The CHC couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Every time they’d start to say something, one of the ABC people would jump up and contradict them.”

Schraa also recalled the meeting from the distance of the fall, saying she attended frustrated and angry after just finding out a friend was leaving Cambridge because of housing costs and buying a house in Boston.

But she was just one opponent among many. Though the study committee had a process it was following, she suggested that a vote among those in the room would have shown the committee there wasn’t enough support to justify its efforts. “If you were to survey people’s desire in that room, lowering rents would come before solidifying historical protection,” Schraa said.

There’s a question underlying that approach, though, since the study process is requested by residents of the neighborhood and the vote Schraa described might have counted residents from anywhere in the city. “There have always been differences of opinion” about NCDs, Sullivan said. “What’s distinctive about the East Cambridge study is the large contingent of people involved who do not live in the neighborhood.”

Renters and renewal

After a pause, the Historical Commission considered Sept. 10 whether to renew its 12-month study – essentially starting over again from a process begun in the fall of 2019 – with a new approach that took into account what it had called “disruptive behavior.” Opponents of the study indicated they felt their behavior had been appropriate: “It’s not ‘disruptive’ to dissent to a rigged process,” Crowe tweeted Sept. 7. “‘Disruptive’ is 10 rich, older, white homeowners signing a petition to increase their property values at the expense of renters and newcomers that requires their neighbors to spend a year fighting against.” He returned to the theme in October. (As a resident of North Point across Monsignor O’Brien Highway, Crowe is one of the “contingent” from outside the neighborhood – what Sullivan said Wednesday that he thinks of as the East Cambridge study area encompassing the traditional residential area south of the highway and east of the railroad tracks. The city describes North Point as a neighborhood within the East Cambridge “commercial district,” and displays it also on an East Cambridge Business Map.)

The commission voted in favor of renewing the study, responding to a petition filed by “a number of long-term property owners and residents who have expressed concerns about the effects of development on the character of the neighborhood,” as commission materials put it.

Renters and renting came to be a theme of the September meeting, in part because opponents such as Crowe charge that conservation districts make housing more expensive and was actually a way to be “artificially inflating rents.” Study opponents also cited backers of a conservation district saying that renters are transient and it made sense that “renters should not have input in deciding” if conservation rules get enacted.

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon responded strongly on Twitter, with Mallon calling the entire process “flawed” after the September meeting and saying she would comment later “when I am not so angry.”

Efforts around engagement

After the contentious restart to the process, the council acted: First, with an order that any report or recommendation for a conservation district come with an analysis of its potential effects on the price of housing; they found that such a study was underway already, because “the people asked for us to do it,” councillor Dennis Carlone said, quoting Sullivan. Second, councillors chided the CHC that “residents who rent should have the same rights and access to participate in public policy and decision-making as property-owning residents.”

This time, likely with the council injunction in mind – if not opponents’ tweeted charges of a “faux” engagement process meant to “exclude renters, people with care obligations and people with better things to do than spend endless hours in meetings” – Historical Commission staff said they contacted 1,300 East Cambridge property owners and mailed notices of its January virtual meeting to 5,800 households throughout East Cambridge and the surrounding streets.

The effort drew fewer people than had attended in person in March, and likely many of the same people. But Sullivan began with a reintroduction and recap – and an apology for it, with a promise he wouldn’t again “be monopolizing the conversation” – including the difference between the districts concerned with architectural details visible to passersby: neighborhood conservation, set up by the city with some flexibility; and historic preservation, established under state law and tending “to be quite strict.” Protections are in place during the study period too.

How the district’s worked so far

In the year before the September renewal, 83 permits for work in the potential conservation district showed up in the city’s Inspectional Services system and triggered review by commission staff, Sullivan said. Most were essentially false alarms, the kind of repairs or interior work that isn’t a conservation district matter; only five needed significant study – lifting a roof, changing a window location, a complete renovation or building of an addition.

“All of the applications were approved – the administratively approved applications within two or three business days, and then the five cases that required a public hearing … I think with one exception, those were approved after after one hearing,” Sullivan said. “There are a number of cases [in which staff] was able to negotiate informally and offer an amendment to the application that allowed a project to go ahead without a public hearing.”

Sullivan said “this happened over and over again during the year, and it’s it’s one of the less quantifiable benefits of having a district in place, in that it allows the staff to have a conversation with property owners and renovators and make a few tweaks to make sure that a building’s character is protected – usually at no additional expense or sometimes even less expense than had originally been anticipated.”

That was not the experience of Jay Wasserman, whose home was within the proposed district when he had to add direct venting to address a collapsing chimney. The intervention of the Historical Commission added $3,000 to $4,000 to the project, Wasserman said. In comparison with all the talk about housing costs, he found it “bizarre that we need some kind of district to preserve an anything-goes mishmash of all kinds of architectural styles. I just don’t understand what the point of this is.”

Update on Feb. 17, 2021: Jay Wasserman said his project did not involve the Historical Commission but he took efforts to act under conservation rules that “would have forced me,” something unclear from his Jan. 20 testimony. “The HC did not intervene,” he said. “But if they had, and I hadn’t had the budget, I know the costs … I was trying to point out the ‘It doesn’t cost anything, it’s just a change in what you do’ doesn’t hold favor.”

Complaint about inclusion

Crowe was among the final speakers, and he again questioned the legitimacy of the proceedings by noting how few people attended, and that there wasn’t “a single new voice” being heard.

“We’ve been begging for this process to be more inclusive since the beginning. The City Council’s asked you to make it more inclusive. And somehow it’s less inclusive,” Crowe said. “How many renters are here, how many residents who live in affordable housing, how many people of color? If the commission can’t conduct outreach in such a way that you can demonstrate that you have a representative sample of the community, then you aren’t actually holding a community meeting, this is just theater.”

Also, Crowe said, “if these meetings are going to go forward like filibusters, there needs to be a process to give opponents equal time … If we’re not going to provide any community back-and-forth as was mentioned earlier, then again, these meetings just aren’t going to be worth anything. And they aren’t going to be seen as anything by the larger community once this process is finished. This just isn’t going to work. This isn’t anything.”

The committee heard from every person who signed up to speak, Sullivan said.


Katherine Wang contributed to this report.

This post was updated Feb. 17, 2021, with a clarification from resident Jay Wasserman and more context from a comment by Charles Sullivan.

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