Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Planning Board associate member Niko Bowie speaks during a Tuesday meeting held online.

Proposed “missing middle” zoning that might bring more multifamily housing to the city will stay with a torn Planning Board for more discussion, members decided Tuesday. Of the eight members present, all but associate member Nikolas Bowie voted to keep talking, with Bowie abstaining – yet the fallback would have meant sending the proposal onward to the City Council with notes on the zoning’s complex issues, rather than the usual recommendation or rejection.

Now the board will get a summary of the issues back for themselves, with chair Catherine Preston Connolly admitting that though “we will try to move that along to the City Council with some speed,” it would not be in time for the zoning proposal’s first Ordinance Committee hearing, planned for April 8.

Many of the board members seemed conflicted over liking the zoning’s goal to allow multifamily homes citywide, but fearing that its specifics, including proposed dimensions, wouldn’t achieve the goals.

Proponents argued that the zoning would help keep Cambridge housing prices stable and equitable by allowing construction of the kind of housing stock common here but not allowed to be built under current law, such as the classic three-family triple-deckers. It would encourage the removal of single-family housing and replace it with more units, even if those units might be small, they say.

Opponents said the zoning was little but a giveaway to developers who would buy property dearly, build and resell it for more – raising the cost of housing rather than lowering it, and decreasing the amount of open space without adding to affordable housing.

After an initial presentation by Allan Sadun and Becca Schofield of A Better Cambridge with Daniel Mascoop of Sunrise Boston, public comment began. Despite the board already getting some 120 written comments, some three dozen people speakers took the meeting from around 7:30 to 9 p.m., when the board considered ending for fear of continued technical difficulties. It pressed on for another two hours of debate.

Racism and redlining

Bowie gave a lengthy history of the racist underpinnings of zoning and its deployment in Cambridge as “redlining” that stunned listeners and ended on something of a mic drop, suggesting that the petition could have gone further and that it seemed wrong, given the history, that the proponents had to defend their position. “I think the burden of persuasion here is: ‘Why do we continue to make it illegal to build housing?’” Bowie said. “This petition is a step in the right direction, but it’s still going to leave a lot of zoning restriction that I think are really unjustified in the 21st century.”

Yet other people of color – even if in agreement on the history – have criticized the proposal and suggested its proponents stop using the language of social justice.

“Please stop using equity and my race as an excuse to advance your agendas. It is insulting. If you care about race and equity and accessibility, let’s talk about housing that builds equity, such as homeownership,” said Nicola Williams, the final public comment of the night. “Stop using race and class and come up with something that is really inclusive and that can serve the needs of the greater community.”

Adjust along the way

There was mention that the zoning matched some goals of the city’s three-year Envision process, but not others, and would lead to many smaller units instead of the family homes officials have been trying to encourage. At least three Planning Board members spoke to unintended consequences they feared from the proposed zoning: the turnover of property where rents are now low, because the mortgage has already been paid off, that will see rents soar to a point where only wealthier tenants can afford to come in.

Bowie acknowledged it. “I’m really sympathetic to the concern about not wanting to basically invite more wealthy people to live in Cambridge – Cambridge has plenty of wealthy people. I totally agree that we should do something about preventing an influx that displaces working people who deserve to live in Cambridge as much as anyone else,” he said.

But zoning already protects the wealthy, he said, and there could be “redistribution through taxation and other methods of equalizing wealth gaps” implemented to correct for it, as well as amendments and adjustments as the zoning is tried.

Vice chair Mary Flynn also wondered if there might be an “interim zoning period” using a special permit process to “see what the consequences are” and adjust, since inaction also has consequences.

McMansions, not middle-income

But other board members seemed fairly certain what would result: “I really fear that what we will see is buildings [torn] down, McMansions built in their place and large extensions built on existing buildings,” H Theodore Cohen said.

Member Steven Cohen said that, as a developer by trade, “I would be eager to buy some of those really big, beautiful mansions in West Cambridge with enormous backyards and build four townhouses on Brattle Street. Gosh, you know, I could do some great townhouses in the backyards of Brattle Street.”

“But if I wear another hat as a planner,” Steven Cohen said, “I don’t think that’s what I would like to see … I do believe we should be addressing this issue of housing and middle-income housing. I just don’t think that this is an appropriate or productive vehicle.”