Friday, May 24, 2024

Granola Simply is a Somerville business; as of August, the city had five kitchens making granola, bread, cookies and brownies for sale. (Photo: Granola Simply)

A revamp of how Cambridge handles its retail and what it allows for home businesses won a strong recommendation at a Wednesday hearing, with seven city councillors eager to get it before the full council to be enacted as quickly as possible. The process began in 2015.

But how soon the changed zoning for retail uses and home occupations will become law depends on how quickly the Ordinance Committee hearing minutes can be attached to a council agenda, which is when it can be voted to a second reading; then at least 10 days must pass before a final vote may be taken.

And timing on one of the key parts of the zoning changes – being able to use a home kitchen to make food for sale – requires an additional process, with a timeline that’s even less clear.

Even though the zoning would be in place to allow small-business use of kitchens in homes, it would require a “cottage food permit” to get started. (The city still doesn’t have an actual commercial kitchen where small businesses can rent space and time, another idea that’s been simmering for several years.)

“We would have to have a permit in place through inspectional and health services, and we have been discussing what that process would look like,” said Pardis Saffari, the city’s senior economic development manager, on Wednesday. “We’re anticipating sooner than a year – hopefully as soon as possible knowing that there’s demand and interest from residents.”

Variances, special permits and lawyer fees

For most businesses, though, the effect of the zoning is not just to acknowledge what is now made and sold in Cambridge and where – updating a set of rules largely untouched since the 1960s to now even include ax throwing – but cutting down on the red tape that slows entrepreneurs from getting started making money. Changing zoning to match modern practices means fewer businesses will have to apply for variances and special permits before flipping the “open” sign. “If you have to go to a particular board, whether that be Planning Board or BZA, they have a long docket and you have to kind of get in line behind everybody who came first,” said Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development.

The three to six months that businesses report waiting would evaporate for many, and the need for professional help. “The cost is mostly legal fees associated with hiring the lawyer to help them go through that process,” Saffari reported hearing from business owners during an outreach process that ran from 2018 to last year.

Community Development Department officials gave examples of how the zoning changes would help. For instance, the Looks women’s clothing boutique at 2 Arrow St., Harvard Square, needed a variance to turn office space into its retail showroom, but under the new zoning that change would be allowed as of right; Curio Spice at 2254 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge, required a “light manufacturing” style special permit just to mash seeds or other plants into jars, but the new zoning would see it as a “craft” manufacturer allowed by right because the shop takes up less than 2,500 square feet.

The zoning will also ease parking requirements; relax definitions based on the amount of dine-in versus takeout for food sellers; and fix a “hybrid” use problem leading to a bizarre Board of Zoning Appeal case in 2019 that risked businesses in certain zones citywide combining uses such as food, alcohol and entertainment. The policy cited then by Ranjit Singanayagam, head of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, would demand that the Shine Square Pub near Porter Square use its pinball games only two days a week – or that the Lizard Lounge could host music two days a week, even though it’s been a seven-day entertainment venue for decades. (To get around the contradiction, Singanayagam argued to the BZA in 2019 that what the Lizard Lounge does “must be background music.”)

Fixing a broken “hybrid”

Councillor Patty Nolan tried to pin down with city staff that the limitation had been fixed in the proposed zoning, and that “if I decided to start Nolan’s Pub, that I would be able to have some entertainment … without being limited.”

“I think it does,” said Jeff Roberts, director of zoning and development. Even in areas where entertainment isn’t allowed, a business could still have entertainment on up to 25 percent of its floor area or 25 percent of the total hours of operation. “Some things might be considered accessory to the principal use, and that’s a different consideration, [one] made by by Inspectional Services Department.”

With even councillors still not certain the issue had been addressed, the question was raised again at a virtual community conversation run Thursday by the small-business group Cambridge Local First. The city’s former assessing director Robert Reardon said he confirmed the fix with Roberts. “On the music venue, that will be corrected in the zoning,” Reardon said. “There’s still another piece of it that will be possibly licensing that’ll have to be worked on.”

Theodora Skeadas, executive director of Cambridge Local First, noted that the organization has helped drive the home kitchen business conversation with Andree Entezari, a city planning student at Boston University who had a residential kitchen business in Los Angeles making and selling dehydrated fruit strips. He became the center of an advocacy campaign pushing for Cambridge and Boston to allow home cooking retail permits – Somerville and other communities already do – with help from CLF and the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts. “It’s been so interesting for us to see how an activist can really drive this conversation from the grassroots all the way to the statewide level,” where state Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven has become a booster, Skeadas said.