Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The city encourages housing development of all kinds and requires low-rent apartments to be included in all new housing. But new construction adds to neighborhood density, so the need for new housing is always pitted against the neighbors’ desire to preserve existing conditions and limit density. 

We tenants and housing advocates often say that neighbors use “preservation” and oppose dense development as a cover for social discrimination. And of course that does happen. But what if the neighbors are themselves lower-income tenants and the development does not add anything to the permanent housing stock?

There is such a situation now on Massachusetts Avenue near the heart of Central Square.

A developer, Chevron, wants to convert the former Cambridge Gas-Light building at 711-727 Massachusetts Ave. into a 37-unit “boutique hotel.” This plan would double the building’s bulk, eliminate rear access and add height, requiring variances and a special permit.

The site is on the corner of Temple Street, abutting Housing Authority property called Cheryl-Ann’s Place. The only other structure on Temple is the YWCA. The two sites provide some 150 dwellings for lower-income renters. Moreover, the city has committed to another affordable housing development on Bishop Allen Drive, facing the exit end of Temple Street. For all these residents, Temple will always be the main route to shopping, transit and social activities in Central Square.

Residents at Cheryl-Ann’s Place have objected to the planned hotel mainly because its six-story height would radically obstruct their sky and sunlight.

Another issue arises from Chevron’s plan to locate the hotel entrance on Temple Street, replacing the building’s current vehicle access alley. This means passenger and delivery loading would take place on that quiet little one-way street.

Few of the Ubers, taxis, and other delivery vehicles coming to the hotel entrance will be familiar with Temple Street, where many residents have difficulty with walking, seeing or hearing. Hotel patrons will be too transient to get used to this neighborhood.

It seems to me that these factors converge to pose an elevated and persistent danger, especially to pedestrians.

Street safety could be addressed by keep the building’s main entrance on Massachusetts Avenue. But they – the city, or Chevron, or both – don’t seem willing to do that. Rather they seem to simply deny the street safety risk. Approval of the hotel plan would require the city (and us) to accept that risk.

Should the proposed hotel be built as planned, who will take the blame if residents are endangered or injured by vehicles using that entrance?

In December, the Planning Board asked the developer to come up with some changes. Chevron has submitted some modifications, which the Planning Board will take up Tuesday. I’m sure they did their best, but in my view they did not resolve the issues.

Bill Cunningham, Newtowne Court