Make the right investment in affordable housing
After a long delay, the controversial proposal to build a nine-story affordable housing building at 2072 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge, will return to the Board of Zoning Appeal on May 20. In December, the board recommended that the developers substantially reduce the building’s height or provide a credible economic justification for its scale. Unfortunately, they have done neither.
The developers, Capstone Communities and Hope Real Estate, made a minimal concession in reducing the building’s rear step-down to five stories from six. The main mass of the building – extending 74 feet in length on Massachusetts Avenue and Walden Street – remains nine stories (102 feet tall) in a 45-foot height zoning district. The number of units was reduced to 48 from 49. The changes are so minor that last week the Planning Board said they were “not material” and did not merit public discussion.
The justification the developers provided for their intransigence is an economic one. As a major proponent of affordable housing, and as someone who did more than most to increase city funding for affordable housing, it troubles me to hear financing used as a reason to promote irresponsible development that does not meet basic city-planning standards. A publicly funded project should fit into its neighborhood context, not overwhelm it.
In a recent public meeting, the developers said that the cost of the proposed building would average out to $680,000 per unit. They stated that reducing the building size to comply with the city’s Affordable Housing Overlay – which would allow six stories with setbacks, providing 34 units – would cost $810,000 per unit and was therefore financially unviable.
These numbers are very questionable. Building costs go down when building heights are reduced. High-rise structures (more than 70 feet in height) are costly due to safety-related regulatory requirements, and this nine-story design rises to 102 feet. It is widely known that six stories is the most economical building height for affordable housing, and normally the average cost per unit should be around $500,000 to $600,000, depending on site costs.
A look at Capstone and Hope’s other recent projects appears to support this: The five-story, $23 million Frost Terrace project generated 40 units, an average of $575,000 per unit. The three-story, $9 million Port Landing project generated 20 units, which averages to $450,000 per unit. Why would a six-story, 34-unit design on Mass Ave cost 80 percent more?
The costs are important because this project is a major investment of taxpayer funds – at the city, state and federal level. The City of Cambridge is providing approximately $9.6 million in financing for the current design, including a $3.8 million loan from the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust that the developers used to buy the building site. The total project cost is nearly $33 million.
Given the questionable financial premise of this building proposal, the BZA should either deny the comprehensive permit application for the current design or request an evaluation of the project finances, as allowed under 40B rules. A public investment of this size merits a close look to ensure that scarce public funds are being used to maximum effect.
Cambridge needs more affordable housing – that is clear. But it should be economical and well-designed in consultation with the community. Capstone/Hope is not meeting those standards with its current proposal, which disregards community concerns and far exceeds local zoning ordinances. I hope the BZA will send them back to the drawing board to develop a more appropriate plan.
Dennis Carlone has served on the City Council since 2014 and has worked as an architect and urban designer in Cambridge for more than 45 years.