Opponents of an affordable-housing project proposed for Walden Square in North Cambridge show how the building wraps around an existing structure. (Photo: Walden Neighbors)

Planning officials voiced serious misgivings last week around the specifics of the Affordable Housing Overlay, which so far underlies three projects making their way through Cambridge’s permitting process. But they acknowledged that they were forced mainly to watch with concern and wait – maybe for a five-year review.

“It does feel premature to be changing the rules before we’ve even had one project go all the way through,” Planning Board chair Catherine Preston Connolly said Tuesday.

The resident petitions heard by the board pushed back on one aspect each of the year-old AHO: how much yard was need around a development, and how much parking.

In each case, board members saw cause for worry as developers pushed the limits of a law that was meant to eliminate barriers to building 100 percent affordable housing, including by decreasing the amount of open space needed and letting builders decide how much off-street parking, if any, would be provided to tenants. The Planning Board also found themselves at odds with city councillors, who had looked at the petitions in their Ordinance Committee. Yard setbacks were kept in committee Dec. 8; the idea of a parking requirement was rejected by the seven of nine councillors present Dec. 15.

The board’s votes Tuesday were 7-0-1 against the council adopting a yard setback rule changing the AHO (with Steven Cohen the abstention); and 8-0 not to recommend a change to parking rules. That came after member Hugh Russell pointed out how councillors had already voted – “It’s pretty clear,” Russell said, “they’re not going to do it” – and Connolly crafted a pointed motion reminding councillors that the board’s recommendation for parking at the time of the original overlay in 2019 was to require 0.4 parking spaces for each unit built, not zero.

Parking petition

Karen Cushing and other residents arguing in favor of returning some parking requirements made pitches to both bodies that the lack of off-street parking would just cause a battle for on-street parking, which was already scarce. “People of limited income have the same needs as everyone else, and their housing should provide the same amenities,” Cushing told the board. “We believe that the ordinance should clearly state its requirements rather than engage in wishful thinking that defers to the discretion of the developer.”

Public speakers agreed that installing amenities such as BlueBike rental racks but having no parking for lower-income residents defied their lived reality, as these were the residents most likely to need cars to make a living whether it be as Lyft or DoorDash drivers, carpenters with trucks, in the suburbs or at third-shift positions outside of mass transit hours.

Especially as more units are built for families, which has been a city priority for years, they’ll be the ones saying “I don’t need BlueBikes – how am I going to go shopping in January with three kids?” Norma Wassel said during public comment.

For most city councillors at their committee hearing, this was simple. In passing the AHO, “we came to the correct conclusion … because we’re trying to prioritize affordable-housing construction, not car storage,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said Dec. 15. “Those concerns were raised and discussed, and the council voted on it.” Vice mayor Alanna Mallon agreed that “This was not a mistake. It was intentional policy to meet the city’s goals around climate change, around parking, transportation demand management, as well as our affordable housing goals.” And to councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, the two-tiered approach that took parking away from affordable housing suggested that “we should be eliminating parking minimums for market-rate housing as well.”

Off-street parking still needed

Most Planning Board members saw it differently, with Connolly summing up that while it might make sense to push society in a car-free direction, “we are not 100 percent there yet.”

“It’s wonderful to let our visions and our wishes and our politics govern us,” Steven Cohen said. “If we are concerned about the interest not of developers, but of real, honest-to-goodness people, working people and poor people, get real. They have cars. They need cars.”

Member Lou Bacci said he was familiar with the argument that people had a choice whether to live in affordable housing built without parking, but he found it specious. “They’ve been on a long list for god knows how long, and if a unit comes up that’s available – the right size and so forth – they have no choice but to take it or they go back on the list,” he said.

“What we’ve done is oversimplified the problem and politicized it,” Bacci said. “This is what happens when people support things and have no idea what it contains.”

Saying that people need parking “goes against most of what the city believes these days, but I have always felt that particularly for family units, parking space was really important,” vice chair Mary Flynn said, proposing that when the AHO came up for review, there could be more stringent requirements for affordable housing built far from public transportation.

It was an idea that won some support among board members, possibly aided by such a project looming before them in Walden Square. Russell expected the AHO project – a 240-unit affordable development in North Cambridge built on what is now parking lot – would have “a big spillover” to the surrounding neighborhood in terms of on-street parking competition.

Winn project and setbacks

The same project, which hasn’t been presented to the Planning Board, was the source of the setback zoning change proposed by Michael Jeremy Yamin and other residents. The initial design was a slab 85 feet tall and 450 feet long at the edge of Winn property, wrapping around an existing nine-story building.

“It is kind of a striking example” of what a project built to the limits of overlay rules can be, Yamin said, and “an indication to us that the AHO needs to be refined unless we want to see this kind of scale across all of Cambridge.” A fellow presenter said that even as a supporter of the overlay, seeing the Winn proposal was “a shock.” (The developer said it is looking at alternative designs.)

Planning Board members said they were hamstrung by not having the project before them and that it was too early to be changing the AHO even though, as Flynn put it, the intent of the overlay had people “expecting to see much smaller projects across the city.” In addition, as Russell again pointed out, Planning Board dissent was “academic” considering the will of the City Council.

“Anyone who’s a building design professional knew this was coming. There’s always those who will try to maximize everything they can,” Bacci said. “To start picking the AHO apart now is a mistake. But I think all of these concerns should be kept, and at some point a review needs to be done.”