CDD presents its ‘whatever’ zoning
“Whatever.” With or without an eye roll, we all know what “whatever” means. We’ve all said it to dismiss something as unworthy of further discussion or to dismiss its importance or relevance.
It’s surprising, however, to see the Community Development Department offer up its version of “whatever” on Tuesday to the Planning Board at its first meeting of the new year. Titled “Single-family, Two-family, Multifamily Zoning Districts,” CDD’s report was supposed to give the board a framework to consider rezoning the city with, we had hoped, the goal of increasing housing affordability while protecting current residents from displacement.
Instead, the report is tilted toward simply rezoning all of Cambridge to the highest current allowed residential density criteria. In other words, the city’s current densest levels of residential development would be allowed in every neighborhood, greenlighting the tear-down of more existing homes. At the same time, single- and two-family homes could be supplemented with or replaced by more massive and much more expensive single-family structures that jam-pack their lots and eliminate what little green space existed.
The report’s graphics tell the story: Rezoning the entire city is listed first and highlighted green (as in go). In a nod to reality, it is labeled “minimal study,” which is presented as an advantage. Another graphic, “What could be studied further?” rates “alternative zoning approaches” as “high” in time and effort – and highlights it in red (as in stop). Tellingly, it is only the “alternative zoning approaches” that mention “affordability [and] form-based standards.” In other words, the hard work and careful analysis that effective zoning reform would require is characterized from the get-go as taking too much time and effort. “Whatever,” indeed.
The Cambridge Citizens Coalition supports ending single-family zoning. And we support building new units across the city, but with a focus on commercial corridors, particularly Massachusetts Avenue east of City Hall, where lower-cost inclusionary apartments could be required. We are against actions that will further displace current residents or favor building luxury housing rather than affordable housing. And we are willing to work with everyone to come up with zoning rules that promote those goals.
While the “one district size fits all” approach seems to be aimed at creating a uniform Cambridge citywide “look” with purportedly more racial equity, the opposite is more likely to happen while adding to gentrification, existing inequities and environmental problems.
How much of a change would the greenlighted plan bring? Currently in our A-1 district there are seven units per acre; the A-2 district has nine units; District B has 17 units; C has 24 units; C-1 has 29 units. If C-1 criteria are accepted citywide, the number of allowable units in the A-1 could increase 400 percent, and B district allowable units would nearly double. These districts would experience significant loss in trees and green spaces, adding to the heat island effect citywide.
We urge the Planning Board (and City Council) to ask that more study be done. If we go with the minimal, easy plan, we will simply be leaving it up to outside developers and investors to do what is best for them. Cambridge has the resources to do this right. The idea that Cambridge would go for a minimal plan, requiring the least amount of work while carrying sizable potential harm to the environment without advancing equity or affordability, well, that does deserve an eye roll.
The Cambridge Citizens Coalition describes itself as a group of residents dedicated to smart development, sustainability, affordable housing, and the preservation of our trees, green spaces, and historic architecture.
I’m issuing a temporary restraining order: CCC and ABC and whatever else Life of Brian-esque advocacy group MUST keep at least 500 yards from zoning … planning discussion … housing in general … and maybe “ive got a book about planning you should read-isms” for at least six months.
yes, wouldn’t it be refreshing to get more, new, younger concerned people who pay attention to the broader issues of Cambridge, food insecurity and homeownership etc. and who dare have the courage of their convictions even in a simple letter. That would be a great relief rather than depending on the new breed of single-minded social media savvy strategists or the old warhorse activists who have years of experience, wisdom, history enough to anticipate history repeating itself. It would take the pressure off those who feel obligated on principle to show up.
I summarized my take on this in these
2 paragraphs of my 1/3/22 email to the Planning Board:
Before the Planning Board, CDD, the City Council and City personnel pursue such a plan or zoning change, I hope you will, at a minimum, engage outside, professional, knowledgeable, nuts & bolts, real estate investment analysts (not beholden to anyone for their jobs) to project what the results of such a rezoning are likely to be. Otherwise, I fear that the suggested zoning change will simply create a Sunday stuff-yourself real estate buffet, so to speak, for developers to gobble up, construct and sell expensive boxes that fill up all the open space and make the City even denser and less livable for everyone, including children, adults, trees, birds and, yes, even squirrels and turkeys, without providing any affordable housing.
The City needs to confront the hard questions before proceeding with easy, supposed ‘cures’ and ‘fixes’ that may [have] regrettable consequences.”
The core claims in paragraph 3 that 1) CDD’s report tilts towards any outcome and 2) that the proposes rezoning all residential districts to the max residential density allowed in the city are both false.
The report lays out nine possible approaches CDD might take if the PB asks it to produce zoning language that eliminates single-family zoning, and presents all nine approaches on a scale of time and effort each would require from low to high. CDD has limited staff resources and competing assignments from the planning board, so this kind of staff analysis is entirely appropriate for CDD to provide to help the planning board decide what to request.
None of the nine options suggest raising zoning in single-family districts to the max allowed, as CCC claims. One option contemplates converting our single-family zones into our lowest multifamily zones, which allow heights of 35′, but not our max zones, which allow 120′ or more in some cases.
Marc, I think that it may be time to start fact-checking major claims made in opinion pieces before you publish them. CCC habitually uses your site to spread misinformation, and it’s having a negative effect on our political discussions when that misinfo spreads to residents who make the understandable mistake of believing something because it appears on a news site.
Restraining order or not, it’s pretty clear that the less questions about the rushed CDD proposals to rezone the entire city, the better as far as ABC is concerned. My question about what A Better Cambridge wants and promotes is “Better for Whom?”
It’s certainly not better for long-time residents and property owners of Cambridge. This CDD proposal, like the disastrously written original version of the Affordable Housing Overlay, the failed Missing Middle Housing Petition, and the failed Advancing Housing Affordability Petition, were all promoted and presented as must be approved as quickly as possible to the Planning Board, the Ordinance Committee and the full City Council to save the City of Cambridge.
I suggest a temporary restraining order that ABC change it’s name to what they really stand for, A Bulldozed Cambridge.
I have this radical idea, any effort to change the zoning rules for a district of the city should be placed before the residents of that district as to whether they want changes in a formal binding referendum on a ballot in that district rather than left to the whims of people appointed to the zoning board by the City Manager.
The past 20 years of developers, outside companies, real estate hedge funds and foreign investors manipulating the city council, the zoning board and the city managers with their influence while ignoring the residents of the zones has hurt Cambridge and forced many people out of the city.
I trust those people on the boards for the most part. I may not like all the decisions but in attending many meetings, the deliberations and consideration by experts and people related to the fields bring considerable expertise. It is most unfortunate that some city councilors hold sway over/ with special interest groups and final vote on any given issue. As we have seen, putting a binding referendum in front of residents will alienate whole faction of those who don’t know how government works. And it will also stack the courts with ideologs.
our newly minted city councilor has said on twitter he can’t wait to replace all members of (independent) city committees with newly elected members of the city council choosing (regardless of experience or expertise), just ideology. The goal is to stack the deck favoring developers and ignore residents. council and committees represent ALL citizens, not just their special interest constituents. It is the manager and council who depend on those “real estate hedge funds and foreign investors” for tax revenue and who stick with the status quo. In many cases, it is the individual committees that hold their feet to the fire.