Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Community Development Department has zoning to present to the Planning Board. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

“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.