Making conservation district for East Cambridge would be a step in addressing development crises
When I left Forli, Italy, in 2010, I brought a suitcase full of curiosity, a great desire to become a fluent English speaker and a master’s degree in architecture and urban planning from the oldest university in the world. I knew little about Cambridge, but I was welcomed by a much more vibrant atmosphere than I could’ve anticipated. I had the chance to expand my knowledge for vernacular residential architecture types, and also the luxury of having such a significant collection of 19th and early 20th century architecture at my disposal, much like an open-air museum of architecture. Living in Cambridge meant I could finally experience many of the buildings described by Kenneth Frampton and the other college bibles I studied for years. The location in which they’re situated, a marvelous blend of historical and traditional shingle homes from various eras, makes them stand out even more. It’s as if the Museum of Fine Arts placed Picasso’s art in the middle of a Renaissance collection. After all, the destruction of two world wars and a loss of identity shifted the center of architecture to the United States from Europe.
Unfortunately, the recovery from the “Great Recession” is marked by increased economic disparity and a large amount of reckless development that is reminiscent of the worst aspects of brutalist constructivism mixed with the Soviet “avant garde” of Melnikov and Malevich. The pleasant urban background that managed to engage and be respectful of the human scale, even in the midst of industry, took new developments that seem to have forgotten they are to be looked at and used by people. Facades look so much like one another that none are particularly interesting. The cladding choices look outdated 10 years after construction; 20 at best. One wonders how the cladding manufacturers remain in business and keep selling these products when the only “green” thing they have is a big label on the door. The stones of St. Peter’s are green and have held up pretty well for a slightly longer span …
I don’t get excited about contemporary architecture because it sells its soul to the greatest developer. Quality and permanence don’t seem to matter any longer, and the results are spaces that suffer a terrible lack of beauty. In addition, they only exacerbate climate problems.
The economic disparity became most evident in the rental market, where prices started quickly soaring – a dynamic that worsens conveniently every September in accordance with the new academic year. Cambridge clearly chose to stop being inclusive back then. Back in 2015, after my landlord sold his property to retire in the suburbs after a lifetime in facility maintenance at MIT, I was left without a home. The rental market is so fast, and I was never quick enough to write a check for a place, and the days kept going by. A dear friend (and now neighbor) offered me a temporary roof till I could finally find a good accommodation. Being homeless wasn’t fun. Affordable housing for me, an immigrant, was not an easily available option – especially since I wanted to apply for permanent resident status. You may not be aware of the cruel reality (not the utopia often pushed by the press), but immigrants such as myself promise to not become a burden on the social aid system. I even had to swear to this at my green card interview. To this day, I am not allowed to benefit from financial aid of any form, even if the circumstances call for it.
Wellington-Harrington had become unaffordable and East Cambridge became the new home.
All the small shops made it so walkable it almost felt like walking along the “corso” (boulevard) of Forli to window shop — except for the loggias. The combination of historic, local businesses, churches, homes and so on made it truly a city within the city.
Now I would like you to ponder just for a moment about all the new large developments that occurred around here. Have any provided affordable space for small businesses and sole proprietors? Maybe offer a home to the aforementioned case? I’m not talking about the Sweetgreens, Starbucks or Cava, but about those charming places where the owner knows your name and even a quick exchange of words makes the day brighter, more interesting. Those warm interactions are too few and far between in corporate franchisees.
In this scenario, the lack of proper planning has led to the creation of a plethora of “mixed use” buildings, like they were the antibiotics for every urban disease. The pretty renderings in presentations makes these buildings irresistible to commission reviewers, yet real users and residents grow exponentially dissatisfied. Do you think illegal immigrants would apply to the system? Aren’t we supposed to be a “sanctuary city”? What’s affordable if the rental costs still force one to struggle to make ends meet? These are just a few of the questions to which it would be worth finding answers. Just the percentage for affordable or subsidized housing is quite debatable and would deserve a separate dissertation.
What has maintained East Cambridge’s affordability when speaking of the rental market? Old, grandfathered homeownership! Did you know that this neighborhood still offers solutions similar to the old boarding rooms that are indeed more affordable than the ones offered by any subsidized program? Do you know how useful that is for the community?
I can assure you that if it weren’t for it, I would’ve moved to the suburbs many years ago. Allowing landlords and owners to do required maintenance is indeed necessary and needn’t be burdensome – hence the idea of establishing a conservation district as opposed to a historic one.
Meanwhile, attention should be focused on a greater issue: soil management and planning. Green certifications for buildings are truly meaningless if we keep spoiling the soil the way we have been over the past 10 years.
Among the newer projects being presented at the edge of our neighborhood is one that will have eight underground levels. You’d think that would be an exception, but sadly, that is the trend for all new high-rise construction, whether the different levels of basements get used or not. Recent developments in Kendall require really deep foundations, and most have at least two underground levels, but all pretty much sit on water (there used to be a canal through the area) and the soil requires them to work with slurry walls, not piles. We could think of that area as an underground pond or simply a reservoir connected to the river; the more we fill this reservoir, the more we force water to find new paths that, I am afraid, will put a massive amount of pressure on existing foundations. Specifically, what about the entire residential area in the lower part of East Cambridge? Many of those homes already faced major settlements because of the nature of the soil underneath.
We can’t afford to be nearsighted and forget about these dynamics, because they are destined to affect our own neighborhood. We keep filling that underground basin. What happens when the Charles is full and its level rises? Are we going to see a disaster like in London a few years ago? All those double basements have caused major issues.
Also of consideration is the capacity of the sewage system. Is it sized to sustain such pressure? Not to mention, how many electrical substations will all this exponential “cementification” require?
Based on studies coming from some of the major architectural faculties, the future that is envisioned to curb the soaring costs is scary: Homeownership has become too costly, so the new brains plan for land to be leased. Fast-forward 10 years and all the land will be owned by big corporations and investors. A few will own the walls of a house or a condo but no longer have a say nor a deed on the land and decision-making power over zoning. Scary, isn’t it? The underpinning concept of private property is at stake. What part does the city want to play? Surely not the one that cares about the human scale or residents.
Clearly this demonstrates once more how the final user is completely disregarded and how much “high density” is incapable of resolving any issue: not at the human level, nor at the urban level, where it would only perpetrate urban nihilism of the kind that destroyed 66-68 Otis St., where a developer made unnecessary and expensive changes to flip the property, and many other examples.
A conservation district can be a step in the right direction in counteracting this incessant destruction for homeowners, renters and business owners.
Francesca Gordini, Otis Street