Sunday, July 21, 2024

City staff are presenting suggestions for the future of Cambridge Street from Inman Square to Lechmere. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Adding residential and commercial density by allowing buildings of up to six stories, expanded bike lanes and improved outdoor spaces for Cambridge Street were recommended in a Cambridge Community Development Department presentation last week – ideas that will also be heard by a City Council committee Wednesday.

Cambridge Street residents’ top concern heard in months of public outreach was affordability, though there were also concerns about traffic and congestion following higher density and that the street could become too commercialized, CDD land use planner Drew Kane told the Planning Board on Tuesday.

The planning stretches from Inman Square to Lechmere Square near a new green line station – a 1.2-mile walk with 225 first-floor businesses and a total population of 21,799 people in some 1,555 residential units, according to the study.

“How can everybody continue to call Cambridge Street home? One way is by preserving our existing housing stock,” Kane said. “We are looking at Cambridge Street through a lens of making recommendations for providing additional housing, but we also want to preserve the housing that’s there from becoming additional commercial uses.”

One proposal for Cambridge Street, where buildings are often between one and three stories, is to allow up to six stories. (Photo: Marc Levy)

One recommendation: Increase residential density by adding two additional stories to the existing four-story limit of buildings on the street. It could more than double the number of units possible on a development site, Kane said.

Board members had concerns.

Mary Flynn said she thought six stories was “a bit much” for Cambridge Street.

“It really has not changed very much over the years, it’s always been kind of a two- to three-story corridor, even though there has been development happening all around it,” Flynn said. “I understand the need for more housing units, but I do think that a more targeted approach makes sense, where you perhaps try to look at it more parcel-by-parcel.”

Increasing density puts pressure on existing housing stock, Flynn said, a notion echoed by H Theodore Cohen – though he also said “density is necessary” and that adding homes could help decrease the steepness of rising rents. “Unless we were to reinstitute rent control, you’re not going to get people who are good landlords who are going to keep their rents stable over a period of five or 10 years,” Cohen said. “Even if the landlord does not need the money, they will feel like fools if they’re charging $1,500 and their next-door neighbor is charging $3,000. So, inevitably, the rents will go up.”

Existing one- and two-story buildings should get a second and third story of housing, he said. “I see no reason not to build much bigger buildings if there are sites available,” he said. “You know, we heard so much complaining that Mass+Main was going to ruin Central Square, but now it looks like it’s always been there.” The three-building project by Twining Properties began renting in 2018 with a centerpiece 19-story tower; though it’s known as Market Central, many still refer to it by the developer’s “placeholder” name of Mass+Main.

Street under pressure

Cambridge Street is under pressure by surrounding developments including of Somerville’s Union Square and Boynton Yards and mixed-use projects in Cambridge such as 40 Thorndike – the former East Cambridge courthouse – and Cambridgeside, the rethinking of the Galeria mall. With continuing growth in Kendall Square and in the North Point neighborhood, staff say there is more than 13 million square feet of development in the works, with 3,313 residential units either recently built, under construction or planned within a 10-minute walk of Cambridge Street.

The presentation suggests trying to discourage the replacement of housing with commercial-only buildings, and to keep a supply of affordable business space by getting developers to subsidize storefronts for local businesses. Certain types of lab uses could be limited, but staff noted there is already a citywide assessment ongoing of where labs should be allowed.

Transportation and open space

Making Cambridge Street safer for all forms of transportation is in the works, with the street slated to get protected bike lanes, Kane said, despite a note in the presentation that “the ability to park on Cambridge Street continues to be a common concern among some residents and businesses.” He also discussed recommendations for increasing shade along the street, in response to concerns about limited visibility from sun glare on a street with an east-west alignment.

Residents pitched staff on a farmers market, more outdoor dining, more programming and events, and places to sit and “people watch,” and 97 percent of participants supporting ideas to make Cambridge Street greener and more sustainable. “Adding more trees to the street is one of the most common requests,” according to the presentation.

The public outreach process included 17 meetings and focus groups, 20 conversations with businesses and a survey that elicited more than 990 responses, staff said.

This post was updated Oct. 20, 2022, to correct material borrowed from a city presentation, including the distance between the start and end point of the area addressed in the study.