Thursday, June 20, 2024

Major changes are happening in Cambridge. The city established an Affordable Housing Overlay, allowed taller buildings, is installing 25 miles of separated bike lanes (likely eliminating hundreds of parking spaces), is creating dedicated bus lanes and more. These are major changes whose long-term consequences should be discussed.

It is in the interest of residents, indeed of anyone who works here or visits Cambridge, for the city manager and City Council to explain what they want Cambridge to be like in the future. Similarly, greater clarity is needed about regional plans affecting Cambridge.

Already Cambridge is considered among the top five densest U.S. cities having a population of more than 100,000; more than 16,000 people live here per square mile. The Boston area is also in the top five for mean travel time to work. Moreover, Cambridge is already a leader in the region in the percentage of its housing that is categorized as affordable. Where are we headed? Will density and commuting time increase still more? Will the amount of open space per resident decline? Will temperatures rise as the city becomes denser?

When separated bike and bus lanes were installed on upper Massachusetts Avenue, the city seemed unprepared for the negative reactions of dozens of affected businesses, neighbors and drivers and had to adjust quickly its plan. Similarly, recent changes on Garden Street meant that some people could hardly get out of their driveways on the side streets. City officials expressed surprise at the 100 to 150 people who showed up to air their concerns Nov. 9. Is the council being realistic in its expectations? Actually, what are the expectations?

A long-range plan and vision are needed for Cambridge. The 2019 Envision Cambridge report was a wish list that identified dozens of recommendations and options, some of them contradictory. Appropriately, however, the first core value identified report was “livability.” Can’t the city manager and the City Council define the target for Cambridge’s population in the year 2030 or 2035? Even if the population grows larger than in more than 75 years, as appears to be the council’s intent, that is unlikely to reduce housing demand or prices. How will local transportation and other infrastructure accommodate so many people in a livable city? What will Cambridge look and be like?

Cambridge is one of dozens of communities that make up Greater Boston. Addressing the region’s housing shortage, high real estate prices and its distressing commuting statistics requires regional solutions. Can’t city officials do more to explain how they are expanding regional efforts to address these problems?

Trust in government is vital. If the city wants to earn the trust of those affected by the major changes under way, officials should explain the long-term plan. Repeatedly surprising people (city staff included) is not the way to do that. It is time to create a less ambiguous long-range vision for Cambridge’s population, its skyline, transportation system, parks and other infrastructure.

Andy Zucker, Winslow Street