Thursday, June 20, 2024

An architecture and history walking tour tours East Cambridge on June 4. (Photo: Cambridge Historical Commission)

The Cambridge Historical Commission recommends establishing an East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District. Members said Thursday that it would send that guidance to the City Council with amendments suggested by the Planning Board, which approved the idea of an NCD on Nov. 22.

If the district is established by the council, it “would regulate demolition, new constructions and certain exterior alterations to existing buildings with the goal of protecting the architectural character of the area while allowing for appropriate change and development,” according to a report from a district study group. The NCD would be headed by a committee of residents and property owners that would review new construction projects, demolition and some alterations.

While the commission decided 7-0 to recommend adoption of the district – and the Planning Board vote was a unanimous 7-0 as well – there was still opposition expressed by some in the community. The process has been contentious, with intense public meetings and strong feelings. Some in opposition say they were not adequately represented.

“The committee did not conduct a process that was inclusive of opinions of the neighborhood, and do not have the support of the majority of homeowners who participated in the process and voted,” resident Mary-Ellen Duran said during public comment.

Members of the study committee who wrote the report, made up of residents, property owners and members of the Historical Commission, defended their process even before the public comment period.

“We worked hard to try and balance the concerns from the original petitioners and then the subsequent proponents of the conservation district and what their goals were and the residents who are also trying to make sure that there was not any undue hardship placed on their property,” said Kyle Sheffield, a member of the committee and alternate member of the Historical Commission.

In a process that began in July 2019 in response to a citizens’ petition, was halted in March 2020 by the Covid pandemic and resumed virtually in January 2021 to run for nearly another two years, “one of the commenters put a finger on it when he said no single mind has been changed,” said Gavin Kleespies, another alternate member of the Historical Commission. 

Public sentiment surveys by postcard were inconclusive. With fairly low response rates considered in line with most mass mailings, property owners opposed an NCD by 53 percent to 42 percent, while active voters supported the designation by 49 percent to 43 percent.

“The proposal that we have now is a series of compromises,” Kleespies said. “At the end of the day, I am in favor of it – although I do want to admit that I have concerns about the amount of opposition that does exist and lack of a clear consensus from the survey.”

Charles Sullivan, the executive director of the commission, described the three amendments to the conservation district recommendations that the Planning Board had made.

One is that projects proposed under Affordable Housing Overlay zoning will be subject only to nonbinding review from the NCD. Another would change the district’s southern boundary, eliminating properties facing Bent Street: a condo building at 225 Bent St. and the Community Charter School of Cambridge at 245-255 Bent St.; the latter property would be split in half by the district, which Sullivan said was not unique in historic and conservation districts.

The third was to adopt more specific guidelines for Cambridge Street properties, which Sullivan suggested would be the amendment most in need of sending back to the study group. The regulations in use now are similar to those in place in Harvard Square over the past 22 years and adequate, he said.

Commissioners opted to recommend the East Cambridge NCD to the City Council with the first two Planning Board amendments, but not the final one affecting Cambridge Street.