Monday, July 22, 2024

The directory in Fairlane Properties’ Geek Offices on Cambridge Street in an image posted in 2019. (Photo: Geek Offices via Facebook)

A citizen zoning petition that would limit where labs can go in the city was rejected Tuesday by the Planning Board, with most members finding it overly broad and confusingly written – too much so to be improved for reconsideration before it expires April 4.

The zoning’s goal was to keep commercial research-and-development laboratories from outcompeting the creation of housing and to keep the city’s squares and business districts lively, proponents said.

“We should get involved in this discussion, potentially,” said board member Tom Sieniewicz, giving context to his vote against the petition. “But that’s a measured planning process that I would imagine would take years, frankly, to do properly.”

The 6-1 vote – member Hugh Russell was the outlier in wanting to give proponents an immediate chance to iron out language with city staff – doesn’t end the discussion. The petition’s automatic referral by the City Council on Oct. 31 sent it not just to the Planning Board, but to the council’s own Ordinance Committee.

The petition is also nearly identical to zoning suggested by councillor Quinton Zondervan and debated in September and October, which councillors declined to forward as zoning ready for the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee. It was adopted Oct. 3 for discussion in committees focused on economic development and long-term planning – and came before the council Oct. 31 again as a citizens’ petition.

Zoning proposed by councillors doesn’t get forwarded automatically; zoning proposed by citizens does.

There was annoyance at what seemed like an end run around procedure, but Zondervan said Tuesday that was not the case. “When the residents of Cambridge saw that [my] petition was not being processed as a zoning petition, they took it upon themselves to file it as a zoning petition,” he told Planning Board members. It was an accounting confirmed by Lee Farris, a resident who said she helped gather the petition’s 250-plus signatures because “we didn’t want to wait for months before the zoning could be considered.”

Substance of this petition

The outcome was much as several councillors expected in October. The idea of diverting Zondervan’s proposal has been “to actually have a conversation about the substance of this petition before it went to Ordinance because, as we know, the Ordinance Committee stuff starts the clock. And it’s difficult to have a real substantive conversation [there],” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said at the time.

The zoning starts by adding a definition to a vague category of uses – that of a “technical office for research and development, laboratory & research facility” – and applies the definition to restrict new labs from “vulnerable squares and zoned business districts” while grandfathering labs in place before Jan. 1.

Michael Grill of Fairlane properties, majority owner since 2008 of a building in Wellington-Harrington at 1035 Cambridge St. that houses small and large tech and biotech tenants, cited that language as an example of the petition’s lack of clarity. “What’s grandfathered? A tenant? A space? A use?” Grill asked.

Board members and business leaders

Planning Board members had similar complaints when summing up their opposition. There are “all the language issues, the lack of definitions and the confusion of the text,” H Theodore Cohen said. Members also said repeatedly that the language of the zoning was too broad.

“It seemed the equivalent of St. Louis, Missouri, banning beer making or something like that, because laboratory research and entrepreneurship is really central to the ethos of this place, as it has been for centuries,” Sieniewicz said.

Business and technology leaders piled on as well. During public comment, there was perhaps predictable opposition voiced by Beth O’Neill Maloney, executive director for the Kendall Square Association, and Sarah Gallop, of MIT’s Office of Government and Community Relations. But Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, spoke as well – and she oversees an area the zoning seeks to protect.

“It is clear that due to Covid, many of our office spaces remain empty or sparsely used in businesses large and small, and we continue to take a hit because office workers are not here to support them. Adaptive reuse of office space is critical, be it housing or labs,” Jillson said, noting more opposition to the petition from the city’s chamber of commerce and business associations in East Cambridge and Central Square. Meanwhile, she said, “Cambridge has nearly the highest percentage of affordable housing in the state, and that number will continue to grow.”

Respecting science, advocating housing

The drubbing came despite efforts by Farris and fellow presenter Kavish Gandhi to show how the zoning respected science and innovation and was focused on economics rather than issues such as biosafety or light and noise impacts. Gandhi pointed to a letter in support of the zoning about young biomedical students and scientists who should be working in new labs. “This critical group is being forced out of Cambridge by their inability to find affordable housing,” Gandhi said. “If you restrict the lab use, this facilitates more potential housing to be built.”

The meeting opened with an eloquent plea by Duane Callender – the first signer of the petition, which became known by his name as a result – that focused on housing from a perspective rarely heard at Planning Board meetings: a lifelong Cantabrigian who became homeless for a time and now lives in inclusionary housing on a Section 8 voucher.

“The petition was signed by a great number of low-income tenants, because we know that if there are new labs developed in places like Harvard and Porter, it is going to get a lot harder to create and preserve affordable housing in this city. Take our petition seriously, and try to appreciate our intent,” Callender said. “No one is afraid of science. We would like to see a balance of commercial development with housing of all types so that more people like me can come back to Cambridge … Every unit we build makes a difference for someone in my shoes.”

This post was updated Dec. 26, 2022, to fix the spelling of Duane Callender’s name.