Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Cambridge City Council Housing Committee will discuss Wednesday a radical proposal to revise the Affordable Housing Overlay. The proposal, put forth in November by four city councilors – Marc McGovern, Burhan Azeem, E. Denise Simmons and Quinton Zondervan – is alarming. It would allow 13-story buildings on 13 corridors across the city, up to 25 stories in Porter, Harvard and Central squares, and would remove setback, parking and other current requirements.

The lack of public transparency and sound analysis behind this proposal renders it completely illegitimate from the start, and we ask that it be thrown out in its entirety. It is a radical, poorly formulated proposal that seems designed to provoke and inflame division. The proponents appear to be motivated by a combination of political naiveté, believing that such a drastic policy action can be executed by unilaterally making track changes on a document; and political cynicism, believing that starting from such a wildly over-the-top position will allow negotiating down to an apparent “compromise” on increased building heights.

We encourage the Housing Committee to hit the reset button.

A sound analysis and citywide discussion is needed to evaluate the performance of the AHO to date. It has been in place for just over two years, and during that time six projects have been approved. A logical starting place would be an analysis of the results compared with expectations, a discussion of barriers that exist for projects that didn’t go through and an examination of where the opportunities lie for more affordable-housing development in Cambridge.

We urge our City Council to develop a clearly defined, publicly supported affordable-housing strategy for our city. The multitude of ideas and recommendations generated through Envision Cambridge have never been formally adopted nor implemented. Different groups are pursuing conflicting goals based on fiercely held assumptions. Our city needs to develop a long-term strategy for increasing affordable housing, advanced in partnership with residents and urban design experts and leveraging the innovations and best practices from communities around the country and the world. Our city’s affordable-housing strategy should include numeric targets, budget allocations and an implementation plan that draws on diverse approaches to increasing housing stock – including using vacant and underutilized city properties, buying existing buildings or units and using vouchers and subsidies, as well as creating well-designed new construction.

With strong council leadership, Cambridge can become a role model for innovative, inclusive housing strategies rather than reverting to the 1970s-style high-rise approach this proposal advocates. Let’s reject this radical proposal and start from a place of transparency, analysis and comprehensive planning.

Lisa Dreier, Susan Frankle, Michael Kennedy, Gus Rancatore, Margaret Rueter and Merry White, members of North Walden Neighbors