Friday, April 12, 2024

Construction at an affordable-housing project in North Cambridge seen Dec. 1. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City councillor debate over changes to affordable-housing zoning was bumped to March after long and impassioned public comment took up much of a hearing last week.

That suits officials endorsing the changes – called “radical in the sense that it is bold” by councillor Marc McGovern – who have been underlining the openness of a new Affordable Housing Overlay zoning process after residents learning of the proposal last year said they felt “blindsided.”

The discussion came at a Tuesday hearing of the Housing Committee.

For projects under the AHO, meaning that they are entirely affordable housing, buildings of up to 25 stories would be allowed in some of the city’s squares; along major corridors, what were up to six-story buildings in the current zoning could be nine stories, and what were up to seven-story buildings could go as high as 13. In squares and corridors designated by the overlay, floor-area ratios will be eliminated. allowing for denser development. In terms of the rules for open space, side and front setbacks will be eliminated entirely, like in business districts, and rear setbacks too unless the height of the building is less than four stories, in which case setbacks are set at 15 feet.

“The basic idea is to allow more height in exchange for more open space … If you can build a taller building, you can take up less space on the surface,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said, while councillor Burhan Azeem stressed that the 25-story height would be for “a few very, very specific places” close to overlapping transit options.

The set of amendments “does a few specific things that try to make the AHO work,” Azeem said.

Public comment

People for and opposed to the amendments made impassioned statements during public comment.

“I am very opposed,” said Annamarie Flynn, a Cambridge resident. “I think that we need our fresh air, we need our sunshine, and I don’t think we need to impose all these new buildings and more people on those of us that have lived here for years and years and don’t want to move. I like my Cambridge the way it is.”

Alan Sadun, a Cambridge renter, said he is for the amendments and the more cost-effective “medium and large-scale housing” it can bring in taller buildings that are an option, not a requirement.

“The more options we give ourselves, the more we’ll be able to play offense and not just beg for scraps in terms of affordable-housing sites,” he said.

Those opposed to the amendments said residents weren’t consulted before they were brought before City Council in November.

“It was developed in a very untransparent and undemocratic manner, in secret in consultation with housing developers and then dropped like a bomb on the City Council before Thanksgiving,” said Lisa Dreier, another resident.

Longer proces to come

The proposed amendments were developed in consultation with affordable-housing developers, who mentioned flexibility with heights, setbacks and floor-area ratios as important, Azeem said. On Tuesday, affordable housing-developers including the Cambridge Housing Authority, Just a Start and HRI expressed their support for the amendments. 

“These amendments not only allow us to be a little more competitive in the market, but we think that we can bring better projects to the table,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority.

Azeem also said that it this is the “beginning of the process” for amending the zoning. Another Housing Committee hearing and one by of the Neighborhood and Long-Term Planning committee are expected. From there, if no other preliminary committee meetings are needed, he said, an Ordinance Committee meeting and the Planning Board process are to follow.

“There is a very very lengthy, monthslong process that is still ahead of us for anyone who wants to give input,” Azeem said.

A Housing Committee hearing is scheduled for March 8. If possible, they could “squeeze a meeting in before then,” said E. Denise Simmons, chair of the committee. The Neighborhood and Long-Term Planning Committee meeting has not been scheduled, but chair Dennis Carlone has asked for it to be scheduled.