Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dennis Carlone speaks at a May 15, 2021, meeting in Neighborhood 9 of opponents to affordable projects in Walden Square and near Porter Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City Councillor Dennis Carlone unleashed a scathing criticism of proposed amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay at a Wednesday hearing of the Housing Committee continued from last month.

Under the amendments for AHO buildings – in which all units are affordable – 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.

“I have serious concerns about the most dramatic change in zoning in my history at the city,” said Carlone as he summarized what he said would be a presentation at a March 22 meeting of the Neighborhood & Long Term Planning committee, which he chairs. 

He had concerns “socially, economically, communally and even from a safety point of view,” he said. “It’s just odd zoning and defies all history and learning from the 1950s and ’60s.”

He planned to cite studies March 22 about housing for families that he claims “show that family housing wants to be low to the ground, not up in the air,” he said, and asked that councillors supporting the changes – Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and Quinton Zondervan – present studies that support their amendments and drawings of what the city may look like if they are implemented. Carlone said he will bring his own drawings. 

The new AHO would allow for floor-area ratios – floor area divided by total land – that will be 10 times greater in corridors and 20 times greater in squares, he said.

Floor-area ratio requirements will be eliminated in areas deemed to be squares or corridors under the amendments to the AHO.

Taller if saving open space

Carlone claimed that “no one asked for 120 to 240 feet” of height on buildings, referring to affordable-housing developers involved in advising on the legislation.

During the meeting, a possible change to the amendments was discussed that would allow for taller buildings if open space was preserved or increased.

Though the language was not introduced, Zondervan summarized the rule: If a project is going to preserve existing open space that is 5 percent or more of the total lot area, or is going to expand the amount of open space 5 percent or more beyond what is required under the ordinance, “they can build the building as tall as they want in order to accomplish that,” he said. “However, they cannot exceed the density.”

Shrinking a housing waitlist

During the meeting, proponents spoke of why they think the amendments are needed.

“If we are talking about zoning for the future, the future of Cambridge is looking more and more like low- and moderate-income people are not going to be able to stay here, and that people have to leave, taking with it a lot of Cambridge’s diversity which we all say we love,” McGovern said. “We have to have zoning to meet that need and try to stop that from happening.”

There are 7,000 Cambridge households on the waitlist for affordable-housing here, McGovern said. (Cambridge Housing Authority executive director Michael Johnston put the number of waitlisted people who work or live in the city or are veterans at 5,000 in July 2021.)

“Unless we are more aggressive in allowing for more height in our buildings, we’re not going to get there,” McGovern said. “We just don’t have space” to shrink the waitlist by building four- and five-story buildings.

Later in the meeting, Carlone offered an alternative to Cambridge’s affordable-housing issue: increasing a land transfer fee and using eminent domain powers to buy one-story buildings, replacing them with taller mixed-use buildings where affordable and market-rate housing could not be differentiated. 

“That’s planning, that’s urban design and that would not be fought against at all,” he said.