Friday, May 17, 2024

The Dortheavej apartments in Denmark are cited by city councillor Dennis Carlone as a model for Cambridge housing. (Photo: Rasmus Hjortshøj via World Architecture Festival)

In a faceoff over changes to a law meant to bring more affordable housing to Cambridge, city councillor Dennis Carlone all but conceded defeat Thursday for his approach to building six- or seven-story buildings instead of allowing a limited number of higher-rise towers.

“It’s very clear this council is going to approve that or some modification of it,” Carlone said of the Affordable Housing Overlay zoning change he opposed. “If the council doesn’t want to go with [mine], I can accept that.”

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.

The debate took place at a Neighborhood & Long Term Planning committee meeting chaired by Carlone after discussions in the Housing Committee, where the topic will return. The next hearing hasn’t been scheduled.

Carlone’s approach

Carlone drew on his experience and studies as an architect and urban designer to preach the social ills of some high-density housing. He cited a study by Oscar Newman, a city planner and architect, that claims that crime often increases in housing as height increases, regardless of the social class of residents, and cited fears of failed experiments in urban renewal. He showed examples of bad housing, such as Le Corbusier’s Voisin plan, a concept for high-rise housing in Paris that was never built, and the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis, Missouri, which was widely panned and demolished in 1970s.

In Carlone’s vision, the city can add 3,000 affordable homes in mid-rise buildings on city land, with municipal uses such as schools or libraries at their base, and by using eminent domain to buy single-story properties and convert them. Near his own home, “half the buildings are one-story,” and most won’t “be there in 20 years,” Carlone said.

He also wants existing city land to be used for housing and to raise funding through a real estate transfer fee that he said would bring in $23 million this year alone. 

Avoiding problems of the past

Studies presented by proponents of the measure indicated, however, that building design was only one factor in the failure of high-rise affordable housing. They pointed too to the concentration of poverty, a lack of funding and location, and to Cambridge’s vibrant and largely crime-free affordable towers as exceptions to the studies Carlone cited. Proponents highlighted that housing under the AHO is meant to be mixed-income, with residents earning up to 100 percent of the area median income. 

“We believe that the failures of urban renewal of the ’60s and ’70s do not correspond to the housing that we’re proposing and agree that we should not make the mistakes of the past,” councillor Marc McGovern said. “No one is suggesting that or wants to see that.”

You would be hard-pressed to walk by newer affordable buildings in Cambridge and be able to tell they weren’t market-rate or luxury, McGovern said. “Our affordable housing developments have won awards.”

Room for compromise 

The proponents of the AHO amendments also support the city buying land and using existing city land for housing, but say the city needs more height. 

“We can get together on a lot of that stuff,” McGovern said of Carlone’s proposal, but “need to be able to build taller buildings where appropriate.” While 3,000 new homes might serve current residents on an affordable-housing waitlist, including people who work here raises the figure to 7,000, McGovern said, and they “are also members of our community.” 

Councillor Burhan Azeem assured Carlone that he was open to discussion about the amendments, including about heights. “There’ll be plenty of time to work it out. And I’m sure we’ll have lots of amendments, and I look forward to that process. It really does get me excited to make a bill that [includes] feedback from everyone,” Azeem said.

Public comment

Public comment was intense. Speakers on both sides totaling more than 40 expressed support for affordable housing, but many backing the AHO amendments underlined the urgency. 

“There are no justifications for any city or town during the housing shortage like the one we’re suffering from now to maintain land-use regulations that forbid the building of more homes on our very expensive lots,” resident James Zall said.

“One of my patients told me the other day that the best thing about his new home was it has a front door that locks and the inside is his,” said Mark McGovern, a social worker and director of Cambridge Health Care for the Homeless. “People don’t care if that unit is on the third floor or the seventh floor or the 23rd floor. When they are home, they are home. Taller buildings with more units and a denser population will certainly change the character of the squares and major corridors of Cambridge – the new character will be a city that cares enough about diversity to include diversity in its housing stock in order to give more people access.” 

Lindsey Frasier, a resident who commented during the meeting, said she does not support any building over six stories in Cambridge. She supports Carlone’s plan. 

“I think scale really matters. I think access to green space and keeping our city healthy in other ways – in terms of the natural environment, but mostly I think that that we really have to build spaces conducive to creating community,” Frasier said.