Wednesday, June 12, 2024

E. Denise Simmons, seen at a Cambridge City Council inauguration Jan. 3, has new ideas on affordable-housing zoning. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A meeting on Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay ended in confusion Thursday with chair E. Denise Simmons proposing a dual-track plan in which controversial amendments go forward to the Ordinance Committee while “we will keep the subject matter in committee.” 

One thing staying for a meeting yet to be scheduled would be a never-before-heard counterproposals for capping the height of AHO building at 12 stories, even as previously proposed heights would be written into possible zoning language due in less than a month.

“This meeting will be recessed, and we will keep the subject matter in committee, but we will move the petition forward. What does that do? It moves a petition forward so a meeting can be scheduled and we can start the work on the ordinance language,” Simmons said.

Originally she wanted to introduce a motion directing the Community Development Department to create a zoning petition with the AHO amendments plus three more of her own, Simmons said during the meeting, but after hearing concerns with the original amendments she decided against it. As the meeting began running out of time despite a roughly half-hour extension, Simmons squeezed in an announcement of “the high points” of her amendments and recessed the hearing instead of adjourning.

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon was surprised by the new amendments and expressed confusion over Simmons’ procedure. Councillor Patty Nolan, reached afterward, said she was also confused about next steps.

“Since the meeting was recessed and there was no motion made, I don’t believe there was any formal instruction from the committee to CDD. If the petitioners want CDD to work on it, then they might put forth a motion on a regular City Council agenda, but I don’t know if that was the intent,” said Nolan in a message.

Simmons did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

Up to 25 stories, or 12

Under the original 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.

In Simmons’ summation at the end of the Thursday meeting, she wanted the city manager to direct the Community Development Department to “promptly draft a zoning petition to be considered for filing for the City Council based on the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay amendments now before the Housing Committee with the following changes,” including that AHO buildings’ maximum height would be 12 stories except where a proposal matched the height of housing on that parcel or an adjacent parcel “as proposed by the Cambridge affordable-housing providers.” There was open space “correction language” as well.

A zoning petition should come back to the council no later than May 11, Simmons said.

The only vote taken, though, was to recess the meeting.

Different visions on height

Questions of height ran throughout and led the 11 questions for CDD highlighted in the meeting’s agenda – though Iram Farooq, the assistant city manager for community development, defected on matters of height by noting that the proposals didn’t come from her department and weren’t studied there.

Councillor Dennis Carlone, who was absent from the meeting, is the amendments’ loudest opponent and has suggested that affordable-housing buildings be capped at six to seven stories citywide.

“We’re not going to solve our problems by building four-story buildings across the city. We just don’t have the space for it,” said councillor Marc McGovern, one of the proponents of the amendments.

Mallon thinks otherwise. While she is supportive of the affordable-housing overlay in its current form, she is not a fan of the height limit increases proposed.

“I don’t see that there was a real need for the type of heights that we’re talking about,” she said.

Carlone’s proposed cap of six to seven stories in height hasn’t made it into a formal motion; Simmons’ proposed cap of 12 stories from this fourth AHO committee hearing could be taken up at a next.