Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The City Council considers Monday yet another poorly designed approach to expand affordable housing. This one would double the building heights allowed under the Affordable Housing Overlay to 15 stories in the squares and 12 stories along many major streets.

A group of city councillors had previously proposed that the AHO be revised to allow 25 stories in the squares and 13 stories along major streets. Public outcry and councillor questions raised many concerns about that proposal and its design. Now, that same group has reduced the proposed heights to 15 and 12 stories, and has tabled a policy order requesting the city government to flesh out the policy language.

I have three big concerns about this proposal and everything it implies about our ineffective approach to affordable housing.

First, it’s clear that this policy proposal has been developed by and for the housing developers – and one in particular. Proposal sponsors have stated in multiple public meetings that they collaborated closely with developers in drafting the policy proposal, and that the primary goal of this proposal is to enable a high-rise building at 2072 Massachusetts Ave. to be built under an expanded AHO. The developers are a private-sector, commercial business: Capstone Communities and Hope Real Estate. The ordinance proposal sponsors have not once mentioned the name of this business nor invited them to speak in our hearings, though they have prominently featured all of the nonprofit and city government housing agencies. The focus on benefiting one project led by a private-sector business is an inappropriate basis for policy-making.

Monday’s policy order also contains oddly specific language that suggests developer influence: a specification that buildings of any height will be allowed if they match the scale of an adjacent building; and a request for evaluation of mass timber (engineered wood) construction materials. This belongs in building code rather than zoning policy discussions.

Second, the public does not seem to be fully aware of the dramatic effects this policy proposal would have across the city. Thirteen streets are designated “AHO corridors” and proposed for 12-story buildings. These are: Albany Street, Alewife Brook Parkway, Bishop Allen Drive, Broadway, Cambridge Street, Concord Avenue, First Street, Fresh Pond Parkway, Massachusetts Avenue, Memorial Drive, Mount Auburn Street, Prospect Street and Sidney Street. The potential effects of zoning changes of this magnitude need to be studied fully and discussed publicly.

Lastly, the entire approach of this policy revision is misguided. We do not need more one-off policy adjustments or project-specific accommodations. We need a citywide affordable housing strategy that will enable us to meet the Envision Cambridge goal of creating 3,000 new affordable housing units in Cambridge by 2030. That strategy should be ambitious, well-designed and supported publicly. It should marshal and coordinate all of the city’s tools for advancing affordable housing, including policy, land acquisition, finance, public services and infrastructure.

Proposal supporters have said that the needs for affordable housing are so urgent that we don’t have time to make a plan – and must instead adopt a series of frantic and fragmented policy actions. I would say we can’t afford not to make a plan and implement it to get the job done.

Dennis Carlone has served on the City Council since 2014 and has worked as an architect and urban designer in Cambridge for more than 45 years.