Thursday, July 18, 2024

Western Front, an adult-use cannabis shop in Cambridge’s Central Square, in March 2022; it didn’t open for another three months. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Making it easier to open a cannabis shop in Cambridge by removing a special permit requirement won a Planning Board endorsement June 13.

While most retail does not require a special permit to open, officials have been wary about the adult-use cannabis shops approved by voters in November 2016, making them an exception that requires review by the board. With this change, “the goal is to treat retail cannabis like other types of retail,” said Daniel Messplay, of Cambridge’s planning staff. “If you think about other types of retail that goes in just through a building permit, we don’t have those same sort of design safeguards.”

The board would still need to hear special permit cases for cannabis growing and production facilities, but no plans for such facilities have been filed in Cambridge.

The City Council still has to vote to enact the change, taking the board recommendation into account.

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Alewife Quad zoning

A little over a year after Cambridge placed a moratorium on new developments in the Alewife Quadrangle area, a petition for a zoning amendment reached the Planning Board on Tuesday.

The City Council approved a moratorium on office and lab space after life-sciences developers acquired land rapidly in the area; city staff put together the Alewife Zoning Working Group to recommend how the neighborhood should be developed.

The quadrangle, south of the MBTA’s Alewife station and north of Fresh Pond, will see a greater emphasis on housing toward creating a mixed-use, “self-sustaining neighborhood,” according to a letter from the Community Development Department.

Whereas zoning for the area from 2019 emphasized “light industrial” uses with 41 percent of new developments going toward housing, housing now sees a majority share at 51 percent, director of community planning Melissa Peters said. Additionally, the plan encourages developers to build infrastructure such as connecting roads, bike paths and pedestrian walkways.

Developers will be incentivized to build more housing through commercial density bonuses, Peters said. By building housing, affordable housing and infrastructure outlined by the plan, developers would be allowed to create denser commercial spaces than usually allowed.

The Planning Board recommended the plan unanimously to the City Council.

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Somerville looks at stepbacks

Somerville’s Planning Board heard a petition to amend zoning in its affordable-housing overlay during its June 15 meeting. The proposed amendments would decrease required stepbacks – where buildings recede on upper floors – to allow for denser affordable buildings.

Stepbacks are required for buildings over four stories where only affordable units are allowed. This amendment would require stepbacks only on the topmost floor of a building, allowing for more affordable units.

“My public policy position on making [Somerville] an inclusive community exceeds my concern for making us slightly more dense with more restrictive stepbacks that might make it more difficult to build affordable housing,” chair Michael Capuano said. The board recommended the amendment unanimously.

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Delay on linkage hikes

“Linkage” fees on developers in Somerville should be higher than the current $12.46 per square foot for projects bigger than 30,000 square feet, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne told the Planning Board.

The fees, which go to community benefits such as paying for affordable housing, could go up between $10 to $20 based on the results of a linkage study, said William Blackmer, of Somerville’s Economic Development Division.

The board was dubious. Capuano indicated that the study’s researchers and businesses have observed economic changes that warrant additional study.

“Market rates have gone up, interest rates have gone up, and I think it’s going to not necessarily be as reflective of what a reasonable market issue could be when we get on slightly better footing in some reasonable period of time,” he said. He and other members expressed concerns about Somerville remaining competitive, though most were in favor of increasing the fees eventually.

After a long discussion, the board settled on giving no recommendation, but attached feedback to be presented to city councilors favoring either a “phased” approach to increasing the linkage fees or delaying the flat-rate increase.

Linkage rates in neighboring Cambridge rose to $33.34 per square foot from $20.10 in October, exempting the first 30,000 square feet of smaller projects.