Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A rendering of an Affordable Housing Overlay addition at 1627 Massachusetts Ave., in Cambridge’s Baldwin neighborhood. (Image: Icon Architecture)

A proposed change to Affordable Housing Overlay zoning has proven to be one of the most divisive items taken up by Cambridge’s Planning Board, chair Mary Flynn said Tuesday. 

With four members absent, the board voted to continue the discussion to Aug. 29 when they might return to take part.

The changes were last before the City Council’s Ordinance Committee on Thursday, ending with a 6-3 vote to recommend the AHO changes when they came back to the council. The Planning Board’s recommendation will also be taken into account; it may be settled by the time the council meets again in September.

Flynn, though, said that as a housing crisis worsens and height is seen as a response, she worried that the AHO is “going to create more and more conflicts between existing and new” structures, a conflict that will be taken up by residents. 

“What I don’t want to see is any more of this divide that seems to be building in the city over affordable housing in terms of what it should look like and how we permit it,” Flynn said, noting that more than 125 comments came in about the zoning change to be discussed that night. “Since I’ve been on the board, that’s the most by tenfold in the number of comments that we’ve received.”

Amendments to 2020 version

The changes allow for taller buildings with 100 percent affordable housing than the original zoning passed in 2020. Buildings in designated “AHO corridors” and in residential areas zoned for heights of 40 to 65 feet will now be able to build up to nine stories. In areas allowing heights over 65 feet, affordable-housing developers can build up to 12 stories. Zones near Central, Harvard and Porter squares could get buildings up to 15 stories.

The proposed amendment eliminates setbacks – the distance between the building and adjoining property lines – on all sides of buildings except for projects under four stories. Additionally, developers could build taller buildings without increasing density in exchange for increasing open space.

Passed in 2020, the AHO has six projects in the pipeline that will add 616 affordable units to the city, according to a yearly AHO report released Monday and cited the next day by city councillor Marc McGovern in presenting to the Planning Board. Affordable-housing developers are still largely unsuccessful in acquiring land, McGovern said.

Councillor Burhan Azeem, another presenter, pointed to a failed 2072 Massachusetts Ave. project near Porter Square as an example. It was rejected partially for being too tall, he said, and under new guidelines would have been legal.

Ordinance Committee concerns

According to councillor Quinton Zondervan, increasing the density of affordable-housing developments will help their builders win out over market-rate projects by reducing the cost of land per unit.

The affordable-housing waitlist in Cambridge stands at more than 21,000, with around 6,500 of those being residents or workers within Cambridge.

During their Ordinance Committee hearing, councillor Paul Toner pointed to issues such as the increased heights allowed around the corridors – major, transit-connected streets in the city – and said more thought should be put into which streets were selected, but was otherwise in favor of the amendment.

Councillor Dennis Carlone remained against, saying the proposed changes in height would affect Cambridge severely while acknowledging that the amendment would likely go forward.

The six members in favor, however, focused mostly on the stark need for affordable housing, saying increasing the stock now would decrease impacts in the future. Those were Azeem, McGovern and Zondervan with Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, vice mayor Alanna Mallon and councillor E. Denise Simmons. Opposed were Carlone, Toner and councillor Patty Nolan.

Public comment at extremes

Public comment to the committee and board fell largely to extremes: firm support for the AHO, and staunch opposition.

“This proposal is about what kind of city we want to be and what kind of citizens and neighbors we want to be. Do we want a diverse and just city? Do we want to be caring and compassionate, looking beyond our own individual needs to a larger view?” Esther Hanig said during a July 31 Ordinance Committee hearing used entirely for public comment. Others echoed her statement, highlighting the many people in need of affordable housing.

Those opposed pointed out problems in current affordable units, such as the lack of funding for repairs, while still others pointed out that high buildings would be difficult to blend in areas such as Harvard Square – made worse by a lack of oversight from the Planning Board, which acts only as advisers for AHO projects. Councillors and the Planning Board noted that the current proposed text of the amendment retains the board’s ability to provide feedback.

Opponent Amy Waltz said: “The impact of this zoning change is grossly understated as an amendment to the overlay, when in reality, it is a major upzoning that will affect the entire city, having potential for tenfold of the original overlay’s impact.” Another accused the four members of the board of being absent for political reasons; the board members who were present pushed back strongly.

Planning Board questions

Board deliberations mostly clarified issues such as advisory reviews and addressed the AHO corridors, which vice chair Catherine Preston Connolly said may cover too much developable land in Cambridge.

The board also discussed who would qualify as residents under the overlay, using the example of a teacher making a middle-class salary but who cannot afford to live in Cambridge. Incomes covered under the overlay include diverse groups depending on their situation, city councillors told them.

After discussion that leaned toward recommending enactment by the City Council, the board decided to continue the discussion to Aug. 29 to hear input from the four absent members.