Friday, June 14, 2024

Development is ongoing at 116 Norfolk St. in The Port neighborhood in Cambridge under Affordable Housing Overlay zoning. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A controversial update to Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay zoning goes to the City Council with no recommendation from the Planning Board after a Tuesday hearing, the board’s second on the proposal.

Members agreed to provide only comments on the proposed changes, noting concerns such as whether changed guidelines would cast neighborhoods in shadow from taller buildings and questioning whether the council should wait for the original AHO’s built-in five-year review.

This discussion came after the board decided to delay a decision during a first hearing Aug. 8 due to four of the nine members being absent. The Tuesday meeting included an additional hour of public comment.

The amendment would increase the possible height of buildings with 100 percent affordable units. While the current AHO allows for buildings up to around 80 feet, the new version would cap buildings in areas near Harvard, Central and Porter squares at 15 stories, with major corridors in the city allowing buildings of up to 12 stories and mainly residential areas allowing for nine stories. The amendment would also eliminate setback requirements.

While the council’s own Ordinance Committee recommended the changes Aug. 1 in a 6-3 vote, the Planning Board showed reservations given the breadth of public comment and the political divide between residents. As in previous meetings about the new AHO, public comments largely fell in extremes of for and against.

Margaret Moran, deputy director of development at the Cambridge Housing Authority, spoke during the meeting to note that 6,500 people and families who work in Cambridge are on a waitlist for affordable housing and CHA can process only 300 applicants a year. “So it would take 20 years to house everyone with a local preference. And that’s not counting the rest of the folks on the waiting list,” which number more than 21,000, she said

Helen Walker, a Cambridge resident and architect, opposed the amendment for its impact on open space resulting from a lack of setbacks. In particular, she said, eliminating setbacks would greatly raise the heat index in the city. “Development standards must mitigate urban heat island effect to protect residents from major increases in summer temperatures. Heat mitigation strategies should benefit the entire city,” Walker said.

Though most board members said they were in favor of increasing the affordable-housing stock in the city, chair Mary Flynn found present members split half and half on whether to provide a recommendation on this specific approach.

Member Tom Sieniewicz noted that the Envision Cambridge master planning process proposed adding 3,200 affordable units by 2030. To reach that number, the amendment would be a necessity, he said.

Lou Bacci, another member, argued that potential shadow impacts of the taller buildings made him wary of the amendments. City councillor Marc McGovern – one of the major sponsors of the changes – shot back that to build more affordable housing, some sacrifices would need to be made.

The board’s vice chair, Catherine Preston Connolly, said she would prefer to see through the five-year review procedure built into the original AHO. “I would have a difficult time recommending an adoption of changes to the Affordable Housing Overlay at this time because we have not yet gotten to five years,” she said. “We should probably get the study going now.”

With the board split, Sieniewicz advocated to make notes on the policy to the City Council, believing this route would be most effective for its members. Flynn agreed, and the board unanimously decided to make no recommendation.