Saturday, July 20, 2024

Walden Square II housing plans now call for two buildings instead of one. (Image: Prellwitz Chilinski Associates)

Revised plans for Walden Square II, a 100 percent affordable development, call for two scaled-down buildings instead of one large structure and address other complaints from the original proposal, but WinnDevelopment still faces opposition from presentations it’s done since an 18-month pause.

The project represents the second phase in the Walden Square Apartments, now 240 affordable homes in a nine-story building and 20 three-story buildings. In the current Winn proposal with two new structures – an idea first floated in February 2022 –  a larger building would include 60 units, and a smaller unit 35. Both would include one- to four-bedroom units and no studios.

After this second neighborhood meeting held Sept. 14, delayed twice since August due to technical issues and a conflicting Planning Board meeting, the project will be able to file materials with the city. Matthew Robayna, the senior project director for the second phase, said Winn hoped the project would advance to the next stage – design review with the Planning Board – ”shortly.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Robayna mentioned that he expects to see the project go to the board in November at the earliest. Because the project falls under the city’s new Affordable Housing Overlay zoning, which is supposed to make it easier to build 100 percent affordable projects, design review by the board are suggestions a developer can take or leave; the first draft of the project was withdrawn before even reaching the board.

Winn – formally known as WinnCompanies – includes its development arm, WinnDevelopment, and a property management arm called WinnResidential.

The developer first proposed an eight-story, 450-footlong slab holding the same 95 units that would have blocked entry to the Yerxa Street underpass, cut down several mature trees and built over an existing parking lot for the buildings.

An official’s complaint

These design choices were only part of the reason the project has been mired in controversy since its inception in 2021.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui submitted a letter in January 2022 to the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust Fund decrying Winn’s mismanagement of its properties – the already-completed buildings in Walden Square in particular – citing rodent issues, a lack of communication by staff that didn’t accommodate residents’ native languages and an attitude of intimidation that included implying residents should leave the property if they were dissatisfied with management.

In response to the letter and community outcry, Winn sent a letter to the mayor in response that trust members called “cheeky.”

Still, the company paused plans for Walden Square II to focus on improvements, Winn spokesman Ed Cafasso said. These included posting signs in residents’ native languages, renovating 50 apartments, new flooring in common areas, adding security cameras and hiring a resident services coordinator.

Changes in new version

During public comment at the Sept. 14 meeting for significantly revised plans with a main building no longer blocking the Yerxa Underpass and adding parking spaces, tensions rose as neighbors for and against the development asked questions and raised issues with the building. Some reflected issues residents of Cambridge have raised regarding Affordable Housing Overlay zoning as a whole.

Residents noted that the open space in the area would still decrease with the new plan. Winn representatives acknowledged this, but said that they would not have exact figures until providing materials to the Planning Board. To complaints that seven trees would still be cut down, Winn officials assured that more trees would be added after construction, though the new trees would take time to mature.

The larger proposed building would include a tunnel over the driveway coming off of Raymond Street that, Winn representatives said, would function effectively as a parking garage. As part of its site revisions, the length of this tunnel, along with its corresponding building, was greatly decreased to not front against Raymond Street.

Resident opinions

Some neighbors remained unsatisfied. Federico Muchnik, a candidate for City Council and vocal opponent of the Affordable Housing Overlay, its follow-up amendments known as AHO II and of Walden Square II, said the tunnel was an unacceptable feature, citing safety concerns for pedestrians walking through the garage; that it paved over open space and added to an urban heat island effect; and that a surrounding building was a “house on stilts.”

Laura Homich, an architect for the site, shot back: “There are buildings everywhere throughout the City of Boston and Cambridge on stilts every day. They’re called parking garages.” Having the garage over the street preserves the open space in the area, Homich said.

Jefferson Park affordable-development resident James Williamson – he has been relocated during construction – expressed concern for increasing the density of lower-income neighborhoods. “[Density is] something that can be debated, but it’s something that we who live in public housing ought to be centered in those conversations. How much density do we feel is a good environment for us and the new people who may be moving in?”

Residents of Walden Square were split, expressing a mix of excitement and apprehension about the project. “Having something different and unique and with a lot of facilities I think is going to encourage a lot of families to come in, and we’re going to have a healthy and safe community,” one resident said.

Another, however, said the company still had a long way to go. “There’s a lot of things that need to be fixed, including communication,” the resident said, “from management to maintenance, from management to tenants, from tenants to management.”