Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Construction in East Cambridge on Dec. 16, 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A debate begun before the Covid pandemic reached a landmark Monday as Cambridge’s City Council accepted changes about the forming and running of Neighborhood Conservation Districts, boards that consider developments and reconstruction with an eye toward preserving the charm of architecturally significant neighborhoods.

“We’ve talked about it a lot. I don’t think anyone’s opinions have changed,” city councillor Marc McGovern said, his tone reflecting the discord of the past three years and seven months.

The council passed the changes 6-3 to a law blandly titled “Historical Buildings and Landmarks.” 

They began, though, with a screaming match at a meeting that was ended early by staff shocked by the confrontational tone in a room with an unusual overflow crowd.

That March 2, 2020, meeting to consider creating an East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District was packed with opponents of the process and the boards themselves. The East Cambridge process restarted more than 10 months later, virtually, after an October 2020 council order that any recommendation for a new NCD include “an analysis of the potential effects” on housing affordability; and followed by a May 2021 citizen petition to ensure “21st Century values” for the districts. 

East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District study committee member Bill Dines gestures during a March 2, 2020, confrontation with meeting attendees including Loren Crowe, left. Committee member Gavin Kleespies is next to Dines. (Photo: Alex Wang via Twitter)

“When we started these conversations, the two sides were very far apart. We were able to come together on about 90 percent of updates and changes,” McGovern said. “There were some areas where we couldn’t reach agreement. We tried – we had many, many conversations. You can’t always get to 100 percent. And I think it’s just an impasse, and I don’t think any more time is going to lead to any different outcome.”

McGovern’s suggestion was to get it over with “one way or the other.”

Among other things, the updates to rules used for the past 40 years make it harder to start an NCD, with 100 residents’ signatures needed to start consideration of a district instead of 10 and a landmark designation request up to 30 from 10; make review of some projects nonbinding; and change membership requirements to better reflect neighborhood demographics, adding business owners and tenants and eliminating a required member from the Cambridge Historical Commission after an initial period.

The votes against

After coming together over so much, two recommendations by the commission were left out of what was voted: Adding NCD commissions to reviews for projects holding all-affordable homes under Affordable Housing Overlay zoning; and keeping powers to “consider the size and shape” of new construction and additions.

Without review, “the ordinance changes and undermines the entire reason for having historic districts and conservation districts,” councillor Patty Nolan said, explaining why she was a “no” vote.

Her fellow votes against, Dennis Carlone and Paul Toner, spoke briefly too – Carlone to call the decision “a major mistake” and Toner to mention a puzzlement from the past months: “Based on the history that was shown to us, it doesn’t seem like the NCDs are causing as much difficulty as some people seem to think they are.” 

In a Sept. 18 explanation to the council of the legal standards used to compel changes or deny projects reviewed by the commission or NCDs, commission executive director Charles Sullivan showed that developments rejected by the districts and commissions are minimal – mostly under 1 percent of all that are proposed.

A divided public

The numbers captured what Sullivan had been saying since the battle was launched in 2020 over whether the districts held back development of new homes. It was led by younger renters who said they felt unrepresented by NCDs and their members – who were generalized as older, whiter property owners who didn’t feel their urgency and cared more about property values than making room for new residents.

“These commissions lack the citywide perspective to balance the tradeoffs between historic preservation and housing affordability and should not have the ability to block affordable housing that our city desperately needs,” resident Justin Saif said during the Monday meeting’s public comment period, arguing that the amendments maintain all “existing considerations NCDs can take into account but one,” referring to the appropriateness of size and shape on new construction or additions.

Another supporter, Mary Ann Doran, explained why she helped bring forward the changes: “My son is a senior at the high school, and I’m working to make Cambridge a livable city for him as he grows into adulthood,” Doran said. “This document was 40 years old. It needed to be revised for the people that live in in Cambridge now.”

Marilee Meyer spoke from the other side about another long-standing suspicion complicating the NCD conflict: That it was a developer-driven giveaway that would merely create “big residences in small places for rich people.”

She also offered the council majority a bitter “congratulations for rewarding bad behavior.”

This post was updated Oct. 5, 2023, to correct some specifics of the new laws for Neighborhood Conservation Districts.