Friday, July 12, 2024

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui speaks Thursday at a candidate forum. (Photo: Matt Rocha)

Housing was the key issue at Thursday’s forum for Cambridge City Council candidates, 16 of whom participated.

The forum was organized by YWCA Cambridge, which also hosted, and the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, a provider of anti-poverty services. In addition to the candidates who attended, 17 filled out a questionnaire posted on CEOC’s website.

Much of the forum centered on the tradeoffs between housing density and neighborhood character. Though nearly all candidates support more housing density, only some would like to build much taller; others fear that building too tall could disrupt Cambridge’s distinct charm.

Throughout the campaign season – which has coincided with passage of Affordable Housing Overlay zoning changes intended to make it easier to build taller in some squares and along some major traffic corridors, so long as the homes being built are all affordable – councillor Marc McGovern has advocated for building taller. Because of the city’s small footprint, he said, the only way Cambridge can solve its housing crunch is by building taller than six stories.

“You have to,” McGovern said. “We’re not going to put a dent into our affordable-housing waiting list by building three- and four-story buildings. It’s just not going to happen.”

McGovern added, “In this job, you have to set priorities, and you have to take votes. I’m going to vote for the people and the diversity of this city every single time over the height of a building.”

Beyond new zoning

The AHO now lets affordable-housing buildings rise to as much as 15 stories by right, but council challenger Hao Wang said more was needed: “I advocate we build much taller, more than 15 floors./ Density and character are not either/or. We must do both.”

Ayesha Wilson, who serves on the School Committee and is looking to jump to the council, agreed about character.

“I fully support building high. I understand that some may say that could be damaging to the character of certain neighborhoods, but I don’t believe that,” Wilson said, but the city should ensure “we’re not just putting all low-income people in one place.”

Keep to squares and corridors

Some candidates were more cautious in endorsing taller buildings. Federico Muchnik expressed some skepticism about height outside the city’s squares and corridors.

“I’m an advocate of what I call gentle density, midrise buildings,” Muchnik said. “I believe that six, seven stories on the avenues is entirely doable, especially if it grades back to three stories and aligns with buildings that are deeper into the block and in sync with the canopy line.”

Dan Totten, who said he supports increased density “whenever it will benefit low-income people,” reminded listeners of the tradeoff of adding commercial space, such as labs, that could make Cambridge less affordable by drawing in new workers who want to live near their offices – the basis for “linkage” fees big developers must pay in Cambridge toward build affordable housing.

“If we get more biotech in Central Square, it will drive up the cost of land, accelerate displacement and make it harder to build more housing,” Totten said. “We need to say ‘no’ to more density for biotech.”

More forums coming

Gregg Moree, a perennial candidate participating in his first debate of the season, said he supported building taller, though not without some reservations. He suggested that before building taller, developers or city officials ought to contact neighbors.

“On Walden Street, they’re proposing a 12- to 15-story building,” Moree said. “I would think you would want to ask everyone on Walden Street if they want a 12- to 15-story building there.”

The next council candidate forum will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lesley University’s second floor University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, Cambridge, sponsored by the the Porter Square Neighbors Association, Baldwin Neighborhood Council and Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods. There will also be a Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association candidates forum, 7 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, with candidates for City Council and School Committee expected at this Zoom-only event.

Cambridge Community Television and Cambridge Day are co-hosting a City Council Candidate Conversation from 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 27 – a moderated discussion encouraging interaction between candidates that will be broadcast and available for streaming through CCTV’s election channel.