Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A rendering of an affordable-housing project for seniors proposed on Blanchard Road in Cambridge. (Image: B’nai B’rith Housing)

A project to build affordable housing for seniors has been mostly welcomed in early hearings by Cambridge’s Conservation Commission and Planning Board, with some debate over parking and height.

The 81-101 Blanchard Road housing project in the Cambridge Highlands near Belmont is proposed by area nonprofit B’nai B’rith under Affordable Housing Overlay zoning approved by the City Council in 2020. Representatives of the nonprofit had an initial site meeting with neighbors in July. Two community meetings, required under AHO rules, were held in October and November. The commission and board hearings were Jan. 21 and Feb. 1, respectively.

The proposed project would be a six-story building with 110 units, all one-bedroom. Of those, 77 would be affordable for individuals or households at or below 60 percent of average median income – $62,340 for one person, or $71,280 for two people. Another 33 would be affordable for individuals or households at or below 30 percent of AMI, which is $31,150 for one person or $35,600 for two people.

The parcel is 3.2 acres, holding one vacant two-story former strip mall and two four-story residential buildings. The former strip mall would be demolished for the new building; the two existing residential buildings would remain.

The ground floor will have 8,000 square feet of amenity space, including on-site social services workers.

B’nai B’rith has a long history of developing affordable housing. Representatives called this an important project, particularly as Cambridge Highlands has a higher percentage of people over 65 than other Cambridge neighborhoods.

“They reached out to the Cambridge community, the Cambridge Council on [Aging] and other elder advocacy groups within Cambridge, and they’re looking to build this project to become not just a place for residents to live, but for residents and seniors to receive services,” said attorney James Rafferty, who represents B’nai B’rith, at the Planning Board meeting.

The site will maintain parking spaces used by the residents of the two existing residential buildings and add 30 spaces for the new building, according to plans. Some of these spaces will be designated for the social services staff members.

This site has an MBTA bus stop right outside, good for people who may not be comfortable driving but cannot walk long distances.

Parking and landscaping

Planning Board vice chair Tom Sieniewicz said he thinks the proposal has too much parking, and he would rather see that space be used for more units.

“This is a community with a critical need for affordable housing, especially for seniors,” he said, expressing uncertainty that the senior residents will need that many spaces for cars. Board member Catherine Preston Connolly agreed, and suggested more open space and a pedestrian-friendly environment.

B’nai B’rith argued, however, that at its senior housing project in Brighton, 50 parking spaces for 250 units has worked well.

The project design also includes significant improvement to the grounds. “Much of the existing riverfront area is considered degraded as it consists of mostly asphalt,” said Rich Kirby of LEC Environmental Consultants during the meeting of the Conservation Commission.

“We’re reducing the amount of degraded riverfront area by installing some landscape plantings, and generally pulling the development farther from Wellington Brook,” Kirby added. The nonprofit hopes to add an improved stormwater collection system and add native plantings, removing invasive plants now on the site such as Japanese knotweed, representatives said.

Public comment

Some locals oppose the project. “We’re opposing the six stories of the building – the Affordable Overlay provides for a limited increase, and the number of stories here are far more than what we would consider limited,” said Ann George at the Planning Board meeting. She was also concerned about the building being an area designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a flood zone, and about potential noise during construction. George also said there has been an increase in crime on the property since it has been acquired by B’nai B’rith.

Rafferty said the building is not, in fact, in a FEMA-designated floodplain.

George was followed immediately by another area resident, James Zall, who supported the housing.“We certainly need a project like this,” he said, speaking about Cambridge’s immense housing shortage, particularly for seniors like himself. He said he was struck by the presentation pointing out the very long list of people waiting for affordable senior housing. “I would like to see it advance as quickly as possible,” he added.