Friday, July 19, 2024

A rendering of proposed buildings in a project called Walden Square II in North Cambridge. (Image: Winn)

The Planning Board reluctantly took the final step to allow 95 affordable apartments to be added to a development for lower-income families in North Cambridge despite serious concerns with the design of bicycle and pedestrian routes and tree removal and replacement. The decision on July 2 exposed the advantages and drawbacks of the city’s Affordable Housing Overlay zoning, which eliminates most zoning restrictions for developers of 100 percent affordable housing projects.

Board members’ discomfort with the Walden Square II project near Danehy Park was obvious. “I think we’re better off than we were,” said chair Mary Flynn, referring to design changes made after a first hearing on the project March 12. “But there’s still serious issues around circulation [of bicycles and pedestrians]. I’m concerned about the trees, too.”

“Every additional amount of effort that you’ve put into this project has improved it. But there are still concerns,” Flynn told project proponents. Under the AHO, the board has no power to approve or reject the project, only to comment on the design and whether it adhered to the zoning ordinance’s guidelines, she and other members pointed out.

The $80.4 million project by national for-profit housing developer WinnCompanies’ WinnDevelopment unit will add 95 apartments to the 240-unit Walden Square site near Danehy Park. Winn will construct two new buildings, nine stories and six stories, on the property. Sixty-two of the new units will be two bedrooms or more, filling a need for low-income family housing.

Ed Cafasso, a spokesperson for WinnDevelopment, said the company “has used constructive feedback to consistently adjust its plans for more than three years” and will continue to work on improvement in line with Planning Board comments “where possible.” Cafasso said the design plan includes “a commitment to plant more than 150 trees, improve open space for Walden Square residents and install a sustainable solar energy array.”

The board voted to send its comments to the city – the last step in approval of a 100 percent affordable housing project under the overlay – although some members said they didn’t believe the latest design for the project complied with Affordable Housing Overlay goals that housing fit in with the neighborhood and promote cycling and pedestrians. “Candidly, I think that’s something we should talk about as a board, how this project meets or does not meet the Affordable Housing Overlay design guidelines. And I think we were not maybe as clear about that last time as we should have been,” said member Mary Lydecker, referring to the first board hearing in March.

Member Ashley Tan questioned the AHO process. ”Are there any changes that need to be made to this process? Is there enough community process involved right now?” Tan said. She called for a discussion that involved Community Development Department staff and the public.

Funding approval already

In another example of the board’s powerlessness, members said they were surprised that the city’s Affordable Housing Trust had voted to help fund the expansion without waiting for a report from the Planning Board. The trust approved a $18.8 million loan to WinnDevelopment on June 27.

Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, said the loan was “contingent” on the report from the Planning Board, and senior manager for housing development Cassie Arnaud said the trust had acted before a Planning Board vote on at least one previous occasion. The actual language of the trust’s approval of the WinnDevelopment loan says one of the conditions for granting the loan is “the Trust’s review and consideration of Planning Board final AHO advisory design review report.”

The trust isn’t scheduled to meet again until September, which was one reason not to wait until the Planning Board acted, Arnaud said. State agencies that will help fund the project have deadlines for developers to demonstrate they have local financial support. “There’s a lot of things that are tied to having a commitment of local funding in order to be able to queue up all of the other funding sources that a project needs. You need the local funding commitment to be able to begin that process,” Arnaud said.

But is the loan from the city housing agency a commitment of local funds if it’s “contingent” on the report from the Planning Board? No one asked, and neither Farooq nor Arnaud addressed that issue.

City spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said it’s “common” for developers to “pursue financing and permitting concurrently.” Walden Square II is the fourth of seven AHO projects that won funding commitments from the Affordable Housing Trust before the Planning Board review was completed, he said.

In those cases, “funding commitments are conditioned on the Trust’s review of the advisory design review final report from the Planning Board,” Warnick said. When the Planning Board reports are completed, “those reports are transmitted as a new item to the Trust so that the Trust can review, discuss and accept the report in a later meeting pursuant to that condition in each funding commitment,” Warnick said. “If the review is not satisfactory, the commitments could be altered,” Warnick said.

 Incremental improvement

The time pressure dismayed Planning Board chair Flynn. “Why don’t we just slow down a little?” she said. “I mean, I know that it’s important to get affordable housing. I totally understand that, I understand that [there is a] very long waiting list, but it just seems to me that we’re kind of throwing caution to the wind here.”

Other board members said WinnDevelopment’s design changes didn’t significantly improve the project’s bicycle and pedestrian routing and tree canopy, two issues the Planning Board had identified in its first review of the project in March. “I see you have one more tree removed, and you have three more shade trees. So there really hasn’t been much of a shift in that tree balance,” Lydecker said. In March, the board had urged WinnDevelopment to plant more large shade trees and fewer small “ornamental trees.” Project development consultant Matthew Robayna said the newest plan replaced “100 percent of the tree caliper inches” of the trees that would be removed, a claim that didn’t address the board’s request.

As for bicycle and pedestrian routes, Lydecker said: “The project team has made changes they can here and there. I think the circulation is still confusing.” Member H Theodore Cohen said he had walked in the development the day before the meeting and “I will point out that the circulation is really horrible right now. And anything that’s done to improve it will be a great improvement.” But Cohen also said of the new design that he was “perfectly comfortable with saying that this is not yet where it should be.”

A green light during a process

As board members continued to criticize Winn’s design and call for the company to spend more time to improve it, the company’s lawyer, James Rafferty, said the approval process had been “underway for three years.” He reviewed the history, saying Winn’s initial proposal for one new building was “roundly criticized by the staff, neighbors and others.”

There was no hearing on that idea, and the company returned in March with its current plan for two buildings, Rafferty said. Trying to fix bike and pedestrian circulation on a “tight site” with few separated bike lanes and crosswalks “has consumed a tremendous amount of time,” Rafferty said.

Nevertheless, “at the end of the day, what we’re doing at this point is following the report that we received from the first meeting,” he said.“This is not something that has not been given proper attention, it’s been given considerable attention,” he said. With a second Planning Board meeting, “there was every reason to believe that this meeting will conclude with comments as the process calls for but it will allow the project to go forward,” Rafferty said.

“Property acquisition” cost

Board members praised the developer for providing more affordable housing and prioritizing larger family-sized units. Lydecker and Cohen, while criticizing the design, said limitations of the site might not provide much room for improvement. Lydecker said the original Walden Square Apartments, which takes up most of the site, were built in a time when cars were ascendant: “Bottom line, for getting housing no site is going to be great in Cambridge. It’s been built up a lot,” Cohen said.

WinnDevelopment initially included a cost for “property acquisition” in the project budget, although it already owns the site. The Affordable Housing Trust required the company to remove the item from the project cost as a condition of approving its loan.

Cafasso, the company spokesperson, said the cost represented the “property value” of the site where the buildings will be constructed. Asked why a developer would include such a cost, city spokesperson Warnick said: “Generally speaking, including acquisition costs in a development budget can be beneficial to affordable housing projects as it can sometimes increase the amount of tax credit equity the development can raise.”

City easements

The project still faces a legal wrinkle. The site includes two easements owned by the city. Both were supposed to be used for “public pedestrian ways” but Rafferty acknowledged they are not.

Heather Hoffman, a title examiner who frequently criticizes city development actions, disclosed the existence of the easements in public comment at the Planning Board meeting, to the surprise of at least one board member. Rafferty said it was no surprise and WinnDevelopment had already been negotiating with city officials about transferring them to the developer, which is necessary to proceed with the expansion, he said. The City Council would have to approve any transfer, Rafferty said.

Registry of Deeds records show that one easement contains 111,800 square feet. The other is only 453 square feet; their location in the site is not clear.

Former City Council candidate Federico Muchnik, a filmmaker who started a campaign against the project on the progressive website Change.org, said he and a group of supporters intend to keep fighting. He has collected 1,026 signatures on an online petition to stop the expansion, he said. Muchnik said he didn’t know the addresses of signers so can’t say how many live in the development; he added that he believes 70 percent live in Cambridge.