Normand/Twining Proposal in Central Square

After months of discussions and meetings, the Normandy/Twining proposal to rezone a portion of Central Square by Mass & Main Streets is likely to get voted on Monday night.  If you don’t already know the details, you can read the Planning Board’s favorable recommendation (with some suggested modifications) for the proposal here.  http://www2.cambridgema.gov/cityClerk/cmLetter.cfm?item_id=32500

 

This proposal has raised a lot of angst in Cambridge, to include in places as far away as  North Cambridge and West Cambridge.  There is concern that it is spot zoning, that it is too big, that it will set a poor precedent for development in Cambridge, that it will create too much traffic, that it will drive up costs and so on.  These concerns are valid, but, from my perspective, Monday’s vote is a choice between two, and only two, possibilities for this site.  The first possibility, which is the Normandy/Twining proposal, is for housing and some retail, higher in parts and bigger than the K2C2 planning process envisioned.  Still, a number of K2C2 Committee members have voiced support for the proposal, noting that the height limits in K2C2 were something the Committee had really struggled with in terms of coming up with a firm number.  The proposal does push housing into the area over lab/office space, which is what K2C2 recommended, and the percentage of affordable housing goes far above what the City’s inclusionary zoning requires.  Among other aspects of the housing proposal, there is also an agreement to have a number of smaller (micro) units not be allowed to get City parking stickers.  How this sort of parking limitation will play out over time isn’t completely clear- the Planning Board doesn’t like to have that limitation in zoning- but the thought that we can bring people into Cambridge and not get their cars is, I think, forward looking to the future of Urban Mobility and seems to reflect the City’s slowly declining car ownership. 

 

The second option for the site is a 80’ lab/office project allowed under our current zoning by special permit.  The developer has been very clear that if this zoning proposal is not approved, he will file a special permit to build such a project.  Some folks think he is lying, but I believe him.  If we do not approve the current zoning proposal, I do not think he is coming back with the shorter, smaller housing development with more affordable units that so many people want.  I think he is going to build an 80’ tall lab or office project.

 

People can disagree about whether the developer truly means what he says when he claims this proposal is his last, best housing proposal.  Correctly on not, I do not think he is lying to us.  Independent people with expertise in housing development have reviewed the proposal and told me they think the project is about as close to the bone as it can get.  For me, a ‘no’ vote for this zoning on Monday is a ‘yes’ vote for an 80 foot lab/office development.  I wish I thought there were other options and I wish I could make everyone happy, but I can’t.  I would rather see the housing.  For those who would push harder against the developer, I think it is important to clearly state that, should the developer be telling the truth, you’d rather see the lab/office space than this housing proposal.  That is a valid opinion to have, but it is important people be clear about it so that those of us to believe we only have two options, this proposal or lab/office, can put your opinion in context.  Since I think we will not see a smaller housing project with more affordable housing proposed, it’s not all that useful to me, for this vote, to know that that’s what people would like to see.  I simply don’t envision a world where that will happen.

 

The only person I’ve heard express preference for the lab/office project over the housing proposal on the table is someone who lives just north of Porter Square. Everyone else who has voiced an opinion wants housing rather than lab/office, although many are, understandably, concerned about this project’s size.  People are also concerned about the precedent zoning for a project would set, but that precedent has been set for a long time.  Before he became a City Councilor, Dennis Carlone got some of Lesley’s property in Porter Square upzoned to allow Lesley to build a big campus project there, with parking lots on the other side of Mass Ave, and further north the Kaya restaurant site was also rezoned to allow a five store hotel to be built.  A number of people didn’t like these zoning changes- in fact, neighbors lost a lawsuit opposing Dennis’ Lesley project, but they happened, the projects got built and, while the character of Porter Square is changing as a result of them, it has not been all bad.  Many people think the changes are adding a nice sense of vitality to the area even as more changes come our way.

 

There have also been a number of insinuations, or worse, about corruption for those of us who support this project.  I can’t say why other people may or may not support this project, but I, like others, am concerned about money in politics, though I don’t draw lines about where it comes from.  I only spent about 5 or 6 thousand dollars last time around (about 10% of which was for coffee and donuts during Minka’s recount), but everyone else on the Council spent somewhere between about $40,000 and $80,000 (don’t hold me to the exact numbers, I’m going off of memory).  You can play around with various candidates’ expenditures, winners and losers, on the Office of Campaign and Political Finance’s website here:  http://www.ocpf.us/Home/#filers.  It’s pretty interesting and it can tell you a lot of things, but I think the people slinging charges of corruption around are out of line.  Money and politics are an ugly mix, but everyone on the Council spent a lot of money to get there and, to me, it’s too fine a line to draw to say some money (say you come from a wealthy family and can access trust fund donations or have a lot of money of your own and can self-fund) is good and other money (say you are less privileged and don’t have a host of friends willing to write you big checks so you get money from people with business interests in Cambridge) is bad.  But check out all of us on the website and come to your own conclusions.

 

I have some free time tomorrow and Monday and would be happy to try to meet people at the site if they want to express their concerns directly to me or simply want to hear me explain my thoughts in person.  I think Anthony Galluccio, the attorney for N/T, is likely to meet me there tomorrow but I can’t promise.  Send me an email if you’re interested.

 

I really wish I could, I wish that the whole Council could, take a vote Monday that made everyone happy.  But we can’t.  It really is, I think, either this proposal or an 80’ lab/office project.  Between those two, I’ll take the former.  To those who are disappointed in that decision, I apologize but I just don’t see a better choice. 

 

Thanks a lot and enjoy the rest of the weekend.
Craig

 

6 Responses to “Normand/Twining Proposal in Central Square”

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  2. Craig Kelley says:

    I think that’s a great question. Ideally, we’ll be more deliberative about development issues but zoning is really, really chunky and no one size is going to be the solution for everyone no matter how deliberative we are. No matter what the Master Plan process comes up with, it will be at some level outdated as soon as it’s finalized and we should not view the Master Plan as being the dispositive outline of our City’s future. Disruptive technologies like Air B&B, self-driving cars, increased urban migration, changes in Urban Mobility and more are all things that will make development in Cambridge, and everywhere else, a dynamic, ever-changing thing. What are the core values the City sets in stone? Is it to maximize affordable housing? Is it to limit height? Is it to reduce car use? Is it to build to better meet the needs of an aging demographic? Those questions don’t have easy answers but they’re discussions we’ll have during the planning process and beyond, for specific proposals in the short term (there are two big zoning changes coming up for discussion in East Cambridge- the Volpe site and Boston Properties, for example) and the long-term.

    This Council was distracted right at the start with the Mayor’s vote, when people started talking in the middle of the voting and thoroughly confused everyone and, I think, generated some hard feelings that may have taken a while to get over. Then in June we had the Carlone petition which I thought sucked the oxygen out of planning discussions as it ate up staff time, Council time, Planning Board time and public time. I don’t think here was any way it would have gotten to 6 votes (which is what is needed for an uncontested zoning proposal to pass. 7 for a contested one) but it still took a lot of effort. After that there was the Silver Maple Forest issue which, despite the fact that the vast majority of the land impacted was in Belmont, took more time and attention from general planning issues. So there was a lot of stuff that, I think, took up the Council’s attention in a way that wasn’t conducive to urban planning. As those things bubbled along, K2C2 stalled and then Mass & Main came along. Dennis and Nadeem suggested rezoning Central Square with a limit on lab space, but somewhat like the Carlone Petition, I don’t think there was any real organizational effort put into making that idea go anywhere. In general, with some exceptions, a failed zoning petition, with a negative Planning Board recommendation, keeps a similar proposal from being submitted for two years so I feel it’s important not to submit zoning proposals lightly. For the most part, zoning changes rely on non-City staff to promote the change, whether it’s an upzoning (like Mass and Main) or a downzoning (like the Masse site or the elevator company on the backside of Avon Hill) and that sort of organized civic push and related discussion was lacking. Were I chair of the Long-term Planning Committee or the Housing Committee, I might have some focused meetings on what short-term issues we could address as the Master Plan moves forward, but I’m chair of the Public Safety committee so I’m focusing on gas leaks, policing, emergency response, climate change vulnerability and so forth.

    I am working with the Manager to push for a greater reliance on, and availability, of numbers in terms of who has cars in what development, where they drive and so forth. The more good data we all have as a background for any development discussion, the better I think those discussions will be.

    But we will always, always, always have someone who says, “Hey, I know the zoning is for X, but we’ve figured out a way to make Y work better for us and better for the City even though perhaps not everyone likes it.” Our land is too valuable, and getting more so, to not have people coming up with creative ways to use it that are not in the zoning (but are generally, like Mass and Main), not all that far off, either. I think the Lesley upzoning is a really good example of that. Lesley had an idea. A lot of the neighbors didn’t like it, some sued when the zoning got passed but it happened and I suspect a lot of people look at it now and don’t think it is as bad as they feared. Many love it. Had the City not been flexible with the zoning, we’d likely have something else there. Better? Worse? Just different? I don’t know, but this flexibility in zoning, or at least attempts to find flexibility in zoning, are probably something we’ll see more of in the future as increasing land values, changing demographics, alternatives in transportation, changing construction options (who would have thought we’d see complete units trucked into Cambridge rather than built on site?) and more make new possibilities arise that we did not anticipate. Anyone can file a zoning change, so we’ll have more discussions about the zoning changes when they come and, ideally, the back-and-forth around the proposals will get us to a better place as this process continuously unfolds.

    I hope this helps.

  3. newchris says:

    Hi Craig,
    I’m writing to continue a discussion from email too. The vote last night to approve Mass+Main disappointed me. How can we avoid ending up in this situation again, up against a deadline, facing a somewhat stark choice, with developers (“not to be making a threat,” as Cambridge Day reported) saying that they will just build office space if they don’t get their way?

  4. sethzeren says:

    Craig – Thanks for your very thoughtful reflections. It does you credit to lay out your thinking clearly. I support the proposal, though I have some reservations, I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. As a young professional who can barely afford to live in Cambridge, I think we need more housing, of all types, as soon as possible.
    Thanks and good luck!

  5. Craig Kelley says:

    I’m not sure what getting rid of the zoning would do in terms of leveling the playing field, David. Zoning is a big, clunky instrument but it does provide basic guidelines, sometimes in great detail. People may come and ask to change zoning in the future (in fact, I am certain they will, with upzonings, downzoning and sideways zoning), but that does not mean they will be able to build over-scaled buildings anywhere. They can submit their zoning proposal and the Council can do its best to figure out if it’s a good idea or not. You’d rather have an 80′ lab/office building in this space, but that’s not what the K2C2 study suggested pushing this area towards and it’s something virtually no one else suggests. There is no way that the City, despite its best efforts, can perfectly anticipate and plan for the future so we’re going to always be rethinking what our zoning should be, either because someone submits a zoning petition or because the City submits one to address specific issues. We need to make sure the discussions about these proposals are open, fair honest.

  6. David Fichter says:

    Hi Craig,
    I’m just continuing our discussion from e-mail. My answer to your question is Yes I think the city should fight to preserve the zoning scale and height in Central Square and reject the Normandy/Twining Proposal even if the chance is we end up with a much smaller building which is a lab. Otherwise you are in fact inviting every future development to build much higher over-scaled buildings in Central Square as they try to maximize their proposals. Why aren’t you in fact voting for this approach to future development? Why not just get rid of all zoning and at least level the playing field. It would probably make more sense than this ad hoc approach.
    Thanks, David

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