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.