On Nimbyism, Yimbyism, and Planning…
We are into history here: Let us look back and consider some important examples of good and bad planning, good and bad development, good and bad Nimbyism, good and bad Yimbyism.
Over a period fifty to sixty years ago, city and state planners came up with plans that became a severe threat to the fabric of the city. State officials wanted to build the Inner Belt Expressway through Cambridge. Cambridge Redevelopment wanted to do urban renewal in East Cambridge, Cambridgeport and Riverside. The total number of housing units to be demolished in Cambridgeport alone by the combined effects of highway and urban renewal was 4,400 units, about 2/3 of all the housing in Cambridgeport. The highway route was along Brookline Street, an alignment invented by the Cambridge Planning Director, who spent a dozen years trying to sell it to state officials before state engineers finally adopted it in 1962. Behind all of these programs was the Federal Government, in the form of the Bureau of Public Roads and Housing officials in the Commerce Department.
All three levels of American government -- local, state and Federal -- were doing the wrong thing. Fortunately, a Cambridge City Councillor, Pearl Wise -- endorsed by the pro-urban-renewal citizens group, Cambridge Civic Association -- changed her vote and voted no. Urban renewal in residential areas basically went down the tubes in this city and never came back. People just said no. In December 1964, the Civic Association, recognizing the sins of its past, came out with a new position opposing any route for the Inner Belt through Cambridge. No Inner Belt in Cambridge, they said, in a direct rebuke to the City's Planning Director.
Cambridgeport citizens organized against the Inner Belt in 1965 and stood up to say No. They formed a group called Save Our Cities, with partial funding from the Archidiocese of Boston. The goal was not to put the road in somebody else's back yard. It was no road at all. In Roxbury, citizens formed a group called Operation Stop. That says it all.
Anti-highway protests spread to neighborhoods: Jamaica Plain, Alewife, Tip O'Neill's neighborhood of North Cambridge, Milton, Lynn, and many others who felt that highway building in the City was often simply wrong. Unknown to many of them is that President Eisenhower in 1959 sat down with his public works advisor, Major General John Stewart Bragdon, and both agreed that building Interstate highways in cities was wrong.
By 1971, the highway controversy had grown so heated that Governor Francis Sargent announced that he was cancelling the Inner Belt. In his speech about past highway policies, he admitted "We were wrong." The naysayers were right. The mighty highway lobby was stopped dead in its tracks, and Massachusetts went on to build two major transit projects -- the Red Line to Alewife and a relocated Orange Line. The Big Dig project was completed at great cost, without taking a single house.
The final victory for Cambridge is that MIT agreed to serve as the developer for Elderly Housing on Erie Street in Cambridgeport. The Lyndon Johnson Apartments were built with Federal housing funds, right smack where the Inner Belt was supposed to go along Brookline Street. This new housing structure gave us needed elderly housing. It also blocked the Inner Belt. This building still delivers a message: No Highway.
Near Beech Street in North Cambridge, the St. James Church is a wonderful architectural gem, of great historical and aesthetic value. An adjacent parcel that used to be the Long Funeral Home became a famous example of disastrous development. No one in their right mind would defend it. Bad Yimbyism.
Just across Mass Avenue is a large office building, sheathed in glass, with a Le-Corbusier-inspired parking lot underneath the structure. Civilians walking along the street get to see a deep black hole filled with the murky forms of parked automobiles. Another architectural disaster.
As an example of a new building that serves humane needs, I offer the new City Library, very popular with the public and created by an architect who is decidedly non-Brutalist.
The role of architects in creating unfortunate new buildings should be assessed when we consider increasing building densities in established neighborhoods. In general, architects have failed to inspire public confidence. They spend too much time giving each other awards. Zoning is one of the few limits on their egos and excesses. Because the proposed AHO zoning petition seeks a loosening of zoning (an up-zoning), it represents an undermining of zoning protections. If anyone supporting the still-flawed Overlay petition is an architect or in the real estate business, they should declare those interests openly, because greed is an important motivator. And shame on them if they allow greed to take control of their moral judgment.
Suppose greed does win out, and the Council approves the up-zoning. What recourse do citizens have? A court appeal, of course. It is their right, by the Constitution. Anyone unfamiliar with Article 7 of the Declaration of the state Constitution should read up on that too. It says government should serve the common good, and not the profit of special interests. The words were written by Founding Father John Adams, a favorite on many conservative thinkers. Nothing wrong with that -- since conservation of our city should be foremost in our thoughts.
Stephen H. Kaiser, PhD Citizen Engineer & Historian
To read the fuller version of this issue see Stephen Kaiser's report on Cambridge citizen opposition to the Inner belt where the image at the top of the blog is found: www.cambridgema.gov/~/media/Files/historicalcommission/pdf/innerbelt_kaiser.pdf?la=en