Cambridge Citizens Coalition
Hot off the Press! New Design Guidelines
The new design guidelines draft is now available (afternoon of July 29) for the August 1 Ordinance Committee meeting. The document boils down to a short, 14 page single spaced word file without the photos. But the small size of the document belies how truly massive these structures are assumed to become. Remember this is the 3rd or 4th or 5th most dense city is the country for a population above 100K AND we are one of the oldest cities, founded in 1630 so a lot of historic buildings will have to be bulldozed to make this happen and a lot of current tenants will have to be forced out - and onto the massive affordable housing lists to do this. It is all very stunning (and not in a good way).
Text (language) evokes lots of flexibility and wishful thinking. Basically the developers are asked to "consider" thisor that, with very few specific requirements. The whole document comes in at a staggeringly low 5.811 words -the equivalent of a short term paper. Compare this to the 100 plus page documents posted by other cities for form-based design criteria guidelines in communities elsewhere. Detailed design requirements are necessary if this is to be as-of-right with no real checks and balances.
Photos, renderings, and plans show that these affordable housing developments are intended to be massive. It is hard to imagine how these would fit in to the various residential neighborhoods west of Mass. Avenue where 78% of them are intended to be built as indicated in the City Manager's report. The massiveness of the scale of these also makes one think that the west of Maaa. Ave push may indeed be partly a lost leader, that the bulk of these new units are intended to be built on those sites where the four companies who have the support of the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust to undertake AH projects here (Just A Start, Homeowner’s Rehab, the Cambridge Housing Authority, and Capstone/Hope already have properties and own the land.
This would greatly diminish the non-profit and for-profit developers costs to build (or in this case rebuild much taller, bigger and denser structures, as of right. Trolley Square north of Porter, where CDD held its last meeting now is only two stories, but because it is adjacent to Ma. Ave could easily be rebuilt as a 7-story development extending to near the property lines. Since it already is beginning to show a lot of wear maybe this is part of the plan. This is not to say that ares west of Mass. Ave are out of the city manager's eyesight for massive AH developments, but as one developer revealed recently, if the AHO passes the city is expecting a "s...storm" of lawsuits and given both the property values and the pocketbooks, this is far more likely to come from West Cambridge residents and in some other parts of the city.
Specific Design Criteria
(Organized thematically in the Document)
On Green: Lots of pretty pictures of nice new green spaces, but where in a city this dense will these green spaces be added: Affordable Housing Developers focused on the bottom line are clearly not going to care about this, nor is the city going to buy properties from citizens simply to have more green spaces.
On Context: Developers are asked (2.9 to "Consider the location" but there are no requirements specifically to do so.
On Traffic: The AHO PLAN will significantly add to traffic because, as noted in (3) their intent is to "Promote non-motorized mobility by prioritizing pedestrian-friendly and bike-accessible site design" and in (4) "Minimize the detrimental impact of parking aND driveways on residents, neighbors, and the general public." Good luck in Dec-Mar when snow impedes, or those who work at night, or in places outside the city, or have multiple jobs, or children, or have disabilities.
On Unsightly Utilities (5) Many will be on the roof tops, adding an additional level of height intruding on the neighbors; if not on the roof, "where possible" not at the front of the building (no specific placement requirements.
On Outdoor Lighting (6): Please be ready for bright lighting surrounding these developments, regardless of neighborhood. They will be VERY visible "for safety and functionality" - and for better "allowing open spaces to be usable in the evening, illuminating signage, or subtly accentuating key architectural elements." And this lighting will also add to the roof scale in the encouraged use of "photovoltaic panels to power lighting."
On Public Art (7) -encouraged. But nothing on selection criteria, competitions, judges - which would be important for a first class program.
On Building Design
(1) Massing: Be ready for change "massing should be compatible with the prevailing or desired pattern of neighboring buildings." This basically allows anything, as also in "Consider reducing the visual impact of taller buildings by using stepbacks...." These are just suggestions, nothing is required. Similarly the developers are requested to "Adjust building configuration and massing to maximize access to sunlight, air, and sky views from neighboring buildings and sites, and to maintain privacy." Yet nothing here stops them from interrupting sunlight or removing sky or other views. In another example: (1.9 )Where a neighboring residential building is located very close to the lot line, consider adjusting building’s footprint...." Nothing required.
(2) Facades: "Building facades should enhance and enliven the public realm." (pretty mushy). And, "2.1 Consider Cambridge’s architectural history, heritage, culture and regional significance...." Again, no requirements. 2/9 "2.9 Avoid incorporating extravagant or exaggerated building elements or features..." This keeps down costs. " 2.22 "Wherever possible, screen parking with programed spaces with functions that enliven the street facades." Nothing is required. 2.26 In renovating or adding to an existing architecturally or historically significant building, or where original materials... use traditional building elements with the same architectural features, material quality and craftsmanship. If not feasible, substitute with style-neutral high-quality...." Again, not required.
On Sustainable Design: To design projects with energy efficiency, health and wellness in mind. The removal of mature trees is fine. " 1.4 While trees are preferred, where they are not feasible consider the use of shading devices such as canopies, awnings, or pergolas...." So much for protecting the tree canopy and addressing global warming.
In short: as with many documents what we see in the CDD's new Design Guidelines reveals quite a lot about how this process is intended to unfold, even (and especially) if it is short of specific requirements.