Following two recent (2021) residential zoning petitions that sought to modify single-family housing (SFH) and two-family housing (TFH) zoning districts in Cambridge, our City Council’s Ordinance Committee met to address this issue. The upshot of this Fall meeting was to ask the Planning Board to work with the Community Development Department (CDD) to come up with a plan to address Cambridge SFH and TFH zoning districts and offer possible guidelines on how the City might proceed. The two zoning petitions – the Missing Middle Housing (MMH) Zoning Petition and the Advancing Housing Affordability (AHA) Zoning Petition – are notably different in their approaches. With a new City Council in place, housing matters are back before the public.
RENEWED DISCUSSION OF HOUSING-RELATED ZONING
While the City Council was in favor of modifying SFH and TFH residential districts, and asked that this be done holistically, they did not voice clear support for simply up-zoning these areas to add more market rate housing – which would likely result in even more outside investor interest in the city residential properties. Such a play would not only enable (encourage?) owners of single-family homes to demolish current residences and build them even larger. And it would make it even harder to add more affordable housing in areas where they do not currently exist.
It is also critical that in any such discussion that we also address real city housing needs and use existing planning guidelines and data to do this. At the last Planning Board meeting, a discussion of this was hosted by CDD staff Iram Farooq and Melissa Peters. While no conclusions were reached, in their presence, several Planning Board members shifted positions on this important issue, suggesting:
CAMBRIDGE HOUSING DATA
It is important to address the SFH and TFH housing issue and the residential up-zoning questions from the vantage of current city housing data. We currently have some 1500 Cambridge residents on the affordable housing list. If we employ city-owned property we could easily accommodate this group in new or older residences here. We also have some 67 unhoused individuals in Cambridge (the number varies from around 35-79 each month depending on weather) based on the official Point in Time data used by professionals who tally each month – found HERE. We also could readily address housing all this group if we put our mind to it, using Pine Street to help with transitions.
While many more also want to live in Cambridge, not everyone who wants to live here or invest in Cambridge housing and other properties can do so. We are a relatively small city (6.3 square miles) and are already very dense (c. fourth to fifth most dense city in the country with a population over 100K). Moreover, we have lost over 20% of our tree canopy in the last ten years (and this in an era of critical climate concerns) in part through development. This loss adds to heat island effects and both sizable environmental and medical inequities in key parts of the city.
Yes, we can and should add some new housing. And, as we will see below, the City’s Envision Report specifies that the greatest new density potential is on parts of Mass. Ave. We also have potential in other city areas such as Alewife if we don’t simply allow labs and other commercial uses to take over these spaces – or continue to encroach on our residential areas.
We should be looking at Mass. Ave. on a block-by-block basis and see what is feasible here for denser and taller residential structures (keeping ground floor retail). And we need to prioritize housing goals with our largest employers in an areawide approach to housing/ transportation– including here our largest employers – biotech, infotech, the universities and the City itself. Part of this may be asking employers to allocate a certain percentage of employee work time be telecommunications if possible.
As we move forward with this discussion it is important to look specifically at what the Envision Final Report, stipulates on this and related issues.
WHAT DOES THE ENVISION REPORT ADVOCATE?
Most importantly, the Envision Final Report findings advocates for:
A. adding more open spaces (in the Climate section)
B. putting forward specific architectural design guidelines (in the Urban Form section)
C. promoting architectural preservation (in the Urban Form section)
D. adding increased density in the corridors near transportation hubs.
To be specific (with emphasis added in each case:
1. CLIMATE AND THE ENVIRONMENT: “Ecological Protection: Preserve and enhance Cambridge’s biodiversity, open spaces, and habitats. Cambridge must reduce pollution, restore ecosystems, and create a symbiotic relationship between the built and natural systems that comprise Cambridge's environment”
2. HOUSING: “Increase overall housing production: Change zoning to enable more housing
including affordable housing, to be built along major corridors, squares, and in other areas that have the capacity to accommodate grown and are well served by transit.
3. HOUSING: While Envision does note that one should “allow multifamily residential development citywide” and “offer density bonuses for increased percentage of affordable housing units” it does not specify that this must be accompanied by allowing changes to the existing setbacks and open spaces.
4. URBAN FORM: “Development Patterns: Maintain the existing patterns of the city where they are well-established and advance the city’s values through a mix of preservation and complementary infill development. Significant existing buildings should be preserved and new development should support the existing development patterns of residential neighborhoods, major squares, mixed-use corridors, campuses, and open spaces.”
5. URBAN FORM: “Transitional Development: Where redevelopment occurs at the edges of well-established districts, shape new development to complement the prevailing pattern of adjacent districts, accommodate variations in use and scale, and add greater density to areas well-served by public transit. New development at the edges of well-established neighborhoods should fit into and improve the existing context, transitioning between scales or uses, particularly where sensitive residential uses abut other uses.
6. URBAN FORM: “Preserve the historical integrity and diversity of Cambridge’s neighborhoods, including buildings and the public realm.”
7. URBAN FORM “Adjust zoning in residential districts to be more compatible with prevailing patterns of development, including building setbacks, maximum heights, open space, parking requirements, and uses.’
8. URBAN FORM: “Ensure new development reinforces and enhances the complex urban aspects of Cambridge as it has developed historically and where appropriate, ensure historical contexts are respected.”
9. URBAN FORM: “Proactively guide development in areas with a strong potential for change through area-specific planning and development review.”
10. URBAN FORM: “initiate district plans for specific areas to inform new zoning approaches and design guidelines that support the Envision Cambridge objectives.”
11. URBAN FORM: Prepare a streetscape/landscape character plan that identifies different character types, determines desired uses and setbacks, and sets guidelines for types of landscaping, building frontages, etc.
12. URBAN FORM: “Establish a consolidated set of citywide urban design guidelines based on development types or design themes that reflect historic contexts, while enhancing the overall character of the city and responding to contemporary circumstances.
13. URBAN FORM: Continue to update area- and neighborhood-specific design guidelines to ensure that new developments’ urban design outcomes complement their neighborhood context and the review process is more predictable to stakeholders and developers.
In short, the larger and smaller Envision Final Report goals appear to be STRONGLY AGAINST the direction that CDD seems to be pushing this in seeking to up-zone the city to add more and larger market rate housing that likely would remove open spaces and existing structures, and be done without proper design guidelines in place, or positioned outside of sites along major corridors and near transit hubs as recommended in Envision.
To conclude, as a city we have become addicted to growth, and we are not alone. But it comes with a cost. In many ways, our reliance on growth for city finances has itself becoming like an unending growth cancer. We cannot bulldoze and build our way to sustainability. Insisting that everything be in Cambridge, that we not share the wealth with our neighbors, is not the way to a healthy life for us (or the area). Neither is the increasing segregation of rich and poor that the current efforts have brought us. We must rethink the whole structure if we really want to live sustainably.
In short, Cambridge cannot bear the whole weight. We can’t simply tear down existing sustainable housing to build more market rate (luxury) housing to meet outside demand (investors and otherwise). There are far too many unintended consequences of this – including not only all the outside investment money coming into this city’s housing, but also because adding additional expensive housing (market rate) drives up property values, taxes, and housing costs for renters and owners alike. One simply cannot “build oneself out of this” area, regional, national, and global issue as more and more professionals are now realizing. But what IS critical is to preserve and maintain the existing sustainable buildings that we have in Cambridge – that is the best way to keep naturally more affordable housing in place (as Lydia Edwards among others has noted). Conservation districts help to do this. And this is also what best serves the environment!
Thinking we can re-invent our small dense 6.3 square miles of Cambridge to be a city of high rises without destroying so much that made many of us want to live here is a fantasy and a disservice to the real reckoning that must come, hopefully sooner rather than later. Hopefully the search for a new city manager will bring with it an honest discussion of the actual trade-offs in the urban situation that we have been making here. Dealing with existing neighborhoods, needs, and data rather than ideology is a key piece of this.
Photo credit: Orchard Street. Photo credit: glenna lang photo - Jane Jacobs walk