The MBTA has announced New Bus Routes. Some of the proposed bus route changes are deeply troubling news for Cambridge residents who had hoped for more public transportation options not fewer. As with many of our city’s streets, it looks as if a key MBTA outcome is to use their system to move people from elsewhere to a few Cambridge sites and/or elsewhere. What gets left out are (again) the needs of Cambridge residents. Already we are hearing lots of frustration being voiced by residents of East Cambridge, North Cambridge, West Cambridge, and Cross-Cambridge. We will update this post as we hear more from people.
Read more about the MBTA bus lane changes l HERE
Provide Feedback to the MBTA HERE
CCC has been a strong advocate for better public transportation both for environmental reasons and to keep vehicles of both residents and people crossing through Cambridge to get to someplace else from clogging our streets. Alas for many Cambridge residents, the proposed MBTA changes are a major step backwards, particularly for those who use the MBTA to get around in Cambridge itself.
CROSS-CAMBRIDGE: We see losses. Bus 68 (Harvard-Kendall/MIT) will follow same route but will operate now ONLY at peak hours leaving out the needs of workers and others (including many students) whose use is not necessarily predicated on the regular hours of 9-5 businesses. Instead, residents are expected to use nearby services on Cambridge St, Hampshire St, and Ma Ave for more frequent service. We address Bus 69 (Harvard-Lechmere) below which will continue operating but is far from regular.
NORTH CAMBRIDGE: The Porter-Harvard bus (96) will be replaced by a new bus (T77) which goes from Arlington to Porter to Harvard. 96 does not serve Porter square and residents are expected either to use T77 or travel from T96 at Porter.
WEST CAMBRIDGE: the new MBTA plan guts bus service along Concord Avenue in Cambridge, reducing overall trips from 4 pr hour to 1 per hour, and ending service at 7pm instead of the current 10 pm. For a neighborhood slated for several thousand new housing units (and where we just built 100 new affordable units), this is entirely unacceptable. The MBTA plans to shift the current bus 74 (Concord Ave. to Cambridge) to a new route (78) from Arlmont Village to Harvard. On the positive side the 72 (Belmont-Harvard) will be replaced by 75 which will follow the same route but with ore night service (this bus is replacing 74 – the Concord Ave-Belmont bus).
EAST CAMBRIDGE: The new MBTA Plan drastically reduces service in and out of East Cambridge. East Cambridge is home to three elderly/disabled facilities and many other seniors live independently in their homes. These are the people who travel to Market Basket, McKinnon’s, Somerville Hospital, Union and Davis Square and many of the doctor’s located within the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) system but in offsite offices. While the "T" is increasing ease and access for the “new” (often younger) population at Northpoint and Kendall , not only did the "T" relocate the Lechmere Station across a treacherous artery with no accommodation for locals, but to reach this station requires hiking up 60 steps to get to the GLX platform. In addition, the MBTA now has eliminated Bus Lines, 80, 87, 88. When challenged at a recent meeting, T representatives proposed that one could solve the problem to take three separate buses (called in MBTA lingo "a three seater" (meaning two changes and three bus rides) but for young families carrying shopping from Market Basket or for the elderly or disabled, it is not feasible to imagine ever doing something like this.
In short, of the four buses that currently terminate at Lechmere Station (no buses run through it currently), three are eliminated, and the replacements for the two some use most often, don’t go where some need and want to go, Davis Square for example. A new route, the T 101, will be the only other line serving Lechmere. It will run between Kendall square and Medford Square by way of Sullivan Square. The 69 does not appear to be increasing in frequency during the week, and it sounds as though we might get a second bus on weekends (currently, one bus makes the loop between Lechmere and Harvard Square). In short, at the same time that still more employees will be coming to East Cambridge, the MBTA has reduced service to East Cambridge, both by changing the routes of the buses to and from Lechmere Station and Highway. The newest proposal removes all of the bus lines whose routes are not solely in Cambridge (the 80, 87 and 88), leaving only the 69, whose route takes it from one end of Cambridge Street to the other, and introduces a new route, the T101, which runs between Kendall Square and Medford by way of Lechmere and Sullivan Stations.
This change drastically affects not only the ability of people to travel between East Cambridge and doctors' offices or Market Basket in Somerville, but also places like Porter Square (which may sometime in the distant future be reconnected by way of an extension of the Union Square Green Line branch) and Davis Square (which many use to get to North Cambridge). It is nice that the new T39 will connect Cambridgeport and Central Square to Market Basket, but there is no reason to deny residents of East Cambridge that same access that has been so valuable to so many of us. The 87bus line may not run that often but having to change from one line to another makes it more inconvenient and more onerous to get from here to there. Juggling heavy bags of groceries while you do sot increases the burden.
OVERALL: These proposed route changes inspire little confidence especially since we have watched the T be unable to meet its current schedule for buses in places like Lechmere and are late to work or meetings because a run that one had counted on was skipped. Cambridge residents deserve better and for a city that is increasingly removing parking spaces, advocating to end all parking minimums, promoting an even larger population size and commercial base (with large scale lab and other increases, key aspects of these proposed changes are not viable. And, sadly, they may lead to more people who live here needing acquire cars to get them where to go. Our goal is to have more public transportation and fewer cars, not the reverse.
Why is the MBTA doing this? What is being proposed here in bus route changes is to find a way for faster (and higher frequency) transport to and from outside areas to and from a few sites in Cambridge (Porter to Medford, Central to Longwood, Harvard to Union Square ad Everett). But the down side (and it is a serious one) is that it offers far less access for the 120,000 residents living in the city who need to travel to sites either in Cambridge or elsewhere for reasons of work, shopping, medical appointments, and other needs. Yes the aim of the MBTA changes is for better access to major destinations, but this leaves out the local residents.
Some of these proposed changes will create immense hardships for many people who depend on public transportation to get around. We deserve better and should be able to rely on our government officials to make smarter choices. Is the city itself willing to fund its own public transportation system to take up the losses we are seeing in this proposal? Are we any closer as a city to what many European cities are now promoting – a means to get everywhere in the city within 15 minutes? No.
A prefatory note: CCC supports bicycling and bicycle lanes, but we also feel strongly about smart planning, solid research, transparency, and accountability in terms of bicycling and other issues:
Cambridge has a large well-funded planning department. But how they go about doing their work or following up on it in terms of accountability is often in short supply. The conflicts over city bicycle lane conflicts vis-a-vis various neighborhoods and local businesses is a case in point. The image at the top of this post shows both the 2015 Network Vision transportation network prioritizing bicyclists and recent 2020 additions. A short glance at this map indicates that most major streets in key parts of the city are now considered to prioritize bicycles as the principal means of transportation, often removing on street parking to achieve the intended results.
Some other U. S. cities are prioritizing bicycling as well, although few if any have both the immense density of Cambridge (ranked 4th-5th most dense city in the country with a population over 100K) and the lack of a city and area public transportation system that otherwise would get people where they need to go within a viable time frame. To make matters worse, Cambridge is adding tens of thousands of new jobs to this already packed urban center; most will be arriving by car from near and far, clogging the streets further. The city has yet to require our large employers and institutions to come up with an area housing and transportation plan for their employees, so Cambridge residents who bear the burden of increasingly clogged streets. Removing parking for city employees, requiring them to take public transportation, to walk, or to bike would be a good way to start.
Note: Cambridge is a major cut-thru for commuters. A large amount of traffic comes from north and west commuters going to Boston. Those commuters will not be riding bicycles to come in from Lexington, Concord and elsewhere.
Note too: European cities which could serve as a good model for us have terrific public transportation systems, often with a special designated bus and taxi drop off point so that neither fills the streets of the inner city. The aim now in these cities is to get people where they need to go in 15-20 minutes. Unfortunately, we have nothing like this in Cambridge. Nor do we know what percentage of upper-level and lower-level city employees take public transportation or bicycles to work every day.
COUNTING: The City does meter bicycle traffic on some streets some days, but this does not provide critical cycling data for other streets in the city And, since none of the bicycles are tagged so we know the specific routes, times, number of trips, beginning times and end times. Blue bikes have the kind of tracking system that would enable one to do this. Perhaps a couple hundred Cambridge cyclists would agree to such a tag so we would have more knowledge to draw on. The city also has provided select data on use (seeming for leisure rather than commuting) which shows that more Cambridge people biked one time per year in 2020 than in 2016 but there is no break down on where this occurred (in the city or on vacation), what are their ages, or how many of of these people also owned and used cars to get to work or to do errands. That would be important data to have if we are thinking about a holistic transportation policy. Our city’s bike counter data can be found HERE. See also below on issues in San Diego.
Editor note: We were asked to remove the bike enumerator from the original post so replaced it with this one on Broadway that is posted on the CDD website (below left).
Some bicyclists are now stating that the city may never reach the bicycling numbers (pre-Covid) because so many are working from home. That would be a good thing because it would help ease both our overly heated housing market and the clogged streets.
CITY SERVICES: The City has mapped out where each department's responsibilities lie in terms of maintenance (see below). We are a city well served for bicyclists as the CDD map below shows.
COMMUTERS: The city has provided some comparative commuter data about cycling and other methods of transportation in their "Journey to Work" graph. Cambridge residents who work often need their cars to get to work at the times they need to be there (and/or for other reasons). Still others, including many bicyclists and bicycle lane supporters (as we are) also own cars and frequently must park them on the street. Still others, vast numbers, come into Cambridge every day to work by car, or live in Cambridge and must travel outside the city to get to work elsewhere. All of these residents and workers need to use the streets to travel - either by car, by public transportation, by foot, or by bike.
DISTORTED GRAPHS AND OPPOSITION STATS:
The above city graph on the right, which purports to show transportation means in the city is problematic because it stops at 70%. This distorts the visual framing. This, like all graphs, is intended to be is a visual representation of the actual data. Also it is not clear what the dat show since we know that 25% of Cambridge residents who work are able to walk to work. The bottom line is that here, as in the other ways when it comes to bicycles, the city is in some ways seeking to “cook the books” by creating and using distorting visuals such as this.
Recently a cycling supporter posted on a neighborhood list-serve in response intended to counter a comment that "Bicyclists are a very small minority of Cambridge residents." He wrote that:
WHO COMMUTES BY BIKE/WHO DOESN"T:
The city's cycling use data also changes dramatically between summer and winters.so those having to get to work are having to find other means of transportation, cars among these.
The above graph pulls together city bicycle use data from Kendall Square using a bike counter here that has been operational for more than 5 years. See: https://data.eco-counter.com/public2/?id=100023038. The overall picture is one of seasonal variation, as well as variation by day of the week. Weekends in that area have the lowest utilization no matter what the season. We might find the same thing on Mass Ave or any of the other main commercial corridors. In some cases, this may indicate a downside of dedicated bike infrastructure in some areas. It may be lightly used at best, much less used from November through April, and not used much at all on weekends. We need a plan based on data and also a plan that evaluates bike behavior; the latter is an important factor in the overall dataset, evaluation, and future planning. (H/T Michael Massagli).
Smart planning is how one does it. The Harvard Square Business Association also did a transportation study in 2018 which provides a better sense of actual bicycle usage with respect to streets and times of day. Why is the city not doing more studies like this as a key part of its planning?
Editor note: We have swapped in the fuller HSBA map titled "Bicyclist Activity" for the partial map and graph image we showed earlier this one showing both bicycle activity and crash analysis.
The patterns of use that we see in the image at the above right are VERY different from with the map showing where the City itself is proposing to have bicycle-enhancing streets (see the map at the top of this blog). This becomes even more striking when we note that about 5% of the workers in our city commute to work by bicycle. Stalled cars creeping through the streets struggling to get through them, much less find parking is not a plus for the environment, for resident livability, or for broader issues of health equity and climate justice. And, without a viable public transportation system the answer is simply not attempting to stop people from driving. If people need to drive a car to get to work to earn a livelihood, or they are unable to bike they need options.
ON BICYCLE SAFETY: Our city and the bicyclists have rightly focused on safety in promoting separated lanes. No matter the circumstances fatalities are tragic, as it also is for pedestrians and drivers of all types. In Cambridge we have exact addresses, circumstances, and times of day when these (fortunately rare) bicycle fatalities have occurred. The same sources track pedestrian fatalities and car fatalities. Here is what stands out in looking at the data:
Why this matters: The politics around bicycle lanes has been contentious and replete with false accusations and bullying, suggestions for example claiming that some residents did not care about cyclist deaths, or that cycling was a leading cause of youth death here. The above chart is important because it provides dates and places. But what this chart does not indicate are issues such as responsibility, and for that on would need to look at the police reports in each case. While some (including eye witnesses) mention reckless cycling, others note that in the case of Cambridge Street which was recorded by a surveillance camera of Inman Pharmacy, the person was moving between two parked cars into the active lane in such a way that no bicycle infrastructure could have avoided the collision. The bicyclist crossing Monsignor O'Brien Highway took a pathway that is not really a street, so again no bike lane infrastructure likely would have saved him. A more recent case of a couple getting "doored" while riding a one person bike in East Cambridge is important to note as well, because here apparently there was a protected bike lane, but it did not prevent the accident.
We also have police department data on bicycle and other crashes. It is accessible, and downloadable at: Police Department Crash Data - Updated | Open Data | City of Cambridge (cambridgema.gov). The data set includes information from 2015 to 2021 on the reported 9,680 city incidents. Of this number, some 1,045 (10.8%) of these incidents are flagged as “may involve cyclist." Because the dataset contains a geo-coded "location" field, it allowed for visualization using a tool provided on the Cambridge Police Website. See the map below: the solid dots indicate one incident over this time period; the white dot with an orange border indicates multiple incidents. As Michael Massagli notes, however, a closer read of Mass Ave. and Harvard Square would need to be done for greater accuracy. Yet even without that we get a sense of where the problems lie. How much did this data impact the implementation of the Bicycle Safety Ordinance? How will it impact current bicycle lane and other traffic plans?
Note that we have not addressed bicycle (pedestrian, or vehicle non-fatal accidents) specifically but know that they are deeply traumatizing. Our hope is that the use of mapping such as that seen here will guide the selection of bike lane creation along with other factors.
WHAT ARE OTHER CITIES DOING? San Diego is a good example. Like Cambridge is a university town, is wealthy, has a lot of international visitors, and is located near a major metropolitan center (L.A.)
above San Diego image source: Times of San Diego Dec.5, 2021
San Diego is one of the most perfect places to envision more bicycle use because the climate is nearly perfect 12 months of the year. But there have been a number of issues with the City's 2013 Master Plan, which as in Cambridge, was presented as a climate action initiative to reduce gas emissions by increasing bicycle commuting, One problem has been the huge cost of the planned 77-mile, region-wide network. We read in the San Diego Union Tribune that "The price tag was once $200 million but now has more than doubled to $446 million [bringing the] cost of the bike network to $5.79 million per mile." Cambridge, like San Diego is a wealthy city. In San Diego's case according to a study by the University of San Diego, the percentage of people commuting by bike rose from 0.4 percent in 2018 to 0.6 percent in 2019. Within the city of San Diego, it’s around 2 percent." A and San Diego had a goal of reaching 6% - a target that for them remains elusive. And worse, concerns have been raised that even with that shift, how much would a small percent decrease rush-hour traffic and reduce pollution. And a Group Concerned About Impacts has addressed impacts on a main shopping street due the loss of parking, now has challenged the city on how that data is being read. They reviewed 20 hours of security video of peak commuting times that logged an average of only 16 riders per hour and found them inaccurate. The City then installed an electronic bike lane counter which purported to count thousands of riders, but opponents videotaped and showed how the device “counts” riders when the bike lanes are visibly empty"
No one has or would accuse Cambridge of some of the San Diego problems, although increasingly residents and others are calling out the lack of transparency on everything from planning, costs, usage, and other issues. What we are also facing is increasing incivility and vitriol over this issue that makes one pause and wonder whether some of this is more about ideology than thoughtful planning, governance and holistic thinking. We cannot have a city with so much new commercial development, when we seem to have no real plan for public transportation or parking for those employees or the 120,000 residents who live here now. Yes we may inch up a few more % points in terms of biking commute numbers, but the City has yet to stipulate a goal number and date - either for commuting bicyclists who reside here (and do not also own cars) or Cambridge non-resident employees of our many large institutions and commercial enterprises who will not need on street (or garage) parking for the times they need to be in the city. And this is leaving out the needs for housing, local businesses, and our fast declining tree canopy and green spaces that really DO have an impact on heat island effect and both climate and health justice issues.
Recently on the same neighborhood list-serve cited above, Michael Massagli wrote the following (which we include here with his permission):
"Let's be clear, the dedicated structure agenda's purpose is the elimination of private motor vehicles. Several City Council members have said so, if you follow the movement nationally, it's always among the many points argued. You don't need data or to embrace alternative arguments or data when you think like that. Cambridge could have taken a different path, vetting competing points of view and coming up with design and evaluation strategies that relied on collection of truly representative data. Instead, they've relied on input solicited from cyclists (that's fine, they have a point of view although even that represents nothing more than the individuals who volunteered their opinions), and avoided statistically valid sampling of all residents, business, and users of the existing infrastructure, as well as using existing technology and data to establish a baseline and provide a sound argument for the costs and benefits of alternate approaches, and subsequently evaluating impacts on bike safety and other relevant aspects of quality of life....If the priority were to make cycling safer, given all the pavement that already exists, bike routes would be laid out along streets that are lightly used by motor vehicles rather than promoting more use of the most congested thoroughfares in our little town, to the clear detriment of the businesses along the way. When those businesses (which overwhelming rely on pedestrians and motorists, not current or potentially future cyclists) are gone everyone will be driving more to get to the goods and services providers that were formerly within walking distance."
There is much to agree with here, although it should be noted that removing all vehicles from the city is not what all bicycling advocates or city staff believe should happen. However, in the map at top of the page, the streets now designated by the city as ones that will be prioritizing bicycles could face loss of some of their on street parking to make way for dedicated bike lanes.
To reiterate: CCC supports bicycle lanes and more bicycle use but we need far better planning and accountability to be a key part of this process.
In our recent blog post, E-Bikes - Your Views Needed, we pointed out that our Community Development Department solicited resident responses by way of a survey "to see if E-bikes are a viable alternative to using cars for transportation needs." Bicycles replacing cars for critical transportation needs in Cambridge is simply not feasible. We also oppose the move by some councillors seeking to end parking minimums that large employers and others must provide. There are tens of thousands of new employees who will be driving here to work in conjunction with recent commercial successes. These new employees, like many local residents will be circling the streets hunting for places to park and causing considerable environmental harm in the process. Terminating parking minimums also is being featured by some as a means to redeploy critical private property green spaces (and trees) to add more infill market rate housing which would negatively impact neighborhoods and add to heat island impacts.
E-Bikes: Your Views Needed...
E-Bikes. Your views needed:The Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD) has contacted an occupational therapist Ph.D. candidate and fitness worker to undertake a survey of Cambridge residents with regard to e-bike interest. We hope you will take this 5-minute survey. Here is the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ebike22. Why is this important? Because, it seems, the City (CDD) may want to use the outcomes, as noted on the survey itself “…to see if e-bikes are a viable alternative to using cars for transportation needs.” (see language in accompanying letter below). Seriously? And, to make matters worse, this is not a viable survey format but instead a “puff piece” seemingly intended to convince you of why e-bikes are so important as an alternative to other vehicles here. The tone is: Wouldn’t you like to just try one? If not, why not? The normative answer is framed is “yes!” With enough “yes” votes in the survey conceivably this could be used to justify removing more parking along our streets and equally bad, not to require commercial or residential developers to create parking for new projects even if they are bringing hundreds of new people into the city. Note: the city is NOT looking to add more public transport, and that is a key problem.
There are a number of positive things about e-bikes and while e-bike popularity has grown in recent years, particularly among the 30–40-year-old group, there are a number of problems not addressed in the survey with respect to e-bikes that are important to signal (largely left out of the city’s survey). In addition to price, there is the battery (short lifespan and long charging time), low distances traveled before one needs to charge the battery, bike weight, costliness of repairs/maintenance, low resale value, and relatively little positive environmental benefits. See HERE. . In addition, with more e-bikes in play, pedal bicyclists and e-bike users are likely to themselves have problems competing for space in the City’s new bike lanes. And since no one is required to be licensed or to wear helmets or to carry insurance we will see even more frustration than we are seeing now.
Equally importantly e-bikes are sometimes unsafe, increase congestion, and indirectly pollute the environment through increased power plant emissions, batteries etc.). Moreover, simply replacing cars with e-bikes is not enough to impact climate change to any sizable degree: see HERE. As to e-bike weight -this can run from 32-70 lbs. (with most weighing over 50 pounds). It is hard to see many people able to haul one up a three-story height to the top floor of a triple decker.
The biggest problems, however, remains safety.
E-bikes can go 28 MPH (faster than cars are allowed to travel on Cambridge city streets) and e-bikes have posed serious safety challenges. Indeed 17 e-bike riders were killed in NYC in 2021 and 3 pedestrians were killed by 3-bike riders, according to a October 12, 2021 New York Times article. And this does not include broken limbs, internal injuries, and other health issues. Indeed e-bike riders were far more likely to be hospitalized after accidents than either those riding scooters or traditional bike riders (2021 legal notice). Even bicycle safety advocates note that
Conclusions: While 7% of Cambridge residents currently ride bikes to work (with the numbers in some neighborhood far surpassing those in others (Harvard Square vs Fresh Pond for example) and while 25% of Cambridge residents already walk to work, promoting E-bike acquisition and use by the City does not seem wise, particularly when a survey such as this one seems to be encouraging people to take up e-biking without pointing out the serious health and other risk down sides. It seems in this light somewhat strange that the occupational therapist intern who put this “survey” together does not point out the injury down sides, because it is the OT group who is involved in much of the rehabilitation work for e-bike accidents and others.
While CCC has not been in the bike lane discussions for the most part, pedal bikes are very different from e-bikes. If the City thinks that the “hum” of a motor is going to convince residents to sell their cars (to use an e-bike (if they are not already using pedal bikes) should be encouraged to think more thoughtfully about this.
Please fill out the above survey – and be frank about what your and our transportation needs really are.
While the final up-zoning guidelines are not yet available (and indeed are still under discussion) it is important for people to know the facts. The above map is a VERY generic guide to current residential zoning. Below is the actual zoning map which shows a lot more variability throughout the city. Note too that some areas, such as Brattle Street are historically preserved so nothing visible from the street (lawns of facades) can be changed. Below is the actual zoning map.
At present, housing density varies across the city: A-1 (3.6-7.3 units per acre); A-2 (4.8-9.7 units per acre) B (8.7-17.4 units per acre), C (12.1-24.2 units per acre), C-1 (14.5-29.0 units per unit). If the City is planning to increase housing density in A-1 or A-2 districts from 7.3-9.7 units per acre to C or C-1 levels of 24.2-29.0 units per acre, this could bring considerable change to the historic look and feel of most residential neighborhoods . This does not mean that all homes within a district would conform with the new zoning regulations, since existing housing that is not demolished to build larger units would still remain, much as taller and larger housing that were built before zoning was enacted, or prior to a down-zoning also remain.
At the bottom of this post is a detailed map of current zoning areas. For more detail look at the CITY ZONING MAP itself.
For more on Cambridge Housing typologies and their distribution read the 2016 Cambridge Housing Profile
HOW MUCH SINGLE FAMILY HOUSING IS IN EACH CAMBRIDGE DISTRICT NOW?
As a general principle, Cambridge residential district zoning differentials vary by neighborhood as does the percentage of single family homes (SFH) now in these districts.
Generally speaking The A-1, A-2, B, C and C-1 residential areas conform with the percentage of single family homes now in each district. In the map below we can see those differences, while also noting that there is a general trend across the city to add more single family housing (as infill or through conversions of two and three family homes into single family homes. In the map below we can see the percentage change in that direction.
Not surprisingly, housing sales prices differ somewhat by neighborhood and more significantly between 1, 2 and 3 family homes (data 1995-2015)
Single Family, Two Family, and Three Family Housing costs vary as well.
Building permits are relatively evenly divided across the city except in the areas of major commercial development - East Cambridge and Alewife.
Condos are widely distributed across the city.
Significantly, the percentage of Single Family Homes is also widely distributed, ranging from 41-58% (at the highest) to 21-30% SFH at the lower end. And nearly every neighborhood in the city has seen some net increase in the numbers of SFH over the 2000-2010 period - either through infill or through the conversion of two family homes into one family homes. SFH are in great demand and receive the highest prices.
Housing Types are Widely Dispersed Citywide, New Zoning Density Criteria Seem Not to Be Needed
As suggested above, each of the different residential zoning districts currently has different allowable densities (FAR - Floor Area Ratio figure that designate the size of buildings allowed). This is mitigated by allowable height and setback requirements. Equally impactful is the minimal lot area for a dwelling unit (DU - home). This is where green space amounts comes into play and the concerns that in denser areas (B and C areas we can get heat islands due to the lack of shade trees). Neighborhood "look" is often defined by the amount of front yard set back amount required.. Residential heights in A-1 through c-1 remain the same (35 feet) though the average SFH height city wide is 2.5 stories (or 35 feet). OS (Open Space) refers to the Min. OS Ratio = minimum required ratio of usable open space on a parcel (not including parking) to total land area, expressed as a percentage. This Minimal Open Space (preferably Green Space) requirement like set backs is critical to questions around heat island impacts, tree shade, on site play areas, out door patios and other issues. This, along with the Min. Lot Area, also determines in part the distance from one person's home from their neighbors. Cambridge as one of the most dense cities in the country (4th -5th most dense city in the country with a population over 100,000) has many homes which are tightly positioned both on the property and in relationship to each other. Moreover in Cambridge it is the reality that the land on which one's home sits is more valuable than the home itself.
The Graph Below Provides a more Detailed Look
Where is the Greatest Need/Demand for New Rental Units?
The greatest City demand for rental units remains the main transit hubs - and these units are at a premium. These are also the principle areas of the city considered to have ready access to Public Transport. This is where the Envision Report suggests that greater dousing density might be made available.
THE CURRENT CAMBRIDGE CITY ZONING MAP
Below is the map of the current Cambridge city residential zoning districts. A detailed version can be found at:
CITY ZONING MAP
Below is a map prepared by CDD for their January 2022 Planning Board presentation to simply the zoning district residential codes, but as one can tell by comparing these two maps, the variables within each district often are considerable. What also is clear from the map below is how much of our city is now subsumed by large commercial developments and institutions (Harvard and MIT most importantly). We have altered the colors for each district to make the map appear less politically charged.
Up-Zoning, Up-Pricing = Losses to Housing Affordability, Architectural Heritage, Environment, & Equity
The Cambridge Community Development Department leads a discussion on up-zoning Cambridge residential areas to add more and larger market-rate (“luxury”) housing on March 15, 2022. Their proposals seem geared not only to support a further loss of our declining mature shade tree canopy and green spaces, but also will increase property values (taxes and housing costs), make it harder to create more affordable housing, encourage more existing home tear downs, and will become a target for more national and international property investment here. CCC strongly opposes this luxury housing up-zoning but we do support modifying our existing single-family and two family housing districts to allow more units within the shells of existing structures, as laid out in the Advancing Housing Affordability which we supported.
Below is a summary of the (CDD) slide deck prepared for the Planning Board on this up-zoning proposal being discussed by the Planning Board on Tuesday March 15, 2022 and our Response to it.
SUMMARY OF MARKET-RATE HOUSING UP-ZONING ISSUES PRESENTED BY CDD
In response to the September 2021 Advancing Housing Affordability Zoning Petition modifying Cambridge residential districts to allow more units within the shells of existing structures in Single- Family Housing (SFH)and Two-Family Housing (TFH) districts, this following on the earlier Missing Middle Housing Up-Zoning Petition to allow more and larger market rate housing in Cambridge, the Ordinance Committee of City Council asked the Planning Board and CDD to proposed changes to our SFH and TFH residential districts. March 15 is the third Planning Board meeting on this subject. The Community Development Department (CDD) has a prepared slide deck that lays out what they would like to see the Planning Board decision to entail – apparently ONLY a city-wide residential up-zoning to enable more market-rate (luxury) housing city wide (the core MMH petition). Nothing they are proposing is from the moderate AHA petition that is intended to add housing without promoting tear-downs, loss of green space/shade trees, and increasing economic and environmental inequities.
CDD’s proposal seems to prefer to significantly up-zone the SFH districts (A and A-1) and TFH (B) districts of Cambridge, along the lines of our most dense city districts (C and C-1) to add more market-rate (“luxury”) housing. CDD writes that the the goal is to create a fairer city, greater housing variety, more units in some parts of the city, advance environmental goals, and encourage more multi-family housing.
RESPONSE: Such an up-zoning to add more luxury housing counters city goals to increase housing affordability, will increase property values (and housing costs) and will lead to the demolishing of existing homes, green spaces and mature shade trees. It will also open the city for more outsider investments. We further note that we only have c.3780 Single Family Homes (roughly 7.2% of our total housing corpus, so any loss will decrease our housing diversity. Moreover, cities cited by CDD are not at all comparable (Minneapolis has 70% SFH, Portland Oregon has 60% SFH – both are far larger, and are far less dense than Cambridge (the 4th-5th most dense city in the country with a population over 100,000.
Also, the city’s Envision plan does not propose ending SFH or TFH and instead suggests any new housing be done on major corridors. By encouraging more gentrification (and likely removing existing rental units) this will likely make the city less economically and racially diverse not more. City neighborhoods already have a rich diversity of housing, any change in zoning will likely hit transitional neighborhoods hardest (which now are the hardest hit with tear-downs, luxury infill housing (removing views of green spaces and trees), increasing environmental and medical inequities by encouraging more heat island impacts. We continue to support the Advancing Housing Affordability (AHA) petition that allows homeowners to add more units within existing structures, which would preserve the facades of existing homes, add rental units, and allow senior residents to age in place.
Basically, CDD is asking Planning Board to decide on 1 of 4 options (all of which are bad),and are not part of our Envision Plan. None will bring more racial equity, more housing affordability, much new housing (which should be directed toward the corridors), but will greatly impact neighborhoods, encourage tear-downs, increase property values, and diminish, green spaces/shade trees, while making city housing more expensive for everyone, and open the city up to outside investors.
Surprisingly, this CDD proposal appears to be driven more by ideology than by planning, responsible urban design values, or viable examples from elsewhere and is likely to make the housing affordability situation worse in Cambridge not better.
Note: as pointed out below (SECTION D): Minneapolis has 70% SFH (compared to 7.2% in Cambridge). Cambridge also is a much smaller denser city - already 4th or 5th most dense city in the country with a population over 100K). Minneapolis studies are showing that the ending SFH exclusive district zoning there is not leading to what they had hoped; indeed most new units are going to urban center (not the suburbs) and building rates have slowed.
Note also: Ending SFH and TFH housing districts in Cambridge is NOT one of the Envision goals for adding more housing, so they never addressed its potential consequences. Envision recommends adding greater density to the main corridors (not citywide) and also calls specifically for more green spaces for the denser parts of the city, not the likely losses that will result from more infill.
SUMMARY OF CDD PROPOSED OPTIONS
CDD OPTION ONE: decrease property size requirements (increasing the number of units allowed on the same space) so that citywide all districts are the same and resemble the city’s most dense C or C-1 districts (which allow 1,000-2,000 SF per unit). Note: C District = 1500 SF; C-1 = 1800 SF; B is 2500SF.
Response: This will impact the large majority of our residential areas. It will dramatically decrease current A-1 property size requirements some 600% (6 X) and will radically change the look/feel of these neighborhoods, decreasing green spaces/shade trees here, promote tear downs of existing homes, and increase property values as larger numbers of new expensive market rate housing displaces older homes or is added as infill. It will also decrease the already dense B-district property size requirements from 2500 SF to a proposed 1000 SF, more than doubling the number of units that can be built on these properties.
If the Planning Board selects Choice 1 not only will property values here soar but it will radically change the nature of these neighborhoods in terms of not only density and building scale, but also residential housing type. C district zoning citywide (which CDD seems to be promoting) would be a radical change for much of the already dense city as currently constituted. It will also make AHO properties more difficult to find due to increased property costs.
*According to the Cambridge zoning ordinance “Residence C districts….may allow anything from a single family house to a high rise building containing more than one hundred dwelling units. Residence C districts permit more types of land use than Residence A and B districts, including transient residential uses (such as hotels) and institutional uses (schools and hospitals).” (emphasis added). This will have a major impact on parking, infrastructure, noise.
**Current City Zoning Units Per Acre –Net Unit Range
District A-1 3.6-7.3 units
District A-2 4.8-9.7 units
District B 8.7-17.4 units
District C 12.1-24.2 units
District C-1 14.5-29.0 units
With an average of 2.2 people per Cambridge dwelling unit, this could potentially add 63.8 people to each new residence if we use C-1 district density or FAR, and well over 70 new vehicles to this street/neighborhood that would be in need of parking.
CDD OPTION TWO (another version of 1): Eliminate minimum allowable unit numbers and use instead FAR (Floor Area Ratio) basically the number of units and people allowed on each property. While CDD does not specify a maximum FAR the allowable FAR in A-1 currently is .5 (but .3 is what is most properties now have); C-1 district FAR ranges from .75 to 4.0.
Response: In Cambridge, C-1 residential districts support a .75 FAR and a limit of 29 dwelling units per acre. A .75 FAR is 2.5 (two and a half) times the size of .3 FAR (the average in most A-1 neighborhoods), a difference that would promote far larger (2.5 times) residential structures. A 2.0 FAR is nearly 7 times larger than a .3 FAR (typical of A-1 districts). The scale of these structures would dwarf those around them. Please see *(Choice 1) on what kinds of structures would be permitted here citywide. B districts have an allowable .5 FAR, while C-1 districts have an allowable .75-1.25 FAR. The latter would allow market rate structures over twice as large as current B district allowances of .5 FAR. These would dramatically increase property values and parking headaches, while decreasing green spaces, shade trees and adding to heat island impacts and both environmental and medical inequities.
We now have ONLY 3780 Single Family Homes in Cambridge – 7.2% of the total city housing stock. This plan uses market forces to demolish and replace large numbers of our existing SFH homes to transform existing neighborhoods into places comparable to the dense parts of the city, dramatically increasing property values, housing costs, gentrification, and greater inequities.
See also Option 1 * and ** on impacts.
CDD OPTION THREE: “Eliminate all limits on units per acre” city-wide but use other controls (such as still unspecified limits on building types (say single family to large multi-family structures), number of buildings on a property (three? four? More?), limit the building heights (say to four or even six stories – up from an average single family home height of 2.5 stories), limit the sizes of new structures (likely what fits once green spaces have been reduced to a minimum), and limit how much of the overall lot these buildings could cover (likely well over 50% of the yard - removing much of the existing green space and trees.
Response: This neoliberal/libertarian market force approach encourages tear downs and would likely enable the creation of much larger single-family homes (McMansions - consistent with current desires for large gyms within elite homes) and/or radically change the scale of neighborhood structures introducing much larger institutional-size luxury housing while also removing potential properties for AHO development. Where are the analyses for this kind of radical change elsewhere for a city as dense and historic as ours? See also Option 1 * and **.
CDD OPTION FOUR: Create a minimum units per acre standard (same concept as number 1, but in reverse). This option stipulates that property owners are allowed ONLY to build multi-family structures, e.g. with a certain number of units (say four or more), while also eliminating an owner’s ability to reduce the number of units on a property (changing a three- or two-family property into a one-family property for example), and disallowing enlargements (additions) to an existing property without adding additional units being included.
Response: This, more socialism-framed schema, would likely promote the addition of several tiny (expensive) houses on the same property (increasing property values significantly) and/or equally likely would limit owners and investors to only building multi-family structures on their properties (likely with very small units, but also increasing property values dramatically), and/or require for any property renovation the addition of a separate unit (a grandparent suite?) that likely would be part of the same larger home. Green spaces and shade trees would be lost, along with existing sustainable homes. None of this adds to housing affordability and will make housing even more expensive.
We urge the Planning Board not to support any of these options but to send this back for further study and also to ask them to include the more moderate zoning ideas of the AHA (Advancing Housing Affordability) petition, that modifies SFH and TFH districts by allowing owners to add more units within the shells of existing structures, with moderate changes to non- street facing sides to enable egress.
OVERVIEW OF CDD DISCUSSION ON RESIDENTIAL UP-ZONING (AND OUR RESPONSE)
ISSUES FOR THE PLANNING BOARD (PREPARED BY CDD)
(The following sections follow the order and statements of the CDD slide deck created for this meeting)
A. GOALS AND BENEFITS
1. CDD Seeks : A more fair city, not more exclusive in some areas than others RESPONSE: At this juncture the whole city (not just certain sections) is out of reach of nearly everyone due to our large-scale commercial (labs, biotech, infotech) development, outside property investments, and vast increase in our population size. Ending SFH or TFH will NOT make the city any fairer and is likely to make it less so since it will likely increase gentrification and removal of existing rental properties.
2. CDD: No reason to exclude multifamily housing, most neighborhoods already have a variety of housing types RESPONSE: Yes - as noted above “most neighborhoods already have a variety of housing types.” We only have about 3,200 SFH today (for 120,000 residents). If we remove more of our existing SFH, we will be DECREASING the variety of our housing types, not increasing it.
We have 51,882 housing units in Cambridge (2019 US Census). So our SFH comprises only 7.2% of our total housing stock -WAY below most other cities who have undertaken this change.
3. CDD: Encourage creation of more housing units – more opportunities in more parts of the city. RESPONSE: With only c.3200 SFH, and the trends now toward tearing down SFH to build larger SFH, or converting 2 family housing into 1 family, any change of this sort is NOT likely to increase units. It will also likely lead to more SFH as infill units in already dense parts of the city, removing key green spaces and trees, and increasing heat-island impacts.
4. CDD: Multifamily housing in Cambridge and other transit-served communities serves broader environmental goals. RESPONSE: When we remove critical green spaces and trees through infill, we are causing heat island impacts, along with serious environmental and medical inequities – just the opposite of our environmental goals. And large multi-family housing uses central air which is much more costly to the environment than fans or window air-conditioners that are frequently employed in SFH and TFH. And as more residents circle the neighborhoods to find increasingly rare parking the environment also suffers. 55% of the Cambridge residents who work are employed outside the city and often need their cars to get there; this is particularly true of some lower income residents. The likely increase in tear-downs also has a negative impact on the environment.
5. CDD: Statewide, regional policies encourage multifamily housing. RESPONSE: Yes. And we only have 3200 SFH for 120,000 residents. The vast VAST majority of Cambridge residents already live in multifamily housing.
B. ISSUES AND CONCERNS
1. CDD: New market-rate housing will be high-cost, wealthier households RESPONSE: Correct, and not only wealthier households but also outside property investors, many of the new wealthy owners are not going to be living here much of the year.
2. CDD: Increased property values if more development is allowed RESPONSE: Correct, and it is happening already. The increase in taxes regularly fuel much of Cambridge budget increase.
3. CDD: Preserving private open space (backyards) and tree canopy. RESPONSE: Partly true. In this very dense city our small yard green spaces (and trees) are shared by all. Indeed, often it is the neighbors who see and enjoy them as much as the owners. Asking developers to pay into a “tree fund” is not viable because this will not lessen heat island impacts, and it generally takes 50-60 years before a planted baby tree reaches a size that will furnish viable shade. Often there is too little space remaining on a property to add a new tree once the older tree is cut down.
4. CDD: Balance between accommodating families with children and higher cost of larger homes. RESPONSE: Unclear what this means. Families with children now are also frequently in multi-family units. (There are only c.3200 SFH but 120,000 residents).
5. CDD: Competition for residential on-street parking. RESPONSE: This is not uniformly a factor in many A-1 and A-2 areas– but is a key concern in our already dense B and C areas where more infill will likely make parking harder. Also, most developers want to add on-site parking because it adds c.$118,000 to the value of a new home for them.
6. CDD: Architectural character of neighborhoods, avoiding tear-downs. RESPONSE: We have no design review means or guidelines for infill. This is a major problem. Since the average height of SFH is 2.5 stories, any larger 4-6 story building (nearly double the height) is going to stick out, particularly if it does not conform with the existing street setback amount. And, yes, we do want to preclude teardowns, not only because it is terrible for the environment, but also because this sustainable housing, also contains much of our naturally occurring more affordable housing.
7. CDD: Unintended consequences. RESPONSE: AHO properties in underserved areas will become MORE difficult and expensive to acquire – defeating AHO aims. And this move would likely remove more minority residents from these communities by way of further gentrification and buy outs.
C. ZONING APPROACHES
1. CDD: Change standards in current districts, rather than a complete rezoning. RESPONSE:: This needs further study, but on a whole, addressing this on a trial basis and doing this on a district by district basis makes more sense, particularly if one is simply speaking about allowing more units within the shells of existing structures, concomitant with other districts.
2. CDD: Aim for incremental, not wholesale change. RESPONSE: For the most sustainable change in housing, professionals agree that incremental is always the best way to do this.
3. CDD: Some things can be advanced sooner (e.g., allowing more use types, housing units). RESPONSE: On use types (adding more units within existing structures) makes sense. Special permit remains an ongoing option for more than this.
4. CDD: Other things will need more study and discussion (e.g., setbacks, parking). RESPONSE: Yes. Key goals in Envision speak to neighborhood distinctiveness and both set backs and heights are an important part of this. On parking, for market rate housing, most developers and owners will seek on-site parking because it further increases the value of a home.
5. CDD: Some issues will need non-zoning strategies as well – e.g., affordability will need subsidies, &c .RESPONSE: Correct: particularly affordability. Why not address this issue first since it is such an important issue that we are facing here, and ending exclusive SFH and TFH districts will likely increase housing costs overall. Note too that unlike San Francisco, Cambridge has no rent control or larger renter legal support, so addressing this within the context of Cambridge specific circumstances will be important.
D. COMPARABLE SITUATIONS
1. CDD: MINNEAPOLIS - 2-family, 3-family homes allowed in districts formerly restricted to single-family (effective 1/1/2021) • Minneapolis Fed to analyze outcomes (dashboard). RESPONSE: Minneapolis has a much larger land mass (57.5 Square Miles versus 6.2 Square miles for Cambridge and Minneapolis SFH is 70% of their total housing – compared to 7.2% SFH for Cambridge – so how comparable are these cities. Note: Minneapolis results to date are not very positive re. impacts. Most new housing is in the urban center, relatively few new units have been added, and the numbers are now declining after an uptick. A rent control bill was recently passed here.
2. CDD: BERKELEY - Voted to remove single-family zoning in 2021;To be implemented through general plan (2-year process). RESPONSE:: Berkeley SFH comprise 49% of their housing stock versus Cambridge’s 7.2%. Berkeley is nearly 3 X larger in square miles (17.7 square miles) and has a very good local transportation system. Berkeley also has a strong rent stabilization system. So how comparable are these cities.
3. CDD: OREGON - 2019 legislation requires cities to allow non-single-family housing types, depending on size. RESPONSE: 60.3% of Portland, Oregon housing is SFH, and that is no doubt the densest city. Oregon has a lot of rural areas as well. This is very different from Cambridge. Oregon also has a statewide rent control law – that will help reduce gentrification.
4. CDD: CALIFORNIA - 2021 legislation requires cities to allow 4-unit development, division of lots (w/limitations). RESPONSE: Nothing in this bill requires affordability and equally importantly the bill requires a developer to live on site for at least three years to curtail speculative buying.
Note: California, like Oregon, also has a state rent control law that will help stop gentrification.
5. CDD: MASSACHUSETTS - 2021 “MBTA communities” legislation requires transit-served areas to permit multifamily housing of at least 15 units/acre. RESPONSE:: The zoning requirements vary on local mass transport availability, but those with subway and rapid transit need a minimum of 25% multi-family units as a percentage of overall total housing stock (REPORT). Far MORE of Cambridge housing multi-family than 25% that is required for this.
E. THINGS TO REMEMBER ABOUT ZONING
1. CDD: Fundamentally: What is prohibited where, and why? RESPONSE: Remember: Existing multi-family homes are not prohibited anywhere in Cambridge. One can add new multi-family homes by special permit anywhere in the city or subdivide one’s existing home for the same purpose by special permit. In Cambridge red-lining history was largely based on proximity to factories and the health dangers that entailed. Economic segregation has long existed however, and this will not help the situation but may well make it worse.
2. CDD: What are the values that determine what the City allows in some areas, but prohibits in others? RESPONSE: Envision Goals encourage the city to add more green spaces, shade trees, parks and other amenities into our denser neighborhoods. We can easily allow more units within existing historic homes, and by special permit can add new units via a thoughtful addition. Already a lot of infill is happening particularly in transitional areas. Most of this is for larger contemporary single-family homes – not for multi-family or rental units.
3. CDD: What should change if the status quo does not reflect the City’s values today? RESPONSE:: We should be willing to moderate commercial development (particularly labs, biotech and infotech business expansion here) because too often these entities are acquiring properties that could and should be used for housing. The city should also purchase more property for housing. And, we now have c.1500 Cambridge residents on our affordable housing list. We could easily house all of those in new high-rises on city-owned land on a main corridor.
F. ZONING PRINCIPLES (FOR DISCUSSION)
1. CDD: Allow an equitable range of housing types and unit sizes in all residential districts – i.e., no districts limited only to large, single/two-family homes. RESPONSE: Within a free-market system such as ours, without the city acquiring significant amounts of new land at considerable costs, how would we achieve this in practical terms, particularly since the investor and market interest is in larger expensive single-family homes. Already due to market rate forces expensive single-family homes are increasingly being built as infill and to replace other SFH in most every part of the city – so bringing this element of “diversity” to the city at large. As noted above, most neighborhoods already have an array of multi-family homes.
2. CDD: Allow additional housing units in restrictive zoning districts, to create more housing opportunities in those areas
RESPONSE: If only market rate (luxury) housing is being added, this will most likely increase property values, cause more gentrification, and bring fewer (not more) housing opportunities for most residents.
3. CDD: Balance the benefit of allowing more units with concerns about increases in building size, which could increase property values. RESPONSE: It is not clear that there is any benefit in adding more expensive market rate housing units here when the key city problem is housing affordability. There are only 3200 SFH in Cambridge, these are rarely sold (most people are here to stay) so very little new housing will be added. Even if one is renovating a current SFH (or transferring a TFH into a SFH) you are increasing the property values (often forcing out renters in the process), so adding larger building sizes is not the only aspect of this that would increase property values.
4. CDD: Encourage preservation of existing building stock where it’s valued RESPONSE: There are important environmental reasons to retaining our sustainable housing. The history of this housing – and its historic diversity is one of the most important things that bring uniqueness and value to our many existing neighborhoods. Encouraging reuse and preservation of existing buildings is very important. It is also one of the key ways to retain our naturally occurring more affordable housing.
5. CDD: What is necessary to enable multifamily housing in A-1, A-2, B districts? RESPONSE: Multifamily housing already exists in our A-1, A-2 and B districts. To add more we need to focus on repurposing some of these homes by allowing more units within the shells of existing larger homes, many creates in an era when much larger families were the norm. If the purpose is to add more housing, and more housing affordability, we should follow the main Envision goals and build larger and denser units along parts of Mass. Ave., particularly in the area between City Hall and MIT.
We also could provide plans, design and financial help to transform basements and sections of current homes into new housing. Three-family homes (triple deckers) also can be readily modified to add a new unit. These plans could also be made widely available and financial help provided to those in need.
1. CDD: Current zoning limited to single detached unit on a lot (A), two-family or townhouse development (B) Subdivision is constrained by lot sizes. RESPONSE: What we are currently seeing is expensive infill SFH in our denser transitional neighborhoods, along with the removal of critical green spaces and shade trees. Considering that we only have 3,780 SFH units (7.2%) of our total housing, we will not be adding much housing this way, even by subdivision, and the latter risks losing even more shade trees and green space. We have lost 20% of our tree canopy in the last 10 years due in large part to development. Since this move will not add any significant amount of housing, and will likely increase housing costs, this does not seem like a good trade-off.
2. CDD: What range of housing types should be allowed? RESPONSE: All multi-housing units are possible now citywide through special permit, or with a modest shift to add more units within the shells of existing structures, with small additions or changes to the rear of a building (as proposed in the Advancing Housing Affordability petition.
H. ALLOWING MORE UNITS PER ACRE (LOT AREA PER DWELLING UNIT)
1. CDD: More restrictive districts allow larger buildings with fewer units. RESPONSE: Incorrect. Large buildings with few units are all allowed citywide – and increasingly this is the model we are seeing as the city becomes wealthier and wealthier. SFH is THE MOST sought after housing form here. Changing zoning will not alter this situation unless other non-zoning changes are made, such as precluding the transformation of TFH into SFH or the building of large SFH infill.
2. CDD: What changes would allow the creation of more units in the same floor area? RESPONSE: The best way to do this is to allow more units within the shells of existing larger structures. At present, housing density varies across the city: A-1 (3.6-7.3 units per acre); A-2 (4.8-9.7 units per acre) B (8.7-17.4 units per acre), C (12.1-24.2 units per acre), C-1 (14.5-29.0 units per unit). If one is planning to increase housing density in A-1 or A-2 (7.3-9.7 increasing to C or C-1 levels (24.2-29.0), we have three main choices.
I. MAIN CONCEPTS: WHAT OTHER CONCEPTS MIGHT BE CONSIDERED?
1. CDD: Adjust Parking Requirements: Ongoing process looking at parking requirements more broadly, along with other parking and transportation policies and regulations. RESPONSE: There are financial reasons why parking remains strongly valued (many residents need parking to get to work – in Cambridge, and equally importantly outside of Cambridge. Developers strongly want to create parking because they can sell a unit for $180,00 more if it has parking. What we need is a city-wide and areas-wide transportation system that will take workers (and others) where they need to go, and in a manner that gets them there on time. Unlike European cities, Berkeley, NYC and many other cities we have not yet prioritized such a transportation system.
2. CDD: Adjust Dimensional Standards: Design study needed to test balance among housing, environmental, and urban design goals. RESPONSE: We need to explore this from a neighborhood basis – average heights and setbacks for existing homes, and most effective ways to add new units within the shells of existing structures. We also need a design review board that can meet on an ad hoc to evaluate new plans and provide critical insight.
3. CDD: Increase Density Near Transit: Most of Cambridge served by transit, major transit hubs mostly zoned higher-density mixed-use. Additional analysis could inform a potential rezoning. RESPONSE: Yes to focusing new/additional density on the major corridors – this is what Envision Goals advocate – and especially be parts of Mass. Ave. But this needs to be addressed on a block-by-block basis.
4. CDD: Change Affordability Requirements: Current zoning has “voluntary inclusionary” incentives; Needs careful legal and economic scrutiny; Next review of inclusionary policy in 2022. RESPONSE: Yes to addressing affordability requirement. And it is important for Cambridge to use/purchase its own properties and provide financial support for low and middle-income residents to purchase their own homes here, sharing equity when they move out.
K.EXAMPLES (COMPOSITE IMAGES) CONCERNS
RESPONSE: CDD composite photo below has an incorrect label All housing types are now allowed citywide, on their own or by special permit. Sadly up-zoning will lead to the tearing down of homes such as this. CDD’s plans (shown below) to reuse existing spaces and add more homes, is predicated on the tearing down of existing still sustainable historic homes. Again, we have only c. 3780 SFH in Cambridge, or 7.2% of our total housing stock. Either of these choices, would be environmentally problematic, not only because of the tear down but also because of the removal of green space and trees, and it would likely increase property values, providing 2 multi-million-dollar homes where 1 existed before.
In short, the CDD composite photo contains incorrect labeling. All housing types are now allowed citywide, on their own or by special permit. Sadly up-zoning will lead to the tearing down of homes such as this.
CDD’s plans (shown below) to reuse existing spaces and add more homes, is predicated on the tearing down of existing still sustainable historic homes. Again, we have only c. 3780 SFH in Cambridge, or 7.2% of our total housing stock. Either of these choices, would be environmentally problematic, not only because of the tear down but also because of the removal of green space and trees, and it would likely increase property values, providing 2 multi-million-dollar homes where 1 existed before.
Below is CDD's graph showing Ground Floor Area differences within different districts
CCC Notes on the Above Chart: A-1, A-2, and B are roughly the same. Most housing today that is out of conformity is because it is larger than the allowable setbacks. Where this is the case, decreasing required setbacks will not significantly change things. C and C-1 are considerably larger properties, and these make the most sense for large residences. But to do this in an A-1, A-2, B district would remove these properties as options for new AHO developments in these areas. Furthermore, if we are really committed to new housing in Cambridge, and housing affordability specifically, we need to commit to holding back on lab and other commercial development and focus our attention specifically on catching up by adding needed housing units on these sites instead.
L. CDD OPTIONS FOR ALLOWED USES IN RES. A-1, A-2, B
1. CDD: Allow conversions of existing buildings to multifamily housing. RESPONSE: A smart move – repurposing sustainable buildings for a new use, particularly now that people are having much smaller families. This also would allow seniors who wish to remain in their homes to bring in rent-paying tenants.
2. CDD: Allow a limited range of multifamily housing (e.g., 3-unit buildings, 6-unit buildings). RESPONSE: This is already possible through special permit, but any such addition would have the same problems of increasing property values, would be exclusively market rate (“luxury”) housing, would not adding affordability (and likely lessen it), and would promote tear downs of our existing sustainable housing, which today provides the most naturally affordable housing.
3. CDD: Allow all multifamily housing RESPONSE: From A-1 to C-1 a large majority of Cambridge housing is already multi-family. Current market trends promote the creation instead of more (larger, more expensive) single family homes – which are also less expensive for developers to build. Plus, to add more housing city wide (including A-B districts), we need to require our universities and our large employers to create housing for their students and affiliates areawide and/or require a significant percentage of their employees (30%) to work from home (wherever). This also would save salary costs.
4. CDD: Allow multifamily and group housing (same as Res. C, C-1). RESPONSE: Kendall Square is described by residents as a disaster, with only 1 subway stop and a parking nightmare. To allow C or C-1 density and design up-zoning citywide would go against key tenets of Envision but also would make it harder to build new AHO units citywide because property values would go so high. And, likely would be an open sesame for housing tear-downs and out of state investors, making the situation of housing affordability even worse. A large 4-6 story building with now set back in a neighborhood street with average 2.5 story homes set back the same distance from the street, would be a sizable change from current Envision goals, and others seeking to maintain and enhance neighborhood feel. And adding density to 14-5-29 units per acre (60 Plus people) to a street that now has an average of 3.6-7.3 units per acre (15 plus people currently) would bring major changes and would need sizable infrastructure.
M. OPTIONS FOR ALLOWED SITE DEVELOPMENT
1. CDD: Maintain standards to encourage fewer, larger buildings on a lot. RESPONSE: Yes. This encourages incremental change. Note – this can and has been altered currently through special permit
2. CDD: Change standards to allow subdivision and/or multiple building development. RESPONSE: Note –“allow subdivision” is VERY different than allowing multiple development.
4. CDD: Change standards to allow subdivision and/or multiple building development Response: Note –“allow subdivision” is VERY different than allowing multiple development.
N. OPTIONS FOR CHANGING UNITS PER ACRE RULES
1. CDD: Reduce minimum L.A./D.U. (lots per area/dwelling unit) for a consistent GFA/unit ratio across districts (e.g., calibrate to 1,000-2,000 SF of GFA per unit). RESPONSE: SEE ABOVE: SUMMARY: CDD PROPOSED OPTION 1
2. CDD: Eliminate minimum L.A./D.U., limit number of units based on GFA/FAR. RESPONSE: SEE ABOVE: SUMMARY: CDD PROPOSED OPTION 2
3. CDD: Eliminate all limits on units per acre, keep other controls (e.g., limits on building types, number of buildings, height/size, lot coverage). RESPONSE: SEE ABOVE: SUMMARY: CDD PROPOSED OPTION 3
4. CDD: Create a minimum units per acre standard (limit reductions in number of units, enlargements without adding units)
RESPONSE: SEE ABOVE: SUMMARY: CDD PROPOSED OPTION 4
O. EXISTING CONDITIONS
1. CDD: Analysis: Potential effects across the city, map areas where changes would be more likely RESPONSE: Require further study, but likely change would continue to occur in already dense transitional areas, where we are seeing more and more infill for expensive SFH with concomitant loss of green space, gardens, sunlight and shade trees.
2. CDD: Design: Look at example lots, potential building and site design outcomes. RESPONSE: Yes. Also we need design review criteria, and a design review committee.
3. CDD: Economics: Look at example lots, potential effects on development value, property value, home prices (note whether any increase in property value would potentially impact affordable housing opportunities) RESPONSE: Yes. And cost impacts (building costs, property value increases in neighborhoods), environmental costs of tear down (reuse of sustainable materials) green space loss, mature shade tree loss and loss of existing home(s – rental units). Potential alternative use for AHO or as a city property for a home ownership possibility. We also need to address current parking and new parking needs, information on transit access, as well as new infrastructure needed (clean water, plumbing, electric).
4. CDD: Planning Goals: Evaluate options according to Envision Cambridge metrics of livability, diversity & equity, economic opportunity, sustainability & resilience, community health & wellbeing, learning. RESPONSE: Yes. Note nothing in Envision proposes terminating SFH and TFH zoning, or up-zoning citywide to C or C-1 levels. Instead, we see goals about maintaining neighborhoods, green spaces, adding denser housing on corridors, and adding more housing affordability not increasing housing costs. This will lessen housing diversity, and because it will be expensive, likely will lead to more gentrification leading to decreased equity and diversity. If it leads to more housing demolitions it is decreasing sustainability and the removal of green spaces and trees likely will lead to more heat island impacts and both health and environmental inequities.
Time Allotment for Planning Board Meeting
Planning Board Discussion March 15, 2022 Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD)
Recap earlier discussions
Discuss Zoning Principles (±15 mins):
Is there agreement?
What could be changed?
Discuss Zoning Concepts (±15 mins):
Are these the right concepts to study?
Should other concepts be included?
Discuss Zoning Options (±30 mins total):
Which might be pursued?
Which should not be pursued?
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
REPORT ON RECENT DESIGN PLANS FOR MASS. AVENUE (and a History from 1775-2022) by Stephen Kaiser
HISTORY OF PLANNING AND CONSTRUCTION FOR MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE: 1775 to 2022
1775 … Great Road became the pathway for militias and British soldiers during the battles of Lexington and Concord.
1840s … Extension of railroads from the Boston Wharfs to harvest ice from Fresh Pond and ship the ice all over the world. The farmers' lobby was so strong that the railroad was forced to build below-grade with a bridge at Porter Square for cattle drives coming down Great Road into marketing pens in North Cambridge.
1850s … A single track connection between the Lowell rail line in Somerville was made to the Fitchburg tracks. Its primary freight advantages gave it the name “the Freight Cutoff.” It crossed Mass Avenue at Cameron Avenue.
1890s … In the Streetcar craze of the 1890s, dual tracks were laid down in the middle of Mass Avenue extending into Arlington and Lexington.
1956 … With the post-WWII decline in streetcar service, the two center tracks were discontinued. Trolleybus operations were substituted instead.
1952 to 1956 … The Rand Estate, a large orchard, nursery and set of country houses fronting on Porter Square were owned by Harry and Mable Rand. They donated it to the City of Cambridge, hoping for its preservation. The property was a 19th century throwback to country times before the streetcar suburb, overlapping with Orchard Street and extending to Elm Street in Somerville. The City sold it to a private developer, who cut all the trees down and built a shopping center.
1958 … Mass Avenue was entirely rebuilt as an urban arterial road with a five-foot concrete median, trolley poles and wires for trolley-bus operation between 1958 to 2022.
1960 to 1967 … North Cambridge resident and Congressman Tip O’Neill performed yeoman service in stopping the Inner Belt expressway through Cambridgeport and East Cambridge.
1985 … Construction completed on the Red Line to Davis Square in Somerville and Alewife. Today it is the route for the Minuteman bikeway and Community Path. (with the Red Line tunnel underneath).
1995 … The shopping center was given a special phase in the lights at Porter Square so patrons did not need to make U-turns on Mass Avenue. Action by Sue Clippinger.
2000 … Lauren Preston resigned as City Traffic Engineer. The position of City Traffic Engineer was abolished by Sue Clippinger.
2000 to 2005 … An initial effort to locate bike lanes on Mass Avenue was attempted by vigorous Bike enthusiasts, but they were defeated by massive resident opposition.
2015 … Primarily through the work of Community Development, a city-wide bicycle plan was developed, later updated in 2020.
2016 … The City Council passed Vision Zero as a new policy with a goal of reducing all transportation injuries to zero, including fatalities. It also sought to increase “safe, healthy, equitable mobility to all.” Its goals were comprehensive, idealistic and applied to all modes of travel. The goal was to create “the collaborative framework” needed to meet this goal.
2017 … A design session was held under the sponsorship of NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Planners from across the nation came here with the goal of making Cambridge one of four “Transit Accelerator Cities” in the nation. Mass Avenue was envisioned with bus lanes and other transit services, including pedestrians and bike lanes. From this NACTO design created by 130 planners, North Mass Avenue was eventually transformed from a transit project into a bike safety program.
2017 … Participatory Budgeting had a major role in starting bike lane programs. One of the suggestions was to create a network of bike lanes in the city. Consultant Kleinfelder took over further work and submitted a work proposal to the city, to be done initially under Community Development supervision and later Traffic & Parking. Quick-Build became the preferred non-traditional design method, to be combined with the NACTO Plan. Tasks excluded from the Kleinfelder work : ADA compliance … “Collecting traffic volumes” … “Evaluating transit performance” … “Observing traffic compliance” … “Collecting speed data” … “Conducting crash analysis” … “Evaluating winter maintenance” … “Evaluating retail access with a survey” … “Evaluating retail success. ” All of these omissions became criticisms of the Quick-Build process.
2018 … Contract amendments expanded work to many more Quick-Build projects.
2018 … City Council released a Vision Zero Action Plan. 20-mph speed limits were established for many Cambridge streets.
2019 … The Cycling Safety Ordinance was passed by the City Council, establishing goals of separated bicycle lanes and Quick-Build methods. This policy was strongly supported by a group called Cambridge Bike Safety, which included many activists from A Better Cambridge, a group supporting housing issues, in a creative example of members of one front group moving into another one. The primary focus had a safety focus for bicycle facilities, and not all modes as the Vision Zero required.
2020 … Amendment to Ordinance Section 040 was added to specify deadlines for action.
2021 … Citizens and local businesses protested against losing all parking along North Mass Avenue; political discussions continued on replacement sites, short term parking and loading zones. Businessmen reported severe losses due to loss of parking.
2022 … A City Councilor introduced the concept that small businesses were undesirable along Mass Avenue and that denser development was preferred. Thus the primary lobbying goal appeared to favor new development and not bike safety.
2022 A new design for Intermediate construction between Porter and Harvard Squares was presented by the Public Works Department. Removal of the median was key. Half the parking was restored.
THE NEW DPW ALTERNATIVE
The primary innovation added on February 16, 2020 was to remove the median in the section between Roseland and Waterhouse Street. Median islands would be retained at crosswalks. A few days later the approved concept was extended to include Beech-to-Dudley. It allowed half the parking to be restored. In addition a new underground corridor five-feet wide will be created for public utilities such as sewers. Some sections of Mass Avenue are wider than others : restoring some parking on both sides may become possible.
POSSIBILITIES FOR LEGAL CHALLENGE
The ordinance makes no mention of protected bike lanes of any sort, so when the Cambridge Bike Safety group urges protected lanes it is asking the city to take action the City is not authorized to do.
Since late last year, critics have raised several questions about the legal status of the Cycling Safety Ordinance. Vision Zero is a policy, and not a binding ordinance. It establishes a goal of improving safety for all modes of transportation, while the focus of the Ordinance is on bicycles only. As a policy and regardless of basic virtues, Vision Zero has limited legal standing.
The balance of power between Manager and Council under the Plan E Charter has survived for years on deference to the manager in his freedom to run the city consistent with policies set by the Council. Recent referendum questions have been adopted to require City Council approval of all appointments by the manager, and it appears the sanctity of Plan E may be slipping. The City Council took a gamble by adopting the Bike Safety Ordinance, and if parts of it do not work out, the popularity of a more active Council may be undermined. The recent assertion of a new plan for Mass Avenue suggests a return to design initiative by the Manager, and less interference by the Council.
A direct legal appeal to Superior Court on a claim of Plan E violations may still be possible, but must pass through numerous court appeals. However, Plan E has been declining in popularity for a quarter century. The Cambridge Civic Association was a champion of Plan E since the 1940s, but went out of existence around 2005 and is not available to defend the city manager form of government.
A more intriguing question is one of constitutionality, of consistency with the State Constitution. In 1779, John Adams penned his draft of the Constitution with its beginning Declaration of Rights, similar to a bill of rights. Over the years many amendments have been made, but Article 7 remains unchanged from its original 1779 formulation :
Article 7. “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men …”
This understanding refers to cases when the common good and profits diverge, as Adams noted during his years in government service. By this reading, profits could not result from government actions, such as real estate benefits for the fortunate few resulting from the Cycling Safety Ordinance. A sudden loss of parking causing reduced business revenues is contrary to the common good when small businesses are forced into bankruptcy, resulting in “fire sales”of property to interested buyers who are interested in new dense development along Mass Avenue. One City Councillor in discussions with citizens introduced this element that the loss of small businesses could be a benefit if it triggered dense growth for new development. The creation of special interest profits triggered by government actions would not be allowed under Article 7.
Article 7 has not been cited frequently in Massachusetts case law, although it has been briefly mentioned in consort with other rights in court arguments, notably Hillary Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health, SJC-08860 440 Mass.309 p. 316 (2003). The ultimate decision would need to be made by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
The advent of a new compromise plan for Mass Avenue might diminish the relevance of Article 7 at Mass Avenue. Article 7 could still apply where damage to existing businesses has already been done, as with the Quick-Build plan. Even if the new plan were adopted today, the matter could be entered into court by a joint suit of Mass Avenue businesses seeking damages from the City for its actions in approving the Quick-Build project on Mass Avenue between November 2021 to the time that the parking spaces were restored. In the parlance of the court, lobbying groups who argued for the removal of parking could have been identified as “unindicted co-conspirators” coincident with the original action of approving the Quick-Build contract.
The new Intermediate construction plan for Mass Avenue with removal of the median and restoration of half the parking can serve as the basic platform to resolve additional problems along Mass Avenue that have existed for sixty years.
· U-TURNS ALONG MASS AVENUE
In 1958, a median five-feet wide was inserted along Mass Avenue between Cambridge Common and Alewife. At side streets there were breaks in the median to allow turns in and out of those streets. For decades there were difficulties making extremely awkward U-turning movements. The “solution” developed by City officials was to label some median breaks for “No U-Turns” while refusing to post signs where U-turns were to be allowed. The result was that over the years the median area of Mass Avenue became increasingly ugly. This view of Mass Avenue on the approach to Cambridge Common illustrates the resulting clutter in the median, with eight signs banning U-turns. U-turns remain a problem along the entire length of the Avenue.
The solution to the U-turn problem comes from a most unlikely source : the Quick-Build treatment of Churchill Avenue. This idea entails adding a turn lane serving left turns into Churchill Avenue and U-turns inbound-to-outbound. This idea is the only noteworthy engineering invention in the Quick-Build design.
At Churchill Avenue the bus lane is discontinued and the turn lane is added. Cars and buses are briefly merged into a single lane. U-turns can be made with signal timing holding back outbound traffic (including bicycles) to allow unimpeded turns to reverse direction.
The U-Turn move is shown below in GREEN. Arriving U-turn vehicles queue on Red in the turn slot as outbound traffic flows on green. With outbound traffic stopped with a red light, cars in the U-turn lane are given a green light to turn unobstructed. Any traffic coming out of Churchill Avenue can next go on green, while other traffic is stopped.
The sequence ends with Outbound Mass Avenue traffic starting again on green, while the turn slot and Churchill Avenue show red.
A variation on the Churchill Avenue design is to utilize a short turn lane … a vehicle travel lane … and combine the bus lane with the bicycle lane for a short distance.
The problem of dangerous left turns onto or off of Mass Avenue could be controlled by flex posts arranged down the centerline of the road. All left turns can be made by traveling to a turn slot, making a U-turn and either continuing straight or turning right. There is a slight increase in distance traveled, but the safety of the movements is greatly improved. There may be other good ideas on dealing with U-turns and we should discuss them all.
· BUS LANES, BIKE LANES and PARKING : HOW DO THEY FIT TOGETHER?
For any road sections with parking, there can be four uses for the pavement : regular vehicle travel lane, bus-only lane, bike lanes and parking. There may also be buffer zones associated with the bike lanes. Today, with no parking, the road use from the median is :
* Travel Lane … Bus Lane ….Buffer … Bike Lane
Two options for the bike lane with parking are :
(A) … Travel Lane … Bus Lane … Bike Lane … Buffer … Parking
(B) … Travel Lane … Bus Lane … Parking … Buffer … Bike Lane
Each version (A) or (B) has special plusses and minuses.
(A) is similar to the existing bike lane from Dudley to Harvard. A four-foot buffer would be needed to protect the bike lane from opening car doors. The bus-lane would be right next to the bike lane and would not have a buffer. The bike lane would have no protective barrier offered by a line of parked cars. However, fast bikes could travel in a bus lane and bikes could shift in and out of the bus lane to move out of the way of buses. Parked cars pass over the bike lane arriving and leaving. Illegally parked cars could block the bike lane and/or the bus lane. The same result for loading zones.
(B) is like Mass Avenue near Albany Street in Cambridgeport. The bike lane stays close to the curb and has a buffer against right-doors opening on parked cars. The parked cars serve as a physical protective barrier for bike riders. However, any bike riders using the bus lane could not easily bail out and use the bus lane. Left-side car doors when open could be hit by passing buses. Cars are less likely to park illegally in the bus lane. Loading zones might be able to combine the parking lane and the buffer.
There are arguments here on both sides, and a healthy discussion among cyclists and businesses should follow a balancing of the pros and cons.
Existing bike lane widths along Alewife-to-Dudley vary between four and eight feet. An improved design should reduce this variation and result in bike lanes of more consistent width and fewer zig-zag movements.
PARKING POLICIES : LONG TERM PLANS AND MAKING GRADUAL CHANGES
The first priority for the city is to ensure that there is a parking mitigation plan for Alewife to Dudley, with a goal of providing 40 replacement spaces (not on residential streets) by March 15. Next is to begin sketching out a Master Plan for the entire Alewife to Harvard corridor, to make sure that the four sections are compatible and consistent to the maximum extent possible. The primary variations will be in the designation or deletion of separate bus lanes, especially at Porter Square.
Street widths should be measured more carefully to determine where two-sided parking is or is not possible.
Parking policy should be to achieve at least a 50% retention of parking spaces in each section and a temporary off-street parking plan for the remaining 50 percent. Each year the total amount of parking may be reduced by 3 percent following the Copenhagen rule of gradual parking reduction, spread over several decades. There should be no sudden parking removals as happened in 2021 for Alewife-to-Dudley.
Zurich, Switzerland should be studied as an example of a large city that sought to reduce parking and improve bicycle facilities, but did not get buy-in from the community. CDD should make a list of the cities that produced successful programs and those that failed.
The long-run goals for the City should be spelled out very clearly, as many European cities have done. It appears that Cambridge planners would like to see fewer cars in the city, less parking, more bikes and better transit. City officials should spell these out clearly, and have a step-by-step program to achieve these goals. The Envision Cambridge master plan fails in that endeavor. A long-range plan should extend twenty-five years into the future, with all changes made gradually, except for transit improvements, which can be instantaneous. There should be a gradual phase down of some but not all parking. Special provisions made to retain parking for the elderly and disabled.
The removal of parking along Mass Avenue threatens to take away physical protection that pedestrians now have on sidewalks. Parked cars protect pedestrians from errant speeding cars that might spin off the road and enter space reserved for pedestrians. Pedestrians discover that this protected space has now been taken away by a bike safety plan. The double tragedy is that bikes are given no more protection than the newly exposed pedestrians : they too are exposed to errant vehicles.
In anticipation of changes in street operations in coming years, we should learn the lessons of Amazon and the rise in package delivery – while shopping malls are collapsing as business enterprises. The success of small businesses along Mass Avenue should be seen as a remarkable achievement. However, deliveries and pickups means more short-term, often illegal parking, with inadequate loading zones. It is the Amazon-Uber-Lyft future we have not adequately planned on. We need thoughtful planning for the future.
Certain technologies trumpeted in the past are unlikely to become practical. They include one percent technologies (scooters, motorcycles) and defunct “solutions” (horses & wagons, cable cars, mopeds, Segways, helicopters and automated cars). This last item was the fad of 2016 and has failed to produce a single robot car that can operate in snow or heavy rain. The lesson is to avoid all technologies that have not been fully tested and proven safe for use by the public. The one new technology that looks impressive is early work on revolutionary batteries, so that battery-buses will likely become more practical in all types of weather.
TROLLEY BUS and TRANSIT OPTIONS
The ending of Trolleybus service in Cambridge should be seen as an historical loss, yet it has happened with streetcars and horse-drawn wagons. The advantages are improved operations for the Fire Department ladder trucks, and the visual removal of trolley poles and wires.
It should not be surprising that MBTA policies have produced confusion about the future of trolleybus operations. It appears that on March 12, 2022 trolley bus operations will be stopped and replaced by diesel hybrid buses operating out of Harvard station. The future of the trolley poles and wires is uncertain. The MBTA must deliver a coherent plan for these poles and wires. A reasonable goal is to remove all wires and poles by the end of 2022.
Safety problems exist for buses pulling in and out of bus stops and engaging in weaving actions with bikes in bike lanes. More thought needs to be given to how bikes and buses work with the new street arrangement. Provisions for loading zones appear unduly primitive. What happens when buses encounter illegal stoppage or parking in the bus lane ?
Having a bus lane for only six buses an hour is a primitive concept compared to New York’s Lincoln Tunnel which has 400 buses an hour. Where is the future for Route 77 bus service? Will it remain one bus every ten minutes, or could we triple the service with three-minute separations between buses? Where are the proposals for better quality service on all bus lines and especially on the Red Line?
While planners promise more reliable bus service on the Route 77 line, they show no awareness of existing bus bunching and the potential for future bunching to continue with or without Quick-Build plans. Claims for improved reliability of bus service will be unfulfilled unless we deal specifically with the bunching issue.
Observers have reported up to four 77 buses in a bunched group. Rail or bus, the problem occurs in almost all transit operations around the world. MBTA methods to measure and control bunching of 77 buses are nonexistent. A small part of the problem is caused by the design of lane configurations and traffic signal operations. Far too much bunching is caused by uneven spacing of buses at the beginning of the routes, as determined by personnel called starters. The ideal solution is even spacing at the beginning of trips and monitoring of bus spacing during trips so that buses do not bunch up. Proper spacing and reliability of buses is normally seen as the responsibility of the MBTA and cannot be achieved through road design alone. Meanwhile, the MBTA is doing an inadequate job of controlling bunching.
City policies for better transit are too dependent upon being obedient to MBTA plans. Cambridge officials in their own best interests should prepare and adopt monitoring methods to assist in keeping buses evenly spaced and unbunched. City officials should use mitigation funds from major developers to prepare operational improvement plans for both bus and Red Line bunching control. We need better ideas for improved transit if hopes are fulfilled for a future Cambridge with fewer cars and less traffic. Cambridge should take the lead and hire competent traffic and transit engineers in Community Development and Traffic & Parking to complete the job the MBTA will not do.
ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS
Concerns over loss of parking continue with each passing day, and City officials have not implemented a plan for substantial replacement parking along the Alewife-to-Dudley corridor.. The inbound bus lane serves no useful purpose today because there is no severe inbound congestion that justifies the benefits of having a special lane to bypass congestion. Outbound, there is traffic congestion at Porter Square and at Alewife, so an outbound bus lane can allow buses to bypass backed-up traffic.
Therefore, the City should remove the inbound bus lane. The 11 feet width of the bus lane can be repainted as a seven-foot parking lane and a four-foot buffer to protect bikes from "dooring." The result is a restoration of 40 spaces of metered parking The work involves no construction and could be completed in a week.
In 2000, the position of City Traffic Engineer was abolished. Until this position can be re-established, Cambridge should retain McMahon Associates to perform this function. McMahon should review all changes proposed for Mass Avenue, including changes to rectify Quick-Build work already done. Competent traffic engineering services should be sought to assist the Traffic Engineer once hired.
Coordination of short-term construction and long-term planning should seek to minimize damage to older utilities already under the street and assure that major street excavation in Mass Avenue occurs once, and not twice. The consultant should prepare a construction staging plan to show how traffic flow (including buses, bikes and parking) will be maintained during all major construction. The model for how not to perform road reconstruction should be Union Square in Somerville or Charles Street in Boston.
Changes are needed at the Planning Board and at Community Development. Basically, the Planning Board does not plan and has not been relevant to Mass Avenue bicycle issues. Community Development lacks a useful master plan and practical competence in transportation. By 1951 the Planning Board designed and approved the original version of the Brookline Street alignment of the Inner Belt highway, and became the prime advocate for the route a dozen years before state officials adopted it as their plan. For years, the City Planning director was a prime proponent of the highway, until it was blocked in 1969. One of the consequences was the abolition of the position of City Planner and its replacement by Assistant City Manager for Community Development. Planning is too important to have the position of City Planner banished. We need to reinstate the role of the City Planner, just as we need a City Traffic Engineer.
Changes to street surface operations should be coordinated with five- to ten-year construction plans by the Department of Public Works, especially for full removal of medians and any changes in sewers and other utilities planned by the Department. Special attention should be paid to coordinated actions if multiple utilities are involved. An example is Pearl Street in Cambridgeport, which several years ago went through complete reconstruction, with long delays at various points so that the street was disrupted for over a year. By general observation, actual physical work occurred less than half the time, because the schedules of utilities had not been coordinated.
The curb-to-curb measurements of the existing Mass Avenue appear to vary between 65 and 72 feet. The road plan should be delineated by standard use of stationing at 100-foot spacing so that the varying curb-to-curb widths can be plotted and verified in the field. From these measurements, engineering judgments can be rendered as to the wider road sections where parking on both sides could be feasible, and the narrower sections limited to parking on one side only. Removal of “bump outs” could be considered where it makes a positive difference. Use of proper stationing will allow all street plans to be reviewed more accurately and detailed corrections made during the design process.
A new master plan coordinating all four segments of Mass Ave should identify where a version of Churchill Avenue with signalized U-turns can be achieved with best effect. Provision for trailer truck delivery may be difficult because of U-turns, but existing box trucks are making U-turns by imaginative use of large commercial driveways for brief moments and backing into businesses from Mass Avenue. Consultants should analyze the best locations for signalized U-turns in a safe and consistent manner throughout the corridor, taking into account pedestrian and bike safety at the same time.
Signalized U-turns can reduce conflicts between opposing movements of vehicles, while also warning vehicle drivers and bicyclists to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, as required by state law. This concern also applies to aggressive bicycle riders, when injuries can occur to both pedestrians and cyclists in the event of a collision. Regulating bicycle movements that threaten pedestrians with bodily harm is as important as preventing “dooring” that threatens bicycle safety.
A major effort to review speeding on Mass Avenue should be coordinated with design for appropriate vehicle speeds. The street today shows no evidence of posted speed limits, or speed enforcement. Traffic engineers should recommend a posted speed limit, likely to be lower than the 35 to 40 mph vehicle speeds common today in the off-peak. Observation and planning are needed to address the illegal use of the bus lanes by cars, and the mixing of high speed buses with bicycles in the bus lane. Legal and illegal loading of vehicles using the bus lane has not been addressed in past planning. Bicycle speeds are also variable, in a range between 10 and 20 mph as typical. Faster bikes are likely to use the bus lane, rather than lower speed bike lanes. Scooter use has declined, although some scooter use of the bus lane has been observed. Bicycle counts indicate only about ten bikes an hour in each direction on Mass Avenue. With time and good design, bike usage should increase.
· BUS LANES and TRAFFIC : WHERE TO PUT THEM AND WHEN TO REMOVE THEM
The important thing about bus-only lanes is that they are not needed everywhere. Located in the right place, they can help the flow of buses.
In 2012, the original plans for Mass Avenue were designed primarily to enhance mass transit. Cambridge Traffic regulations allow bicycles to use bus lanes, and any safety implications of fast buses operating in the same space with bicycles should be carefully thought out. The height of bus mirrors should be considered, as well as passage of bikes through designated bus stops. More design work needs to be done on how bus stops and separate bike lanes will work safely and smoothly, especially if bicycle and bus volumes grow in the future.
To date, there is no public evidence of traffic capacity analysis being done for Mass Avenue. Any travel time benefits for bus lane operations will depend on the ability of buses to bypass lines of congested traffic. Inbound Mass Avenue appears to have no identified levels of congested LOS F traffic and long queues. Thus the proven need for any inbound bus lanes has not been demonstrated. Where there is no congestion, separate bus lanes have a much lower priority and could be deleted. Outbound congestion occurs at Porter Square from the approach to Upland Road to Beech Street. Outbound congestion also occurs on the approach to Alewife Brook Parkway. In typical fashion, Quick-Build gave no consideration to bottlenecks along the Route 77 corridor. Determinations should be made how much travel delay time can be saved by bus lanes and how much waiting delay can be reduced when buses are operated with even spacing.
DPW should present a plan to identify the utility infrastructure problem. A range of choices extends from replacing all utilities at once or selectively replacing a few. Full consideration should be given to cost, delay and disruption if doing extensive utility replacement now or spacing it out into the future. Construction sequencing plans should be assembled, with the understanding that plans may change significantly as unexpected difficulties arise. Allowance must be made to update plans when they change.
A long history of trolley car and trolleybus service in Cambridge is coming to an end. The long-range plans for battery bus technology appear to be a satisfactory replacement, and trolleybus retirement can mean an end to trolley wires and poles. A past vision of Mass Avenue can be restored – as it used to be with statuesque trees lining both sides of the street. Something that today is a rather bleak 1950s-style urban arterial roadway can become more of a community avenue and continue to do so for the next fifty to a hundred years. May our trolleybuses remain peacefully in museums across the nation.
Community Development may have ideas for what modern attractive streets should look like, but responsibility for designing complete streets should remain with Public Works. The advice of the City Arborist should be taken on rebuilding the “tree awning” along Mass Avenue and repairing the damage caused by the 1950s arterial highway that Mass Avenue had become.
· WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF QUICK-BUILD CONSTRUCTION??
The advantages of Quick-Build policies are quickly disappearing, and the deficiencies are becoming more evident. Quick-Build appears to be a street application of the Facebook motto to “Move Fast and Break Things.” It represents one form of the arrogance of power. We should have no more Quick-Build projects and no more “House Doctor” contracts in the City of Cambridge. We should expect excellence and professionalism in all the street work the City does.
For more information please contact Stephen Kaiser by email: email@example.com
CCC had an important victory at the Cambridge City Council meeting February 28, 2022 with a 5-4 vote to send a policy order intended to eviscerate architectural preservation efforts, specifically Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCDs – Policy Order #11/35) to the City Council’s Neighborhood and Long-Term Planning (NLTP) Committee (chaired by Councillor Dennis Carlone) for further study and revision. The plan on the table would have eviscerated existing the architectural preservation work of NCDs, making it more difficult to create these districts, and enabling their easy termination. See also our related: Neighborhood Conservation Districts - letter (2.27.22).
Huge thanks to Councillors Dennis Carlone, Patty Nolan, Paul Toner, Quinton Zondervan and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. This will allow for thoughtful discussion of the issues within a context that would enable us to preserve not only this important local preservation vehicle but also to update it in a manner that will be consistent with Mass state 40C legal guidelines while updating the language if needed. The alternative plan (and votes) were to either to fast track the problematic policy order through the Ordinance Committee, or move it instead to the Housing Committee (proposed by Councillor Burhan Azeem, and supported by Councillors Mallon, McGovern, and Simmons) focusing on larger housing concerns (walls, roofs, affordability), rather than on preserving our rich fabric of historic buildings, and adding new districts, specifically here, our rich Each Cambridge area that was the historic home to so many of our Irish, Italian, and Portuguese émigré community and the diverse domestic and commercial buildings that have been long part of this community. Opposition to this effort largely has been aligned with developer interests, in relation to the increased number of laboratories coming into this and other parts of the city. What we know in Cambridge (and elsewhere) is that Neighborhood Conservation District allow change where needed and tend to keep sky rocketing housing prices more in balance. Read our blogpost: Does Housing Really Become Less Affordable within Conservation Districts - Actually No NCDs also provide a forum for neighbors to provide input into changes being proposed.
Ending parking minimums (laws requiring a specific number of parking spaces in different city contexts) is now being proposed by City Council. This across the board (city wide) proposal will detrimentally impact many residents and businesses. The unintended consequences of removing parking minimums citywide are significant. Lack of adequate parking could lead environmental harm from circling the neighborhood for the increasingly rarer space or greater green space loss for more onsite parking, leading to increased heat island impacts harmful and could push us further behind in addressing economic, racial, and environmental equity.
The removal of parking minimums is part of a set of goals, that dovetails with efforts of some to up-zone residential areas to add more, and larger, market rate housing. Cambridge is already a very dense city, and the City has plans to make it even denser. One strategy to do so, that is being pushed by some on Council currently is to stop requiring housing and commercial property developers to provide some minimal amount of parking for new residential or commercial owners and tenants.
Please read the City’s Envision and Moving Forward Report data on this issue:
Our city’s ENVISION FINAL REPORT calls for a moderated parking plan, removing parking minimums only in those areas where this can be done sustainably and without impacting the community. Envision DOES NOT call for ending parking minimums citywide and indeed seems to oppose such a plan. In some areas, for example in Harvard Square’s commercial area, parking minimums have already been removed because there is ample public transit. Each public square and neighborhood has its own particular needs and requirements. The Envision Final Report also expresses concern about spillover on residential streets. Again, the Envision Report never suggests removing parking minimums city wide. Let’s make sure we follow what Utile’s planning efforts provided by way of a city plan. Smart planning matters.
The Cambridge 2020 Moving Forward Report Transportation/ParkingData) breaks need down by neighborhood
Central Square and University Park
East Cambridge/North Point
Inside the Sullivan Room and Cambridge City Hall. Photo Credit: Harvard Crimson.
The Cambridge Citizens Coalition encourages the City Council to select a new manager with excellent training, experience and a proven track record, as well as someone willing to: