Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

April 7, 2014

Master Plan Mythology and other Big Items on the Apr 7, 2014 City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,City Council,planning — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 2:58 am

Master Plan Mythology and other Big Items on the Apr 7, 2014 City Council Agenda

City HallThere has been a great deal of myth-making in Cambridge over the last couple of years that, arguably, began with the "Central Squared" report from the "Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square" in December 2011. One of the more emphasized recommendations in that report was for the development of a significant amount of new housing (primarily targeting middle-income residents) in the Central Square area. This led to the formation of a group called "Essex Street Neighbors" who, along with other Area Four activists, opposed this concept and promptly filed a zoning petition to obstruct any such future plans. Even as most planners embraced principles of transit oriented development and smart growth, these residents moved in exactly the opposite direction by advocating for the preservation of surface parking lots and a decrease in density in the vicinity of transit in Central Square.

Their petition was eventually allowed to expire and the group re-branded itself as the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA) as it added activist partners including key players with the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods (ACN). As the "K2C2 process" got underway with the goal of making recommendations for Kendall Square (K2) and Central Square (C2) and the areas in between, the newly branded Cambridge Residents Alliance continued to oppose any zoning petitions or recommendations that might result in added density (including new housing). One part of their rhetorical arsenal was a call for a "citywide master plan" in the wake of what their group has characterized as a "tsunami of development". The clear implication in all of their rhetoric was that new development – primarily housing development – was being done with little or no guidance from the Planning Board or the Community Development Department and with minimal attention paid to transportation concerns.

That rhetoric continued unabated during the 2013 municipal election season as the Cambridge Residents Alliance and its Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods partners were ever-present at campaign events and actively tried to lure candidates over to their way of thinking – with some success. They ultimately endorsed just one candidate – Dennis Carlone – who was elected and who subsequently took on Mike Connolly as his "council aide". Mr. Connolly continues to be listed as the Secretary of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods and is a primary communications person for the Cambridge Residents Alliance even though he is now being subsidized by the City of Cambridge. While these personal council aide positions have been filled with political supporters of the respective councillors from the beginning, never has the position become as overtly political as it has now become with the hiring of Mr. Connolly.

The CRA/ACN activists have continued their political organizing this year by targeting residents in areas where new housing has been built or where it is proposed to be built. In every instance the rhetoric is of the "tsunami of development" or "unbridled development".

It is interesting that the agenda of the April 7 City Council meeting includes not only an Order (from Councillors Carlone, Mazen, and Simmons) that is the capstone of the master plan mythology crafted over the last two years, but also an alternative Order (from Mayor Maher, Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor McGovern) that offers a much more factual point of view and, most significantly, an acknowledgment that the Planning Board and the Community Development Department have actually been doing their job and carrying out established City Council policies in recent years – including the development of new housing in accordance with smart growth principals and overall policies promoted by regional entities such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).

I find the discussion of the need for a “master plan” for Cambridge to be, on the one hand, naive and, on the other hand, disingenuous. Though I have not examined the zoning codes from other cities in great detail, I seriously doubt whether there are too many with as much detail as Cambridge’s Zoning Ordinance. It’s VERY prescriptive with its wide variety of overlay districts and planned unit developments. Cambridge’s Zoning Ordinance coupled with its Growth Policy Document (initiated 20 years ago and updated several years ago) really does give a very comprehensive picture of Cambridge’s "master plan". Cambridge officials are also ever-present at all regional planning meetings – especially those involving transportation planning.

Perhaps the real reason for all the talk now and during the recent City Council election about a “master plan” comes down to a single overriding policy and not actually about a master plan or any failings in the zoning code. That single policy is that housing is encouraged (with associated incentives in the zoning ordinance) on sites that were formally commercial or industrial. If you look at most of the significant housing developments now or recently under construction you’ll find that most of these replaced non-housing uses. This policy is also very consistent with all of the regional plans developed and promoted by the MAPC and other regional planning entities.

I believe most planners, including Dennis Carlone, will tell you that housing is not a major contributor to motor vehicle traffic – at least not compared to commercial uses. If traffic is what’s getting the activists’ panties in a twist, they should not be looking at new housing as the cause for their discomfort. My sense has been that you can look to pass-through traffic in the Alewife area as the primary cause of any trouble there and not to anything recently or currently being built in Cambridge. The simple fact is that the highway part of Route 2 ends abruptly at Alewife and all that traffic has to connect to their destinations somehow, and it does lead to a ripple effect that clogs things up elsewhere.

There is also a fair amount of regional traffic that simply passes through parts of Cambridge at the eastern end in order to connect to arterials such as the Mass Pike. The River Street/Prospect Street corridor is problematic because it’s a major connection from the Mass Pike. Unless a “Master Plan” intends to build new arterials to relieve the traffic, and we all know that will not and should not happen, then the call for a "master plan" is little more than a populist myth designed to win votes or, perhaps more correctly, a disguised effort to stop the development of new housing.

Here are a few more specific comments on the meeting agenda items:

Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointments of the following persons as members of the Central Square Advisory Committee as set out in Section 20.300 of the Zoning Ordinance.

Though I was personally very pleased to be reappointed to the CSAC, it was especially refreshing to see among the appointees a number of new names. This is a hopeful sign. The CSAC is purely advisory and has no actual regulatory authority, but it has the potential to be very helpful in facilitating community discussion on matters relating to Central Square. I look forward to the expanded role that has been proposed for the body.

Manager’s Agenda #8. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-09, regarding a report on the status of the new Lechmere Station development and plans for the current Lechmere site.

I’ll simply quote from the last paragraph: "Redevelopment on the current Lechmere Station site is permitted as part of an approved PUD master plan for the North Point area (Planning Board Special Permit #179). Part of the current station site will accommodate a northerly extension of First Street to Monsignor O’Brien Highway. The remaining land is permitted for residential development with a maximum height of 65 feet, with retail uses and plaza space at the ground level. Redevelopment would be contingent upon completion of the new station and transfer of the land to the private developer." This has the potential to really transform this site into something far better than is there today.

Manager’s Agenda #13. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to an order requesting the appropriation and authorization to borrow an additional $11,000,000 to provide funds for construction and other associated costs of the King School project.

The additional cost will likely surprise no one. Bear in mind that this is just the first in a series of what will certainly be several more very expensive school replacement projects associated with the plans embodied in the School Departments "Innovation Agenda".

Order #7. That the Government Operations, Rules and Claims Committee is requested to review and evaluate the overall effectiveness of the Council Aide positions.   Mayor Maher

I am intrigued by the introduction of this Order at this time. While I have consistently questioned the idea of personal aides for city councillors, I have never questioned the need for adequate staffing. I have to wonder if the overt politicization of the council aide positions this year has anything to do with the timing of this Order. My other concern is that our well-paid councillors may actually want to turn these into full-time positions – an absurd proposition without justification, but not an impossibility.

Order #8. That the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge be amended to limit the number of non-locally owned financial institutions not to exceed the number of existing established financial institutions; said limit be in the overlay districts of Central, Harvard and Kendall Squares.   Councillor Cheung

I can’t imagine any way that this could be done consistent with the laws of the Commonwealth or the United States Constitution.

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to support the intent of the Master Plan initiative which seeks to provide the City Council, its committees, City Staff, members of the public, and all interested stakeholders with an opportunity to further explore traffic congestion, transportation financing, pedestrian safety, resident parking, and a desire for enhanced multi-modal transit infrastructure throughout the city.   Councillor Carlone, Councillor Simmons and Councillor Mazen

Order #15. That the Cambridge Community Development Department shall hold a series of public meetings to discuss the range of planning and zoning issues that have recently been in active discussion across the city, including, but not limited to, all varieties of housing (such as affordable, middle income, or other types of housing units), the amount, type and location of new and existing development, pre-fabricated units, transportation, congestion, open space, streetscape design, building design, sustainability, infrastructure and economic development with recommendations for moving forward on short range and long range planning work that is recommended as an outgrowth of these discussions.   Mayor Maher, Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor McGovern

See comments above. I only hope that the greater wisdom prevails and that the Order from Mayor Maher, Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor McGovern picks up a clear majority of votes. Professional courtesy and collegiality notwithstanding, I hope that if any part the "Master Plan" order is approved then it should be radically amended to remove the various references to noble goals that would, in fact, be thwarted by its underlying goal of slowing or stopping the construction of new housing in Cambridge.

Order #16. That the City Council urgently requests that MassDOT start the permitting process for underpasses for Anderson Memorial Bridge, Western Avenue Bridge and River Street Bridge immediately, given that MassDOT has changed its construction and design plans for all three of the above bridges where it is now possible for the timely addition of underpasses to such plans   Mayor Maher and Councillor Carlone

Though I may find the notion of bike/pedestrian pathway without street crossings along the Charles River quite appealing, I’m also quite respectful of the cost and engineering difficulties associated with such a plan. I could imagine ways to do this at the BU Bridge or the Anderson Memorial Bridge, but it’s much more difficult to see a way to make this so at either the Western Avenue Bridge and River Street Bridge (or, for that matter, at the Mass. Ave. bridge). – Robert Winters


  1. The one thing I find the most curious about O-14, is the committees that were named within.

    It asks that Ordinance, Long Term Planning, & Transportation and Utilities Committees have major parts to play in the “Master Plan” process. Councillors Carlone and Mazen are the chairs of these committees.

    They would be tasked with reporting back to help establish this grand plan – I wonder what that outcome would be when two of the three names on the order are running the three committees named.

    I hope that everyone and anyone that will listen would speak out in support of O-15 which, at least even on the surface, acknowledges the fantastic work that has already been done by CDD and lets them continue to be the torch bearer on this issue.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — April 7, 2014 @ 9:10 am

  2. That’s precisely the underlying substance of Order 14 – to put those specific councillors in charge of a highly politicized process. I believe most of the other city councillors understand this. I agree that CDD has been doing a great, forward-looking job for many years now. In fact, most other communities see us as way ahead of the game in terms of transportation planning and housing. The CRA/ACN crowd has been spreading misinformation – that’s their specialty.

    Comment by Robert Winters — April 7, 2014 @ 9:41 am

  3. As someone who has followed Cambridge development and zoning closely for years, I would say that yes, we do have many elements of a master plan, but they are not very well connected and the result is that they do not function very effectively as a master plan. No one should be criticizing the work we have done. The task is knit it together so that we can answer questions like how do Northpoint and Kendall Sq./MIT development affect the overall traffic situation in eastern Cambridge and the rest of the city, for example. Will it have spill over effects beyond, and will developments in other areas affect this and vice versa.

    We’re probably 90% there already, but not having a mechanism to assess the whole picture is a huge lack, and leads to lack of surety and trust.

    Comment by Mark Jaquith — April 7, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Thank you for a simple and frank analysis of the issues here.
    We also need to provide for meaningful discussion with and within each neighborhood affected, while recognizing the differences between neighborhoods.

    Comment by Ruth Ryals — April 7, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

  5. Dear Sir,

    I do think your analysis is frank and honest, unfortunately it is also very biased and in it’s tone and attacks very condescending. I’m surprised you resort to name calling and derogatory remarks against people you disagree with to make your point. It is very much this type of attitude which makes it very difficult to build consensus and form the opinion that a kabal is running the city. I also find you personal attack on Mr. Connolly very disconcerting and out of character. And they do nothing to elevate the civic debate quite the opposite, low blow politics. It is my understanding that Mr Connolly is no longer secretary of ACN and is certainly not the front communication person for the Cambridge Residence Alliance. Two piece of misinformation which put question the rest of your comment.
    I would also like to point out that the Cambridge Resident Alliance is not against development, certainly not against housing development, of what I understand they are for reasonable development. They are for inclusionary Planning, making sure all members of our city are included in the discussion. I’m also surprise you find the pace of upzonning to be reasonable. Word in the street is that Boston Property is looking for an extra 1 Million sqft of upzonning in Kendall sq, I don’t think it’s for housing. The Alewife development has been mismanaged and the area is a hell hole where public transportation is extremely hard of access for a sizable chunk of the population living there. Yes to development, but managed development which takes into consideration the whole of the city and not just one neighborhood at a time. Time they are changing and we need to adapt no keep on repeating the same mistake because ‘I don’t like these people’ and not listening to their actual arguments.


    Ilan Levy

    Comment by ilan levy — April 7, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

  6. I’m not sure you’d be able to diminish the “lack of surety and trust” in this city by putting a bow on the current jigsaw of development plans and sate frothing public. I think many people believe that the call for a “master plan” is yet another arrow in the seemingly endless quiver of the CRA, ACN, or People’s Popular Front of Judea to enact what they believe will be a de facto moratorium on development. I don’t think any group calling for a master plan is actually interested in such an end, at least I have not seen anything that would convince me of such intent. I didn’t go tonight because I was in class, but also because I doubt any productive dialog can come about among such heated polarization, but I hope our councilors are able to pull these two seemingly opposing orders and find some commonality. If we do jump off the bridge and plunge into a master planning process will these people demanding such a process be content when the results yield something similar to what Somerville concluded?

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — April 7, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

  7. For people who worry about traffic into Cambridge I think the simplest thing to do would be to increase the size of the Alewife parking garage. I don’t know if is still true, but I am sure it is – it fills up early in the morning and thus the option to drive to there and use the RedLine is ruled out for many people.

    A similar problem that I know is true for parking at Wellington to access the Orange line for people coming from the north – the garage and lots fill up early.

    And what about the South and he RedLine and Orange line.

    This a case where Cambridge and the many Boston surrounding communities should get together and pressure the T, the state to deal with this situation.

    Comment by John Gintell — April 8, 2014 @ 3:58 am

  8. I think its important to point out that Somerville (and other communities that have developed a city wide plan-many of them don’t call them “Master Plans”) have had a process led by their development departments. Those departments have conducted many community meetings (50 in the case of Somerville), formed a “task force” of various stakeholders and then brought recommendations back to their elected bodies for review and approval. So, when supporters of policy order 14 ask us to look at what other communities have done, the truth is, their process has been much closer to what is being proposed in policy order 15.

    Comment by Marc McGovern — April 8, 2014 @ 11:43 am

  9. I’m glad that Somerville and other communities are getting around to doing some of the things we were doing in Cambridge 20 years ago and more. Though I was not a listed participant in the many meetings back in the early 1990s that culminated in the Growth Policy Document, I did attend some of those meetings. We were addressing issues of growth and sustainability before most people had even heard the term “sustainability” used in this context. The policies developed then have held up quite well and are embedded in essentially all of the planning Cambridge has done since then.

    The simple fact is that builders and investors have pursued locations in Boston and Cambridge for many years before they even considered branching out in any significant way to Somerville, Allston-Brighton, and other cities and towns in the Greater Boston area. That pressure has only recently extended itself substantially to places like Somerville and I expect that Union Square and other parts of East Somerville will soon see a lot of new construction and that will likely include a lot of new housing. Good for them. Spreading growth and development around the entire urban core is very welcome. It shouldn’t all be concentrated in only the hottest real estate markets.

    Cambridge has over the years regularly produced planning documents for essentially all of the areas where development pressure existed or was anticipated. I have copies of most of these documents, so it’s quite bewildering when some people express the view that Cambridge doesn’t do any planning and that they simply bend over for whatever “the developers” want.

    There will always be the need to revise Cambridge’s long-term plans and policies and maybe there’s some need to do that now – especially in light of the fact that our neighboring towns are now engaging in growth and development and some of the consequences will spill over into Cambridge. No one has suggested that there’s no need for citywide planning in Cambridge. What many of us find troubling is the rhetoric and the intentions of many of the people who have used the call for a “Master Plan” as cover for an agenda centered on the cessation of new construction, including the kind of development that is encouraged by “Smart Growth” advocates, i.e. transit-oriented development and the addition of significant amounts of housing in proximity to transit. The people associated with the Cambridge Residents Alliance have consistently opposed all new development, including transit-oriented development. To suggest otherwise is pure fantasy.

    Comment by Robert Winters — April 8, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

  10. It’s also worth noting that all of the meetings that culminated in the “Toward a Sustainable Cambridge” Growth Policy Document were, in fact, conducted by the Community Development Department and NOT in City Council committees. Only after the document was produced did it come before the City Council for approval and possible revision. Some city councillors participated in the workshops, and I’m sure this would be the case if we went through a similar exercise today. That was the right way to go then, and it’s the right way to go now.

    This is the essential difference between Orders 14 and 15. The former excludes the Community Development Department. The latter puts them in charge of the process. In either case any policy proposals would still ultimately come before the City Council for approval and possible revision.

    Comment by Robert Winters — April 8, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

  11. Two terms that intrigue me in this copy are “master plan” and “smart growth”. I think if the master plan for Cambridge is to become an extension of Boston, then yes, the plan is being carried out. It has certainly impacted the reality of Cambridge today. The neighborhoods which made Cambridge a vibrant, community based city have been just about disappeared. Instead Cambridge has become more and more transient with cookie cutter condo’s going up, replacing small houses and back yards. That way people have no trouble coming and going, as is the norm for the city today. This is especially startling in North Cambridge where every time a house goes up for sale, a developer buys it and razes the sometimes historical, building in favor of said cookie cutter condo’s.

    In a day and age where we are looking to reduce our carbon footprint on this earth, the Lechmere development stand in stark contrast.Is this what “smart growth” is? This land could have been put to better use for the communities of Cambridge as well as the earth by making a green space there. Do we really need anymore people in Cambridge? The same could be argued for the on going development in the Alwife area. As former wet-lands, I wished it could have transformed into the marsh land it once was. What a gorgeous development THAT would have been. But money will win out in the end and Cambridge will be developed into a dense city.

    Just to clarify, I am not what is called a “tree hugger” though I cherish nature. But it seems that Cambridge is fast becoming so developed that the open area’s I knew growing up, the lots, the margins, the places we could explore, are extinct and I find that very sad for everyone.

    Comment by Sandy Dolan — April 8, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

  12. I am also bothered by the growing transiency of Cambridge residents. If I could turn back the clock and be anointed Guy In Charge, I would have greatly restricted condominium conversion and created lots of incentives for owner-occupied buildings. That would have helped to maintain a stable population of small landlords who could themselves live affordably and maintain friendships with their tenants while keeping their rents tolerable. People have always come and gone in Cambridge, but a much greater fraction of the population would have been stable.

    On the point about “Do we really need anymore people in Cambridge?”, it’s worth mentioning that Cambridge’s population used to be considerably greater than it is today.

    Cambridge Population: 1950 to 2010

    I have no problem with there being more people in Cambridge – even considerably more people. What I do want is to have as many people as possible living and working within the same community with as little commuting by automobile as possible.

    Comment by Robert Winters — April 8, 2014 @ 7:42 pm

  13. The population growth comparison in Cambridge between 2010 and 1950 as shown in your chart, doesn’t really tell the whole story. It does reflect the phenom now know as the “baby boom” which means households in Cambridge had larger families in that time period but does not mean there were more households per-say.

    If you ever do get to be the GUY IN CHARGE, Please get rid of the Rindge Towers! 😉

    Comment by Sandy Dolan — April 9, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

  14. I’m sure Rindge Towers are here to stay, but no rational planner today would ever advocate concentrating that amount of low income housing in one small area. Scattered-site subsidized housing makes so much more sense.

    Comment by Robert Winters — April 9, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

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