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Planning 2000 - Will the City Council Rise to the Challenge?

Cambridge's runaway growth was the #1 issue in this last council election, and deservedly so. Cambridge's booming economy and unparalleled construction are rapidly changing the fabric of our city.

The issues raised by Cambridge Residents for Growth Management (CRGM) three years ago in the Growth Management Petition remain on the table. Will Cambridge's prosperity result in a city choked with traffic, will our rapid increases in housing prices and rents force out thousands of middle income families, replacing them with those who can win the housing bidding wars? Will our locally-owned neighborhood stores be replaced with bland national chains? Will enrollment in the public schools continue to shrink?

These issues are a big change from the past. In the 1950s and 60s, Cambridge's economy was suffering. The old industries had left, unemployment was high, people were fleeing the city. To encourage business and housing development, we upzoned most of the city, giving business additional ability to grow. It didn't work as hoped. Some huge buildings went up -- Rindge Towers, for example -- but the economy stayed stuck in neutral for many more years. Nevertheless, the huge upzoning stayed on the books, and now that the economy is finally booming, this 50-year old plan has had a second, unintended impact: destabilization of neighborhoods.

It works like this. In typical residential neighborhoods with small multifamily homes, the larger houses get bought up, expanded, and chopped into "deluxe" condos. The backyards get paved over. Sometimes groups of homes get replaced with townhouses. When property values zoom, it pays for developers to buy up properties and convert them to condo blocks. Of course, these units are all built to the highest market price, shutting out the moderate income people and families with children who were displaced. Businesses are equally prey to upscaling and redevelopment -- rents in some commercial areas have tripled in the past 5 years, forcing small, locally owned shops to close their doors. Harvard and Central Squares' locally owned businesses have been decimated by these forces.

Effective planning and zoning could control this, but these are lacking. Hence our current situation. In East Cambridge, Cambridgeport, Area 4, North Cambridge, Harvard Square, and other areas throughout the city, small businesses, and renters have been forced out and the possibility of home ownership rises out of reach for more and more residents. While change is normal, the Cambridge boom has surpassed anyone's expectations.

In 1997, CRGM introduced the Growth Management Petition, meant to address the worst aspects of our out-of-date zoning. The Council gave it a mixed response, approving some parts of it, watering down some pieces, and recommending that other parts be studied. This study is still going on. After dozens of meetings, the study group (CGMAC) is preparing to issue recommendations for continuing review of large projects and tighter limits on future commercial development to reduce the growth of traffic.

Not enough has changed since the introduction of the Growth Management Petition. Huge projects have been started in East Cambridge, Area 4, and North Cambridge over the objections of the neighborhoods. The Interim Planning Overlay Petition (IPOP), originally meant to hold back large projects by cracking down on traffic generation, has only kept the building boom from speeding up.

The main beneficiaries have been large, mostly non-resident, property owners and their employees. While it would seem to most people that the Council would unanimously support neighborhood efforts, this has not been the case. Zoning reform usually requires 7 out of 9 City Council votes. Some councillors, perhaps under pressure from developers, either amend petitions to weaken them or just vote against them. Whether the new council members will vote against the interest of the people who elected them is a good question. Early indications are mixed.

In the most recent neighborhood effort to control development, the Larkin Petition, a building moratorium for East Cambridge, Area 4 and Wellington-Harrington, was passed by seven votes to two.

New Councillors, Jim Braude and Marjorie Decker supported it, as did Henrietta Davis, Kathy Born, Ken Reeves, Tim Toomey, and Anthony Galluccio. Voting against the neighborhood initiative were Councillor Michael Sullivan, whose frequent and outspoken opposition to neighborhood initiatives has earned him a reputation as a "developer's councillor," and new councillor David Maher.

The Council's process in acting on the Larkin petition is also a cause for concern. This petition was not a hastily thrown together, poorly written, pie-in-the-sky wish list. It was written by an attorney with the advice of zoning professionals, neighborhood activists, renters and homeowners. Anyone who has attended grass roots meetings like those of CRGM knows that these do much of the real grunt work of effective planning, and that too little is done by the Planning Board and Community Development Department. To their credit, the Planning Board has given overwhelmingly positive reviews to recent neighborhood petitions.

Another alarming aspect of the process is the eleventh-hour amendment frenzy. All zoning petitions must, by law, be acted on within a fixed time limit or they automatically expire. The Council almost always waits until the very last day they can act and only then tacks on amendments. Sometimes they exempt a property owned by a constituent. Sometimes amendments water a petition down so far it becomes ineffective. Sometimes affordable housing is tacked on, as if any project - no matter how objectionable -- can be made palatable by adding a few units of affordable housing.

While this does not mean that we should pass up opportunities to increase the stock of affordable housing, it does mean that all development, including housing, should be part of an effective planning process, and haphazard planning is not effective. Instead, Cambridge needs a real planning process with a pro-neighborhood focus.

Planning is our only defense against a future city shaped by developers with the most money and no commitment to the neighborhoods where they build. It was no accident that the first signer of the Larkin petition, Shannon Larkin is a new mother who hopes to raise her family in East Cambridge. Indeed the Larkin petition was a very solid step in the right direction. The eastern section of the city desperately needs time to study how they can survive the development onslaught and shape future development to improve the surrounding neighborhoods.

CRGM urges all concerned residents to work with -- and keep the pressure on -- the city to get recommendations from the study well within the 18 months allotted, so there is time for the public debate they will need. We urge residents, the City Council and property owners to help enact the zoning reforms which benefit the residents of Cambridge.