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The Basics of a Better Zoning Law

Our goal is to make changes in Cambridge's Zoning Ordinance to ensure that our city will remain as liveable, affordable, and prosperous in the future as it is today. The needed changes can only happen through the united action of Cambridge residents and businesspeople throughout the city.

The proposal consists of a number of major components designed to encourage beneficial development while protecting the quality of life in Cambridge. These proposed changes in zoning are based on the principles summarized below:

Fair reduction of allowed building sizes from present limits:
The Zoning Gap: Many properties in Cambridge allow significantly higher building density than currently exists - either on the property now - or on the properties nearby. This zoning gap allows "fast-buck teardowns," where developers place potentially huge, out-of-scale buildings in the midst of stable neighborhoods. The only method to combat this is to lower the zoning maximum to "neighborhood average." Existing buildings would not be affected by the reductions, only new construction would need to comply. This would maintain and preserve existing residential neighborhoods at their current density, scale, and character. Exceptions to this policy would be made when residents are supportive of change, and have evaluated potential changes in neighborhood character through a planning process.

Size Reductions - Density and Height:
In many districts, zoning rules permit construction that is much bigger, taller, and denser than what is adjacent; than what the road system can service; and than what the neighbors want. Even if the building is significantly set back, it often casts a large shadow over nearby buildings. Reductions in density and height as we propose are consistent with recent zoning reforms accomplished throughout the City (e.g., Cambridgeport and northern Mass Ave), and also better reflect the size and bulk of pre-existing buildings.

Increased Incentive for affordable housing:
One of the most important aspects of this proposal is that it encourages new affordable housing. Our petition recommends that a new building's size may be increased over what is allowed by the "Table of Dimensional Requirements" -- if this increased floor area is for new affordable housing.

Reduction in building heights in high-density areas where they border lower ones (transition zones):
Good transitions make good neighbors! Cambridge's large number of zones also have a large number of boundaries. These trouble zones can allow massive multi-storey buildings to be placed adjacent to small 2- and 3-family buildings. Currently our zoning has some scattered "transition" rules, but not enough to protect vulnerable neighborhoods from the encroaching construction. Our petition proposes to improve upon these rules by establishing a simple requirement which says: Where two zones meet with different height limits, there is a transition zone that starts at the lot boundary. The height limit of this transition zone starts at the lower height and goes up at a 45-degree angle to the upper height. Furthermore, the zoning rules of the lower density zone apply in the transition zone, even though it is located within the high density zone."

Public review for all projects with significant impacts:
The Planning Board, Historic Commission and neighborhood conservation groups often make thorough reviews of the site plan and design quality of proposed projects; indeed, most special permits are obtained only when the developer meets the conditions imposed by the these reviews. We suggest improving this practice by extending it to project types and locations not currently covered by design review. Additionally, we are proposing site posting of major projects, so that anyone walking by the site can see what construction is being proposed, and the dates and locations of public meetings.

Improved business climate:
Retail districts should be recognized for their unique assets, opportunities, and functions, and those aspects should be encouraged, in part to assure that they can compete with regional shopping centers and maintain their economic viability. Reducing densities will encourage the preservation of existing buildings, which will help stabilize area commercial rents. Rezoning industrial areas will also preserve affordable spaces for start-up companies, increasing opportunities for local jobs. Existing retail districts should be strengthened: new retail activity should be directed toward the city's existing retail squares and corridors.

Increased protections of open space and green space:
Cambridge zoning currently requires most lots and projects to provide "usable open space" protections -- meaning lot area open to the sky, and having no dimension smaller than 15 feet. We propose amending this requirement to increase the amount of usable open space required, and to guarantee that at least half of this open space be maintained as "greenspace": unpaved surfaces supporting plants and trees. We also seek to establish a requirement for replacement of large trees disrupted by construction. The city should encourage the retention and protection of useful, effective, attractive private open space whether publicly accessible or not. The petition also calls for the preservation of large public open spaces, by rezoning as Open Space, which would prevent the city from later filling them with buildings.