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Frequently Asked Questions

Who is behind this petition?
The Cambridge Residents for Growth Management (CRGM), a group of volunteer Cambridge residents. They share the belief that Cambridge’s Zoning Ordinance should do a much better job of protecting the city’s residential neighborhoods, businesses, and quality of life in Cambridge from the impact of development. They have petitioned the City Council for a revision of the city’s zoning laws to manage development on a uniform, citywide basis. The input for the plan came from hundreds of participants throughout the city. In the past five months, representatives from CRGM have met with just about every neighborhood group, as well as business associations, city agencies, and a large number of individual residents and businesspeople, seeking their input. Their goal was to draft a petition that presented a strategic citywide approach to managing development on a uniform basis.

What would the CRGM Petition do?
If approved by the City Council, this petition would:
Reduce the permitted height or density in more than half of Cambridge's zoning districts and about two thirds of its land area;
Create bonuses and incentives for housing and affordable housing;
Create a height buffer zone where a high-density district abuts a low-density district;
Ensure better public notice of, and participation in, design review and the permit process; and
Provide better open space and green space protections.

Why a broad citywide petition? Shouldn’t we solve just one problem at a time?
Rather than just move development from one neighborhood to another, this petition seeks changes to manage development on a fair, citywide basis.

How was the proposal decided on?
The petition is based on: 1. sound economic and planning principles, 2. recommendations of studies by the Cambridge Community Development Department, 3. neighborhood knowledge of residents who worked on the proposal, 4. Expertise of planners, architects and attorneys who worked on the proposal, and 5. suggestions and comments from dozens of meetings with neighborhood groups, property owners, business associations, developers and city officials.

Were all community groups part of the process?
All neighborhood groups were invited to participate in the process at the drafting stage. Notices were widely distributed. There were meetings with most neighborhood groups, business associations, realtors and university officials. Since the petition was filed it has been the subject of two well-attended public hearings and extensive review by the Planning Board.

Why now? Shouldn’t we study this longer?
These changes are urgently needed to prevent careless developments that are disrupting more and more people’s lives. If fine tuning is found to be necessary, we can do that when the need arises. This plan is significantly better than what exists now.

Will the petition cause taxes to go up?
No. Since nothing is being added to (or subtracted from) the total amount the city raises through taxes, there is no reason for a significant impact on taxes.

Shouldn’t we encourage lots of new housing construction so that rents will go down (supply and demand)?
New housing in Cambridge is invariably new high-end expensive housing. Even if developers would add thousands of units, there are far more people who want to live in Cambridge than we could ever possibly absorb. The demand is enormous – it’s our ability and desire to supply that we need to be concerned with. This petition will help stabilize rents.

Will this plan create affordable and market-rate housing?
Under this petition, a developer wishing to maximize the size of a development can add a bonus to the density, providing that the extra density is used for market-rate and affordable housing and doesn’t negatively impact abutters

Is this another form of rent control?
No. Rent control was imposed by the City on property owners of existing units. This plan asks for volunteers to build affordable units.

Will this petition hurt Cambridge’s financial health?
No. Cambridge has an excellent tax base. By helping to maintain the city’s livability, the petition will maintain Cambridge as a desirable location, and thus maintain the tax base. If we overdevelop it, it will cease being desirable and businesses and residents will leave.

Does this add "red tape" for the average homeowner?
No. This petition will move a limited number of houses into a category called "non-conforming." Most of the time, this will have no effect on the property owner, as all existing properties will be instantly "grandfathered" in. The city currently has a fairly straightforward process for adding a dormer or addition to a non-conforming house; this petition does not change these existing processes.

Is flooding a zoning issue?
Yes. A large portion of Cambridge is on a floodplain, an area that will flood on a regular basis. If left unchecked, development in this flood area will do three things: 1. it will decrease the total amount of land to absorb rainwater. Floods will become more frequent and cover more area. 2. In the event of a severe flood, some buildings and land re-grading will prevent the floodwater from draining into natural channels. 3. When the next flood occurs, damage will effect more buildings.

Why is this being done by residents?
(1.) State legislation gives registered voters the right to petition for changes in local zoning laws. (2.) It is natural that the people most concerned about detrimental development would be those affected by it. (3.) The city concentrates on very detailed planning studies of small districts - and has completed these studies for about two-thirds of the city in the last 20 years. We're proposing to bring the rest of the city’s zoning into general conformance with this work, without waiting another 10 years for the detailed work to be completed.

Will taxes go up?
Since nothing is being added to (or subtracted from) the total tax levy (the total amount the city raises through taxes), there is no reason for a significant impact on taxes. If this petition downzones your land, it may slightly reduce the land component of your tax bill.

What will happen to property values?
Again, there has been no net change in how much the city needs from taxes. Since this is a citywide approach, relative values may change. Cambridge has also benefited from a long-term increase in property values, and will remain attractive or become even more attractive after the passage of this petition.

How will this benefit the average homeowner?
The Petition emphasizes conservation of neighborhood character and livability by constraining over-dense development and its attendant problems of traffic, parking and pollution. Additionally, the Petition discourages intrusions of out-of-scale construction, paving of entire yards, and backyard infills. These protections will actually protect residential property values in most Cambridge neighborhoods.

How will this benefit the average tenant?
Will this raise rents?
Where an existing building is small, and zoning allows a much bigger building, the property owner is always tempted to replace what exists with something much bigger, more expensive, and more profitable. By scaling back maximum build-out, our Petition tends to discourage these "fast buck teardowns." This petition will therefore work to stabilize rents and neighborhoods.

Will this plan create housing -- both affordable and market-rate?
Under this petition, a developer wishing to maximize the size of his/her development can add a bonus of 25% to the density -- providing that the extra density is used for market-rate and affordable housing and doesn’t have negative impacts on abutters. Additionally, the Petition changes the rules for "linkage fee" payments to the Affordable Housing Trust, such that more types of projects pay greater amounts.

How will this affect new large developments?
This petition will not affect existing businesses. New chain stores, superstores, and other high-density large-scale developments may be affected by this petition in a number of ways: (1.) In many areas, zoning density will be lowered, decreasing the potential size of the building. (2.) In many areas, we have proposed a reduction in heights. In those areas that had no height restrictions, we have proposed a new limit consistent with existing building heights. Construction at the edge of a high-density district will be prevented from towering over smaller buildings in an adjacent low-density district.

Will this affect the city’s ability to compete for desirable development and jobs?
The Cambridge real estate market is dynamic and highly competitive for both residential and business uses; this will not be changed by the Petition in any way. Re-zoning commercial and industrial districts as proposed by our Petition will help preserve affordable space for start-up companies and entrepreneurial ventures -- one of the primary goals of the Community Development Department's proposed Economic Development Policy. By preserving what people like about Cambridge, its long-term competitiveness will be improved.

How will this benefit the average small businessperson?
By scaling back maximum buildout, a low-density commercial building in a high-density zone is more likely to remain standing – the owner won’t be tempted to tear down an existing structure just to add a minor amount of density. Retail and office leases that result from "fast-buck" teardowns are always higher than the ones they replaced. This petition will therefore work to stabilize commercial rents. In some cases, business properties may see the land component of their property tax bill go down if development potential is scaled back.

Will this petition cause the city to become less attractive to businesses and new residents?
Cambridge has been a desirable place to live and to conduct business for many years. Our proximity to Boston, high quality of life, excellent schools, and fine stores makes Cambridge one of the most desirable places to live in the nation. Managing the growth of development will increase its attractiveness; failure to protect the city from overdevelopment would cause it to become less desirable.

How will this Petition affect Cambridge's financial health and budget?
One thing to remember about Cambridge is that we already have an excellent tax base -- and if any city in America can afford these kinds of zoning changes, it's Cambridge. The ratio of tax-paying businesses to residents is already one of the very best in New England. In the short run, it is market demand, not our Petition, which will determine how much new business square footage gets built in Cambridge. In the long run, the City infrastructure (streets, water and sewer, etc) simply cannot support all the construction hypothetically permitted by the excessive zoning we now have. By helping to maintain the functionality and livability of the City and its neighborhoods, our Petition will serve to support Cambridge as a desirable location, and thus maintain the tax base.

Why this petition?
Why citywide -- shouldn’t we just study one neighborhood at a time?
There have been many local downzoning petitions that attempt to solve the problems created by overdevelopment. However these problems are not isolated to just one street or neighborhood. Excess development is a citywide problem requiring a citywide solution. Rather than just relocate development to another neighborhood, this petition manages development on a fair, citywide basis.

Why now?
Community Development Department data shows that Cambridge is heading into another era of expansion after several years with little development. If we don’t act now, we may lose the opportunity to manage our growth during this crucial phase.

Shouldn’t we study this longer before a zoning petition?
While there are those who believe that delay will result in a "better" petition, we believe that delay will only result in more out-of-scale buildings and more detrimental development. Adjustments in our growth policy can be made, but we must have a plan that manages growth if we are to be protected from the pressures of excess development. Our work is based on planning studies that have already been done Cambridge Community Development Department and give a clear direction for action.

Will this petition make me jump through hoops just to repair my porch?
This petition does not affect the laws that govern repairs to existing construction.

Will this petition make me jump through hoops just to build a porch?
(1.) If your proposed porch is currently non-compliant with zoning laws concerning density or setback, there is no difference, it will still be non-compliant, and you’ll have to go through the same steps as before. This petition will make some existing houses or yards non-conforming, (eliminate any "headroom" for expansion). In such cases, getting permission for a porch, porch enclosure or dormer would require a special permit or variance.

How wills this affect parking? Traffic?
Through the early 1990s, rent control and the Clean Air Act "parking freeze" were the two most important mitigations for our local traffic and parking problems. Both these protections are now gone. Now, existing zoning in just Alewife and Kendall Square would permit so much development that gridlock would be the only possible result. We're proposing to scale back development so the traffic is manageable. Although we're not proposing any changes to the parking regulations, scaling back development adjacent to residential neighborhoods will reduce the spillover impacts on street parking.

Will this affect my right to rebuild following a fire?
This petition will actually expand your rights to rebuild after a fire.

Can I get a permit now for something that will be prohibited under the new laws?
Yes. However, once the Petition is advertised in the newspaper, the proposed new rules will be binding on any project which has not yet gotten its special or building permit -- IF the zoning amendments are ordained by the Council. In practice, this brings all pending projects not in compliance with the new rules to a halt, until the Council casts its definitive vote. Projects that are compliant with both existing and proposed zoning rules can proceed unimpeded.

I’ve already begun to build -- how will I be affected?
Projects already begun would not be affected. This includes projects that have already received their variances, special permits or building permits. Some projects, however, when completed, may be deemed "nonconforming." Although this does not affect their immediate use, this can affect future remodeling. Projects that don’t have permits prior to the date of advertisement for the City Council hearings would have to comply with this Petition if ordained by the Council.

Is this another form of re-creating rent control?
No. Rent control was imposed by the City on property owners of existing units. This plan asks for volunteers to build affordable units, and gives some reasonable incentives to them. There is no obligation to build affordable units.

Is this the last time will need to rezone?
Will this solve all our zoning problems?
While future adjustments will always be necessary and appropriate, we believe this Petition deals with the worst defects of Cambridge zoning, and will greatly reduce conflict and controversy over development proposals.