Alewife Urban Design Comments

Recently the Neighborhood & Long Term Planning* Committee met to review the City’s
Envision Plan, including the proposed Alewife Urban Design Plan. My recommendations,
found on pages 2-5, include specific design refinements and additions to more directly
reflect City Council Goals (1-7 and 10 highlighted below) that relate to future planning and
development initiatives.
Any urban design plan and its resulting build-out affect the entire city and region either
positively or negatively. Just as opportunities should be maximized, constraints must be
fully addressed.

1. Increase access to affordable housing for all income groups.
2. Ensure that Cambridge offers economic and educational opportunity [in particular Pre-
Kindergarten programs] to all.
3. Deepen our commitment to sustainable use of energy and strengthen our capacity for
4. Expand and deepen community engagement [with necessary social infrastructure].
5. Develop more proactive, inclusive, and transparent city planning process.
6. Make it easy to move safely through the City, especially by sustainable modes of
7. Increase opportunities for all residents to enjoy the City’s open spaces.
8. Ensure that Cambridge remains an Innovation Hub that integrates businesses of all sizes into
a thriving ecosystem.
9. Improve Council’s capacity to collaborate more effectively, make better decisions, and
increase its accountability to the public.
10. Ensure City’s budget allocates resources responsibly and responsively.
11. Ensure Public Safety efforts reflect current and emerging challenges and opportunities in a
way that incorporates Cambridge’s core values.
12. Eliminate Bias within the City workplace and wider community.

Community Development’s updated plan, a significant improvement over the
previous Envision plan, incorporates many of the concepts highlighted by the Envision
community process and a number of City Council public policies. However, there are
unmet public policy issues and implementation aspects that need to be more fully
addressed including the Quadrangle’s isolation, lack of social infrastructure, housing
and transportation concerns, environmental needs, and as highlighted below.

1. Necessary Connections to Redline Station and Triangle: The Quadrangle’s
development viability and future livability are linked to the quality of its connections to
the surrounding area, which is presently minimal. The plan includes one pedestrian and
bicycle bridge over the railroad tracks. Unless this bridge incorporates a bus shuttle
system, public access will be greatly limited for at least 3-4 months due to winter weather.
Given the Quadrangle’s large size, a second bridge should connect to Smith Place, the
area’s logical main street. Two bridges increase the likelihood of a successful shuttle-bus
system linking the Red Line and Triangle to the Quad and nearby Cambridge Highlands.

2. Future Commuter Rail Station: The area's development will justify a regional
commuter rail station on the existing rail right-of-way. The most likely station location is
adjacent to and between the existing Fresh Pond Parkway Bridge and the city proposed
pedestrian [and shuttle] bridge. The station will provide the MBTA with at least one
significant air rights development. Both opportunities should be included in the plan.

3. Concord Avenue: A coordinated system of Concord Avenue traffic lights at two block
intervals are required for the Quadrangle & Environs to have safe and clear pedestrian and
bicycle access south to the adjacent Fresh Pond Reservation.


4. Use Projections: Cambridge’s past emphasis on commercial development over
residential development inadvertently helped create the current scarcity of housing
resulting in dramatic rent and purchasing cost increases over the last 20 years. Although
the City Council has emphasized a greater priority for new housing, Community
Development earlier presentations indicated a development goal of 60% commercial and
40% residential square footage, which match the 1990’s strategies for Kendall Square and
Cambridge Crossing. The most recent urban design plan appears to propose even greater
commercial (industrial/office uses) density than previously stated. What are the actual
square footage projections of each basic use as shown in the plan: residential, office,
industrial, institutional, public space, and roads and ways?

5. Social Infrastructure/Civic Needs: Local libraries, schools, and playing fields create a
social fabric and sense of identity that foster casual interaction in every Cambridge
neighborhood. The Envision process has also indicated a growing need for a new school
(800 students) and pre-Kindergarten facilities within ten years. However, the urban
design plan incorporates none of these civic necessities. Where will teenagers and
adolescents play safely after school? Where can they and the elderly go in bad weather? An
isolated neighborhood needs its own social resources -- or will fail as a community.

6. Congestion Reality and Its Relationship to Building Use Type: Given Alewife’s
serious traffic concerns and the planned emphasis on office development (which we know
creates 3 to 4 times greater traffic impacts than equivalently sized residential projects),
the city must plan and build with increased urgency and responsibility. This means
significantly increasing the amount of residential development and implementing the
necessary, major transit improvements highlighted above. Otherwise, area residents and
employees will neither easily enter or leave their neighborhood, nor feel part of the
greater Cambridge community.


7. Design Strategy and Detailed Calculation: The proposed plan consists of two
residential scaled open spaces (one appropriately at each side of Smith Place) and a
diagonally oriented linear park, which connects the proposed pedestrian bridge to
Concord Avenue at the Smith Place intersection. While these three public spaces show
well-designed intent, they are not an adequate amount and kinds of open spaces needed
for such a large district cut off from surrounding open space systems and playfields.
Furthermore, it appears that most of the planned commercial properties are not depicted
with adjacent open space as previously recommended by staff.
The greatest number of proposed trees appears to be street trees. What standards are
being considered to enhance street tree viability? Finally, what is the percentage of porous
versus non-porous coverage in the plan? Given the propensity for flooding, a greater
amount of water retention open space and tree cover is required.

8. Diagonal Linear Park: Most, if not all, successful linear parks are bordered at least on
one side by an active public access road, providing an informal means of security. The
Fenway in Boston is a nearby example for such a bordering public road. This could be a
low-speed, one-way road given the overly tight width of the proposed open space.
9. Green or Solar Panel Roof: Given the area’s environmental sensitivity, new buildings
should incorporate a green roof (water retention, insulation and communal needs) or a
solar energy system to offset the building’s negative impacts on carbon generation. A
community solar array would satisfy this requirement.


10. Street Pattern and Block Size: The proposed residential areas have an appropriate
fine-grain street pattern in the spirit of Cambridge. However, the northwest
industrial/office sector has supersized blocks (as large as 350’ x 1000’) that need to be
broken down in scale to integrate better with the residential blocks. Fortunately, the
drawn access right-of-ways through these large blocks can easily become public streets to
make this sector less office park-like and more urban, resulting in virtually the same
amount of development.

11. Retail/Main Street Location: All existing Cambridge retail districts are on main travel
roads with multiple intersecting secondary streets. Previous city presentations highlighted
Wilson Road (approximately 700 feet north of and parallel to Concord Avenue) as the
Quadrangle’s retail street. However, Smith Place with its direct connection/access to
heavily traveled Concord Avenue and the potential second bridge over the railroad tracks
to Cambridgepark Drive on the north, is a significantly more viable retail/neighborhood

services street with a greater number of street connections. Future buildings on Concord
at Smith Place should include retail to help announce this street to passers-by.

12. Alewife Square: This proposed public space located between Fresh Pond Parkway
and Danehy Park appears to be more like an office park green then a city square and
should be redesigned. An urban retail node and square should better reflect that intent.
There are excellent examples of similar, successful developments.

13. Scale of Development Adjacent to Sancta Maria Facility: Although it is appropriate
to have smaller residential development immediately abutting existing Cambridge
Highlands residences, Concord Avenue sites next to Sancta Maria (which itself is a buffer
to the neighborhood) requires a more dense/urban scale of housing similar to other
proposed buildings on the Avenue.


14. Public Works and Fire Departments: Both departments have lacked sufficient
facilities for years. City officials considered purchasing land in the northwest of the
quadrangle for a new Public Works center and Fire Department training center. Given the
large amount of land presently under control by a few key developers, serious efforts
should still be undertaken to incorporate these public needs. A district fire station should
be considered through negotiation prior to and during the Special Permit process.


A great opportunity exists in the Quadrangle & Environs and no one wants to repeat the
past mistakes of the nearby Triangle with its disjointed development, dead-end street
pattern, traffic congestion, insufficient public domain and lack of public activity. The most
current urban design plan is a major step forward, but needs to be more responsive and
enhanced. The above urban design recommendations will hasten the transformation of the
area to best reflect public goals and needs, which build on making Alewife a desirable and
memorable part of Cambridge.
15. Additional Questions: A number of important questions still remain. Who are the key
landowner/developers in the area and what land do they own? What are their stated
interests and plans?
What are the proposed Design Review Standards and Process? If the city does not lead the
effort, how will developers contribute to building all needed civic infrastructure and
Respectfully submitted, Dennis Carlone

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  • Mark Thornton
    A handful of mothers started holding local gatherings to discuss environmental change, and they found that a significant number of the women who went to needed to know how they could have any kind of effect, as indicated!!