Cambridge is facing a severe and escalating crisis of housing affordability, and right now, the city council is considering a proposal from Normandy Real Estate Partners and Twining Properties to build a 19-story residential tower at the corner of Mass Ave and Main Street by Lafayette Square, a key gateway to Central Square.
The Normandy Twining proposal has improved in recent weeks, as the total percentage of affordable housing has increased to 20%, and the original design concept, which would have created a wall between the Area IV/Port neighborhood and Central Square, has been replaced by a "point tower," allowing more sunlight to reach the neighborhood.
But as an architect and urban designer, I know there is more room for improvement. As it stands, 80% of the new housing is proposed to be luxury-rate, out of reach to all but the wealthy. In addition, the proposal features too many parking lots, including parking lots in the residential neighborhood along Bishop Allen Drive. This makes no sense for a building that is close to a major transit hub.
To address these concerns, I introduced an alternative urban design concept at last week's ordinance committee hearing, showing how a public/private partnership — based on principles of the C2 Study — could dramatically increase affordable housing, while also consolidating parking underground and creating a new community green.
This alternative concept will actually produce more housing overall, and thus more affordable housing, and it will also do a much better job of integrating the "Mass + Main" project into the fabric of the existing neighborhood.
It would be nice if we had more time to explore the potential of this concept, but there's a problem: the Normandy Twining development team has suggested that if they don't get their new zoning amendment right away, they might decide to build an office building on their site, leaving us without any new housing at all.
Given the nature of today's housing crisis, that's unacceptable. It is the city council that is responsible for land use policy, and we should exercise that responsibility to maximize our bargaining power for more affordable housing.
That's why I have joined with Councillor Mazen to introduce the following policy order, which limits incentives for office and laboratory development in Central Square, and also makes it clear that the City should promote new housing, along with vibrant retail and related public amenities, as the immediate priority for the district.
In the dialog over Central Square's future, there have been many opinions, but there are three things that everyone seems to agree on:
- Central Square could benefit from more housing;
- It is important to strive for as much affordable housing as possible, and
- It would not be desirable to have a laboratory or an office building on the Normandy site.
This order will help us advance all three objectives.
To be sure, commercial laboratories are very important to our economy, but when placed adjacent to residential uses, labs create noise and light impacts on people's homes, causing distress and health concerns; there's no place for labs in Central Square.
Of course, Central Square is a business district, and it does have capacity for some additional office development. But future commercial growth ought to be controlled in a way that supports our ability to negotiate for housing first.
The City's Community Development Department has maintained that housing requirements are not necessary for Central Square, brushing aside concerns raised at the Planning Board, that "market pressure to build non-residential uses would significantly outcompete housing." (See page 17 of this CDD memo for further discussion). Clearly, the Normandy Twining hearings have suggested otherwise, that office or laboratory development may actually "outcompete" housing in Central Square.
Overall, I support a comprehensive, district-wide approach to establishing a land use policy for Central Square, building on the work of the C2 Study as an early-action item of the Citywide Plan. Such an approach could leverage city-owned parking lots (and city funds) to form public/private partnerships to target 50% affordable housing in new developments. With further coordination and urban design analysis, the Normandy parcels could be the ideal pilot for such an approach.
50% affordable housing is now a target for new developments in New York City, where the de Blasio Administration is vowing "to drive a hard bargain" with developers, striving for projects where 20% of the units are affordable to people of low- and moderate-incomes, 30% of the units are affordable to people with middle-incomes, and 50% of the units are market-rate. The "80/20" model, similar to what is currently being proposed by Normandy Twining, has been deemed an ineffective means of maintaining socioeconomic diversity in New York City.
As part of a comprehensive zoning/implementation strategy for Central Square, we should also consider the use of Planned Unit Developments ("PUDs") to create certain housing requirements, thereby ensuring a healthy balance between future commercial development and badly needed housing. Requirements for housing already exist at North Point and are also being proposed for the Volpe Site in Kendal Square.
The full text of Policy Order #12 is posted below. This will be discussed on Monday, April 13, at 5:30 pm in the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall, starting with public comment. All are welcome to attend Monday's meeting, or email the full council (firstname.lastname@example.org) and CC the City Clerk at (email@example.com) to share your thoughts on this topic.
|Policy Order Resolution|