Housing should be the priority for Central Square, not office buildings (and definitely not labs)


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original design concept, which would have created a wall between the Area IV/Port neighborhood and Central Square, has been replaced by a "point tower," allowing more sunlight to reach the neighborhood.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:

  1. Central Square could benefit from more housing;
  2. It is important to strive for as much affordable housing as possible, and
  3. 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 (council@cambridgema.gov) and CC the City Clerk at (dlopez@cambridgema.gov) to share your thoughts on this topic.


Policy Order Resolution  
  April 13, 2015


WHEREAS: The City of Cambridge is facing a severe and escalating crisis of housing affordability; and
WHEREAS: A broad consensus has emerged on the need for new housing in Central Square, particularly housing that is affordable to individuals, seniors, and families of low, moderate, and middle-incomes; and
WHEREAS: Housing plays an essential role in building communities; housing supports retail at least three times more than office uses, and housing also requires significantly less parking than office uses; and
WHEREAS: The City's ability to encourage the production of affordable housing in Central Square is constrained by the fact that the Central Square Overlay District is zoned Business B, which means that market-based proposals for new housing are forced to compete with other, more lucrative forms of commercial development, such as offices and laboratories; and
WHEREAS: At the April 1, 2015 Ordinance Committee hearing on the Normandy Twining zoning amendment, this issue was raised by the developer's local counsel, who stated on the record, that with respect to his clients' site in Central Square, "It's housing, or office."; and
WHEREAS: As the City's policymaking and legislative body, the City Council is responsible for making amendments to the Zoning Ordinance, "to encourage housing for persons of all income levels," and for "the protection of residential neighborhoods from incompatible activities..." (See Section 1.30 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance); and

The City has already created minimum housing requirements for zoning districts where there is a concern that market pressure to build non-residential uses would significantly outcompete housing uses, such as in the PUD-KS district; now therefore be it



That it shall be the policy of the City of Cambridge to promote housing as the use to be most greatly expanded throughout Central Square in the immediate future, along with vibrant retail and related public amenities; and be it further


That the City Council refer to the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board, for hearing and report, the following amendment to the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, Section 20.300, Central Square Overlay District, by inserting the following text:


20.304.2(c) Making Housing Competitive. In an effort to encourage the production of housing for persons of all income levels, and to protect residential neighborhoods from incompatible activities (e.g. laboratories), and notwithstanding any provision of this Ordinance to the contrary, applications for Special Permits in the Central Square Overlay District pursuant to this Section 20.304.2(2) will not be granted for any building where more than half of the new or substantially rehabilitated gross floor area is intended for office or laboratory use, as defined by Section 4.34 of this Ordinance.





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