Cambridge City Councillor Dennis Carlone introduced a major piece of zoning legislation on Thursday. The proposal would give elected officials an opportunity to provide oversight on large development projects for the duration of the Master Plan process, which is expected to run through 2016.
City Councillor Nadeem Mazen has signed on to the plan, as have individual leaders from a number of local residents' groups. The proposal (Petition #5, The Carlone Petition) is on the agenda for tonight's council meeting, which will be held in the Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room, 459 Broadway Street (where the School Committee usually meets) due to renovations at City Hall.
Article 19.000 of the Zoning Ordinance requires most large development proposals, typically over 50,000 square feet of gross floor area, to obtain a form of zoning relief known as a Project Review Special Permit. In Cambridge, these special permits are granted by the Planning Board, but in many other cities and towns across the commonwealth, special permit granting authority is also vested in city councils, boards of selectman, and other local legislative bodies.
Under the Carlone Petition, the volunteers on the Planning Board would continue to review these large projects in conjunction with the staff at the Community Development Department, who would then forward a report to the City Council, where a 2/3rd vote of approval would be required to grant zoning relief.
The City Council would also have the option of hiring independent experts to analyze Special Permit applications (at the developer's expense, per Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 44, Sec. 53G) and would be able to impose a wide range of conditions — to encourage affordable and middle-income housing, mitigate against traffic impacts and support alternative modes of transit, apply strong Urban Design guidelines, and more.
In addition, the council could take steps to modernize the public hearing process. Project submittals, reports and amendments should be posted on the city’s website at least two weeks in advance of any public hearing, and neighborhood groups should have the opportunity to make coordinated presentations and ask direct questions. Such measures would help level the playing field and bolster public accountability.
To be clear, the proposal does not apply to all special permits — only Section 19.20 Project Review Special Permits would be affected. In the first half of 2014, a total of three projects have come before the Planning Board to request this kind of relief. Two of these projects — the Sullivan Courthouse and 75 New Street — have been staunchly opposed by residents on either side of town — and both would ultimately require 2/3rds City Council approval under the Carlone Petition.
At its core, our municipal government is based on a simple notion — elected officials are supposed to establish policy, and appointed board members review proposals according to that policy.
However, at present, our development policy is in a state of transition. The city is in the early stages of producing a comprehensive Master Plan — and we are also working on other foundational components, such as Nexus Study to provide updated linkage fees for affordable and middle-income housing and a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan.
Meanwhile, work at the Planning Board has often stalled, with scores of residents lining up to oppose controversial projects and board members complaining about their inability to deliberate in the face of mounting pressure.
In this context, the Carlone petition recognizes that certain big decisions — such as the redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse — or the decision to build along the Alewife floodplain — these decisions actually do rise to the level of policy-making concern, and for the duration of the Master Plan process, they merit City Council oversight.
Over the weekend, some 200 Cambridge residents signed an online petition in support of the measure. The Fresh Pond Residents Alliance also published this blog post, calling the Carlone Petition, "a positive step."