Council rejects our proposal to consider housing requirement in Central Square

On April 9, I joined with Councillor Nadeem Mazen to introduce a policy order to enhance the City's capacity to negotiate with developers for more housing in Central Square — the order asked the city council to call for hearings to consider a zoning amendment to place some limits on existing special permit incentives for office and laboratory development in the Central Square Overlay District.

The order was inspired, in part, by an April 1 ordinance committee hearing, where a private developer (Normandy Twining) informed the council that if a disjointed zoning subdistrict wasn't immediately approved for their plan to build a (mostly) luxury/market-rate housing tower, then they would build an office building instead.

The issue: should we require at least some housing to be built as part of new developments on large landholdings in Central Square? Or, do we continue with a policy that often forces housing to compete with other, more lucrative uses, such as commercial offices and research laboratories?

Two years ago, when City Staff presented draft Central Square zoning recommendations ("the C2 Study") to the Planning Board, I raised this very issue, noting how labs conflict with the residential character of abutting neighborhoods, and suggesting that we actually require new housing in Central Square developments (see page 85 of this transcript). Members of the Planning Board agreed this was an idea worth exploring.

But late last year, a comprehensive process for planning Central's future was sidelined, and in its place, the council is now racing forward to grant new zoning for just a fraction of the parcels that are controlled by just one of the landowners in Central Square.

Also on April 1, I introduced an alternative concept to target 50% affordable housing on the Normandy/Twining and abutting public sites. This proposal was based on recommendations from the C2 Study — to consolidate parking underground and replace some surface lots with affordable housing and other public amenities — but this civic-minded alternative was "brushed aside," in part because of the developer's threat to build an office building.

Councillor Mazen and I were hopeful that our proposal (similar in spirit to existing use requirements at North Point and proposed for the Volpe site in Kendall Square) would lead to a constructive dialog on the council — but not long after filing the order and sharing this blog post, I came down with the flu, and I ended up missing last week's meeting on doctor's orders to stay home and get well.

While I was out sick, some of my colleagues had a field day — attacking my character, questioning my motives, rejecting the order — and yet, avoiding any substantive discussion of the housing and community-building issues at hand.

It should be noted that any resident, including a city councillor, may collect ten signatures, and for a $150 fee, start the zoning amendment process. If we had wanted to raise the issue in way that was not collegial or collaborative as some have claimed, we could have filed our proposal directly as a zoning amendment, rather than as a policy order subject to council debate.

Frankly, I do not believe there are differences of character on this council — rather, I think the difference is substantive — some people look at the escalating crisis of housing affordability and conclude that things like urban design, public/private coordination, data-driven decision-making, and comprehensive zoning/implementation strategies are all obstacles to the production of desperately needed affordable housing. But from my experience, the exact opposite is true. Urban design isn't just about ensuring that new development is inviting and attractive, it is also the key to unlocking complex opportunities for affordable housing, public open space, and related amenities. The debate over the Normandy Twining proposal is a case in point.

On Monday, April 27, the council is likely to vote on passing the Normandy Twining proposal "to a second reading" — setting it on a course for a final vote on May 18.

The Planning Board will meet to continue discussion of the Normandy proposal the following evening, on Tuesday, April 28.

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