The Cambridge Candle


Issue 2

January/February 1999


Planning Board's Proposals on Backyard Zoning Flawed

By Marilyn Wellons

Few in Cambridge can doubt the widespread support for protecting the city’s fast-diminishing open space. Whether such support translates into effective political action that actually preserves precious backyards and creates the public open spaces that mark a truly great city remains to be seen. Judging from the Planning Board’s proposal on “Backyard Construction and Open Space Protection,” the prospects are not encouraging.

This proposal responds to the City Council’s request for reasonable limits on backyard construction and parking. In lower-density residential zones citywide (Res.B, Res. C, Res. C-1), it states, “shared neighborhood amenities of air and green space” are at risk. Anyone who has awakened to the sounds of chain saws and paving equipment in a neighbor’s yard or who has listened to the Board of Zoning Appeal grant variances for yet more construction on small lots knows how great that risk is. Even a cursory walk or drive reveals it.

Unfortunately, while the proposal’s goals are clear enough, the implementing language offered by the Board not only fails to achieve them, it actually subverts the cause of open space in backyards and everywhere in the city.

Beginning with proposed deletions or redefinitions of key terms like Open Space and Green Area (so that the former must be space not open to the public and the latter need not be green), and proceeding through a series of apparent drafting errors and a “technical correction” that reverse the Council’s overwhelmingly favorable votes in four downzonings since 1983, the document delivers a small increase in yard requirements for lots over 5,000 square feet -- only a quarter of all lots in the enumerated zones. It then establishes new ways to destroy yards in those and every zone in the city: first, by removing size limits on accessory building already allowed in setbacks, and second, by permitting parking garages, now forbidden, to be built in them.

Coming when larger questions of open space -- at Fresh Pond, at ComEnergy, at W.R. Grace, at the Knafel Center -- are pending, the topsy-turvy world of “Backyard Construction and Open Space Protection” makes sense. Citywide redefinitions to include, for example, streets in “Open Space,” or entirely paved areas in “Green Open Space,” are a boon not only to developers of backyards but to those with much larger plans. Thus too the pattern of apparent drafting errors suggests the attempt to remove landscaped buffer zones all along mid-Massachusetts Avenue, River Street, Cambridge Street, Harvard Street, and Western Avenue, where they establish a transition between intense development and the smaller neighborhoods.

This is not to underestimate the threat to backyards presented by the proposal. Roughly 80% of lots in Res. C-1 are too small for the minimal protection offered while subject to the additional construction permitted. The “technical correction” proposed for the Res. B zone would restore full development potential to 112 prime lots in north and west Cambridge that were, at Councillor Galluccio’s initiative, downzoned by a unanimous vote of the Council in 1995. Removing size limits on accessory buildings would unleash backyard construction. Note, however, it would also allow Harvard to designate any building, of any size, accessory to any other building, and thus avoid yard requirements in plans for the Knafel Center.

How could the Council’s desire to protect backyards have conjured up this proposal -- an example, according to one Councillor, of “Newspeak”? Did inexperienced members of the Citizens Growth Management Advisory Committee (CGMAC), appointed by the City Manager to assist the Development Department, somehow lead the effort astray? Were there no proofreaders? In fact, one member of the CGMAC has stated publicly that the Committee was prevented from commenting on the substance of the proposal, and never saw the document before its submission. The Development Department’s professional staff, aided by professional consultants, are responsible for the proposal as it stands.

Whether a second try will improve matters remains to be seen. Citizen members of the CGMAC supported the proposal at the Council’s Ordinance Committee because they, like so many others in the city, agree with the stated goals. If these Cantabrigians remain heedless of the means proposed to accomplish those goals or content to accept professional guidance, prospects for the genuine protection of open space in Cambridge are not bright.

Neither, for that matter, are the prospects for the two other proposed revisions of the Zoning Ordinance in which the CGMAC has a role: transition zones that buffer neighborhoods from intense development, and Floor/Area Ratios (FARs) that govern the size of buildings. In an election year when the very essence of the city seems to be at stake, Councillors must be seen to be doing something, anything for open space, for neighborhoods, for the quality of life. Will they be stampeded into accepting whatever comes down the pike, provided it has the right label?  

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