The Cambridge Candle


Vol. 1, No. 1

November/December 1998


City Council Votes Major Downsizing of Massachusetts Avenue

By Marilyn Wellons

At the mid-summer meeting on July 27, 1998, the Cambridge City Council voted to downzone mid-Mass. Ave. as proposed in the Anderson Petition. For fans of the towers and massive new construction built under the previous zoning, like 1008 Mass Ave., now rising opposite the CVS block at Dana Street, this means only one lot on this stretch of the Avenue (the Greek Institute at 1038 Mass. Ave.) remains for similar development.

The vote, 8-1 in favor of most of the provisions, indicated that the Council will act, beyond the Planning Board’s recommendations, to protect areas threatened by the city’s rampant development. The zoning changes voted by the Council for mid-Mass. Ave. effectively reduce outdated incentives to tear down the older housing stock, and they reaffirm the importance of neighborhood businesses. In Cambridge’s booming real estate market, this is a signal achievement.

New construction from Ellery Street to City Hall on the north and from Bay Square to Sellers Street on the south will now be smaller and less dense than previously permitted. Except for the CVS block, where retail and office space may be expanded, existing retail and office uses in the area are held to their current level. All new construction beyond the CVS block will be housing only. Parts of Riverside and Mid-Cambridge near Mass. Ave., which were previously included in Mass. Ave. zoning, were reintegrated into the zoning for those primarily-residential neighborhoods.

By reducing height and density, roughly to those of the Inn at Harvard, the Council changed the zoning to be in line with the current stock of low and moderate income housing there. It thus voted to reduce the incentive offered since 1980 to create smaller, more expensive units in larger, new buildings.

By restricting “new use” to housing only, the Council affirmed the existing restriction on new retail development and also extended the restriction to new office uses. It thus voted to protect neighborhood businesses that would otherwise vanish to make room for more upscale establishments.

Leo Anderson of Hancock Street, and other residents of Riverside and Mid-Cambridge, filed the zoning petition in March 1998, and worked to gain support from others in the city affected by the changes proposed. Zoning is a system of categories; these categories occur citywide. Dealing with the problems of zoning along mid-Mass. Ave. meant confronting problems that occur citywide.

Supporters of the petition spoke at meetings of Save Central Square, the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, the Peabody Neighborhood Council, the East Cambridge Planning Team, and Clergy and Laity for Affordable Housing. They were not permitted to speak at the Campaign for 2000 Homes, despite the need to protect tenants by modifying inclusionary zoning in the districts along and about Mass. Ave.

These meetings, and the votes by the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association and North Cambridge Stabilization Committee in favor of the petition in all its aspects, were crucial for the petition’s success. Although the Planning Board agreed that new construction along mid-Mass. Ave. should be housing only, it recommended the Council reject what it called the citywide proposals. When other affected areas did not opposeand, in fact, supportedthe petition, members of the Council were reassured. Except for the modifications to inclusionary zoning discussed below, all so-called citywide aspects of the petition passed.

If the Council had accepted the Planning Board’s definition of problems along Mass. Ave., the vote would have been a victory of form over substance, allowing continued, if less massive, development there to dominate the abutting neighborhoods. As it was, the Council voted to require more, and greener, setbacks for new buildings, and a buffer between them and the neighborhoods, as required in part of the area since 1983. It also voted to prohibit commercial parking garages in residential districts, a critical protection in the vicinity of a rumored 250-300 car garage at Dana and Centre Streets. These changes removed Special Permit powers from the Planning Board and Board of Zoning Appeal.

The one change the Council rejected would have modified inclusionary zoning. The city’s inclusionary zoning increases the number of units in new construction in projects over ten units by 30%. Its requirements for greater density thus make older buildings relatively less profitable and therefore prime candidates for demolition and gut-rehab. To protect tenants in these older buildings, on and about mid-Mass. Ave., the Anderson petition proposed a 30% decrease in density to cancel out the 30% increase allowed by inclusionary zoning, while retaining the requirement for affordable units in new construction. Inclusionary zoning, as it stands, keeps its so-called voluntary provision that allows for the gut-rehab and expansion of buildings smaller than 10 units, which endangers tenants in these buildings. It also encourages building in backyards. For these reasons, the petition proposed to delete this voluntary provision. Lack of tenant support for the petition, though, cost them a good chance at these protections.

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