The Misinformation Campaign of the Cambridge Residents Alliance

The forecasts from the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA) are dire, suggesting a Cambridge that will become, as Slate's Moneybox columnist Matt Yglesias put it, an "uninhabitable hellscape." Yglesias suggests that a future hellscape, uninhabitable or otherwise, is unlikely in that higher density will bring a higher level of services. But there's a better reason to believe Cambridge's future is brighter than the CRA's outlook. Their forecasts have no basis in fact.

The CRA starts with asserting that Cambridge faces "18,000,000 square feet of proposed development." Development proposals - buildings that developers are actually planning to construct - produce records. Developers file plans with the Planning Board to receive permits, and need zoning relief from the Board of Zoning Appeals or the City Council. There are no records of 18,000,000 square feet of development proposals. What the CRA seems to be talking about is something very different: the amount of construction that might be possible if every landowner proposed and developed land to the maximum allowed by zoning. But if that were a reasonable forecast of development, Central Square would be lined with five or six story buildings. Many factors combine to keep development well under any zoning cap. In Central Square, for example, many landowners seem content with their steady income rather than the risk of borrowing money to develop their property. The development that the CRA warns against exists only in the CRA's imagination, not in any actually proposals.

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From that projection of imagined future development, the CRA has estimated that it would bring "over 50,000 aditional cars" onto the streets of Cambridge. Rather than rely on data about how development has affected automobile traffic in Cambridge, the CRA takes another projection and scales it up to what they imagine will be built. If they had relied on data, they'd be forced to acknowledge that 4,800,000 square feet of development in Kendall Square over the last decade had resulted in traffic decreasing by 14%. For months, the CRA has been touting this 50,000 car projection on their web site, in hand-outs, and in meeting announcements. Apparently, they've recently discovered what was obvious to anyone who tried to follow their arithmetic: their projections was for 50,000 car trips. Once the CRA realized that people don't take one car to work and another car home, rather than admitting to error, they scrubbed their web site of the mistake, preferring to pretend it never happened.

One CRA forecast doesn't require speculation about the future for rebuttal. At the CRA's November 17th "Crush Hour" forum on traffic, the CRA's traffic expert, Steve Kaiser, made other predictions. He said, speaking as a former professional traffic engineer, that Cambridge will never look at the Mass Ave/Prospect Street intersection because traffic engineers never look at actual bottlenecks. He predicted that the City would never do anything about that intersection because it would require admitting to error and acknowledging real problems with traffic. But, at an October 17th Central Square Advisory Committee meeting, fully one month prior to this prediction, the City provided a revised analysis of the Mass Ave/Prospect Street intesrection. Finding that it was a critically congested intersection, the City will now require detailed traffic studies as well as traffic mitigation plans for new development.

The real problem with the CRA's positions, though, isn't the faulty assumptions, fuzzy math or how their errors disappear down the memory hole. Rather, it's the focus on cars, not people. Cambridge and the Boston metropolitan area face a crisis of housing availability and affordability. Young people, seeking to live near their jobs and without cars, are moving to places like Cambridge while older people from the suburbs are moving to urban cores. These demographics suggest that the demand for housing will continue to outstrip supply, driving up prices faster than ever and forcing middle income families to relocate outside of Cambridge. The only conceivable response to this crisis is to build more housing to increase the supply. Rather than worry about the cost to the city of losing its middle class core, the Cambridge Residents Alliance worries about traffic jams. And rather than focus on strategies to create more affordable housing, the CRA instead used fear of an imagined threat to affordable housing as a cynical organizing tactic.

As part of its creation myth, the CRA says that one of the "sparks that lit the fire" was the fear of an "idea" that "would have eviscerated Newtowne Court, the public housing community in the heart of Area 4." A study of land use and zoning that stretches from Kendall Square through Central Square would inevitably include Newtowne Court because it lies between Kendall Square and Central Square. And, like every other parcel of land, Newtowne Court zoning was reviewed, a review that consisted of exactly one slide at one meeting. Out of this single slide, a campaign of fear emerged, one so effective that Newtowne Court residents were said to be calling City officials asking for clarification as to when they would have to move out. Besides terrifying residents that they would lose the homes in which they live, this campaign placed any discussion of Newtowne Court off limits. Thus, there has been little talk of the real structural threats to public housing or the march of development up Main Street, threatening to create a new wall of development around Newtowne Court.

Cambridge deserves a robust discussion of its future, one that grapples with the choices we, as a community, have to make. Growth and development are not automatically good. Advocates of it - including this writer - should be made to demonstrate that the benefits to the community outweigh the costs. But inventing development proposals, exaggerating their impact beyond recognition, and making assertions about the bias of planning officials that are false on their face are not the tactics of a group that wants to engage in robust debate. Instead, they are the tactics of a group that either doesn't understand the issues or doesn't care. Cambridge deserves better.

Disclaimer: The author is a member of the Leadership Committee of A Better Cambridge, an organization dedicated to the preservation and expansion of our diverse community by supporting sustainable growth and appropriate density. The views expressed are his own.

Comments

The Campaign to Distort the Position of the Cambridge Residents Alliance
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The commentary of Saul Tannenbaum is his right to offer. But misinformation of his own making about the Cambridge Residents Alliance will generate new misunderstandings and not contribute to a healthy public dialog.

When Mr. Tannenbaum claims that Alliance forecasts have "no basis in fact," he should understand where those forecasts came from and who may have already accepted them. He seems gravely upset about the 50,000 daily vehicle trip figure for new development in eastern Cambridge.

This number was not a mythological figure invented by the Alliance, nor pulled out of the air on a whim. Had Mr. Tannenbaum made the appropriate prior inquiries, he would have found that I insisted on the number of 50,000 because of past acceptance by government officials. This number is composed primarily of 30,000 daily trips as presented by the City's Community Development Department in its PowerPoint presentation to Mr. Tannenbaum's advisory committee on July 11, 2012. I did not invent this number. It came from a hired consultant paid by the city and the taxpayer.

I have learned that in estimating vehicle trips generated by new development, the best approach is to begin with the developers' (or the city's) own numbers to see what they imply. When there is evidence that the numbers lack credibility and should be recalculated, I can recalculate. But I decided not to challenge the City's numbers because the remainder of the City's analysis was much more severely flawed.

The remaining 20,000 daily trips are composed of 16,000 daily vehicle trips from the large North Point development, 2,500 daily trips from the EF building at North Point, and 2,000 trips to adjust the K2C2 number to represent the more general condition of trips prior to any effort to account for pro-mass transit programs and their effectiveness. The North Point trip numbers are contained in two Environmental Impact Reports prepared by the developers, approved by the State and with input from the City of Cambridge. I did not include transit mitigation claims for the simple reason that the Red Line operations are in a difficult condition today. The MBTA is facing equipment shortages and train delays that could actually reduce Red Line service in the near future. In other words, we cannot presume increased transit capacity based on the current operations and capital plans of the MBTA.

The City, to their credit, has recognized these immediate problems with the Red Line and has made proposals to help stabilize Red Line operations. I support these proposals, as described in my "Final Report to the Cambridge Residents Alliance : The Traffic and Transit Implications of Development of Central and Kendall Squares" (dated November 26, 2012 and posted on the Alliance website at www.cambridgeresidentsalliance.org/).

The bottom line is that four development areas in eastern Cambridge -- two at North Point, plus Kendall and Central -- will generate 50,500 vehicle trips from new development as documented in official publications. I rounded that figure off to "at least 50,000 daily trips" since there could be other developments in East Cambridge and Cambridgeport which could add significantly to the 50,000 number.

If anything, the 50,000 number is understated in terms of its implications for new development , because it does not include all of Cambridge, and most importantly does not include new growth at Alewife -- a perennial traffic congestion point. It does not include North Mass Avenue. It does not include much of East Cambridge outside Kendall Square and North Point -- especially the proposed conversion of the empty 22-story East Cambridge court house into office and retail.

On reflection, I note that nowhere does Mr. Tannenbaum specifically say that the 50,000 figure is too high or too low. I have asserted that it is a minimum figures, based on existing official documentation. If Mr. Tannenbaum's claim is that the 50,000 is too low, I would agree with him. The clear need is for the City to offer a number for total new traffic from all new development in Cambridge. This obligation is a task the City has failed to complete.

The issue of bottlenecks is most significant for Cambridge, because there are limits to the capacity of Cambridge streets. At the November 17 Transportation forum that Mr. Tannenbaum attended, I explained how important bottlenecks are and how city officials are reluctant to consider them. In my report on pages 10-13, I discuss the bottleneck issue and how one city official stated that "if we had to look at traffic bottlenecks we would not be able to allow any new development." I contend that the City is locked into a "build first, infrastructure last" policy that requires obedience by the entire City Hall chain of command. For this reason I welcome Mr. Tannenbaum focusing the spotlight on the bottleneck issue. I hope that he will raise the bottleneck issue with the Planning Board and City Council.

Because the City failed to consider the key bottlenecks in the city that affect traffic circulation in eastern Cambridge, I conclude in my report that the city's traffic assessment is not useful. Its tardy reassessment of Central Square represents a useful correction, but does not enlighten our understanding of the pedestrian and vehicle conflicts or what mitigation is needed. I disagree with Mr. Tannenbaum that the appropriate action coming from the Central Square study is to leave those improvements to a developer to suggest.

I agree with Mr. Tannenbaum that housing is a top priority for the City of Cambridge. Efforts to stress new development without housing should be opposed. A key example would be the office/R&D development proposed by Forest City at 300 Mass Avenue -- it should be housing. Another would be to seek more housing at Kendall Square, especially as part of proposed MIT land uses. The plan by Legatt McCall Properties to turn the former East Cambridge courthouse into office and retail should be modified to include a significant component of housing. Peak hour traffic impacts from housing are significantly less than from office uses.

Stephen H. Kaiser, PhD
Mechanical Engineer
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The following comment was submitted for the Cambridge residents Alliance on December 17.

City’s Own Projections Show Massive Development in Years to Come by Richard Krushnic, 12/17/12

In the December 14, 2012 “The Misinformation Campaign of the Cambridge Residents Alliance” Saul Tannenbaum accuses the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA) of exaggerating both the amount of development that would take place in Cambridge under current zoning plus planned upzoning, and the amount of additional traffic and transit trips generated by that development.

This is what Saul started his article with:

“The CRA starts with asserting that Cambridge faces "18,000,000 square feet of proposed development." Development proposals - buildings that developers are actually planning to construct - produce records. Developers file plans with the Planning Board to receive permits, and need zoning relief from the Board of Zoning Appeals or the City Council. There are no records of 18,000,000 square feet of development proposals. What the CRA seems to be talking about is something very different: the amount of construction that might be possible if every landowner proposed and developed land to the maximum allowed by zoning.”

City studies, the Kendall Square Advisory Committee documents and the Central Square Advisory Committee recommendations add up, according to the City, to an additional 18,000,000 square feet of commercial and residential development in the city that the Community Development Department (CDD) says might be completed by 2030, if proposed and under discussion upzonings are enacted. In my CRA presentations, I never said that all of this would be developed, but rather that this would be the most that could be developed. CDD documents appear to me to be predicting that all of this actually will be developed by 2030 or 2035. The ongoing development in the city, driven primarily by life sciences (including pharmaceuticals), and upscale housing for its relatively affluent workers, tells me that full buildout of all of this is quite likely.

Saul is quite right when he states that only a small fraction of this 18,000,000 square feet is under construction, permitted or with permits pending. The CRA never implied otherwise. The entire conversation is about all of the additional development that will be allowed to be built in the next 20 years or so. I would merely say: If the 18,000,000 square feet is some exaggerated fantasy, then why are the City, MIT and a few other major developers so determined to get the upzoning that would allow the 18,000,000 square feet to become reality?

Richard Krushnic is a community development finance professional, with a masters in City Planning from MIT. Currently Sr. Asset Manager at Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, an Inman Square resident, and active in community economic development in Latin America.

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Last week, the attack dogs were unleashed. Saul Tannenbaum, a member of the Central Square Advisory Committee, lashed out at the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA) for promulgating what he cited as “dire forecasts” and erroneous statistics for Cambridge’s long term traffic and development outlook.

Other voices may choose to address Mr. Tannenbaum’s assertions and aspersions, I prefer to ask a few questions.

The first question being: “Why,” if the CRA’s assertions seem so dire, “didn’t Mr. Tannenbaum, or anyone else on the committee, feel concerned enough to ask members of the Community Development Department (CDD) whether those projections were in fact accurate? Failing that, why didn’t the committee members, tasked with making recommendations that could bring many thousands of people, businesses and cars into Cambridge, feel it incumbent upon themselves to ask the CDD for the projected citywide impacts of their recommendations?

Another question: Why did the CDD neglect to put a citywide lens on this process in the first place? Compiling recommendations that will affect the entire city, they chose to consider major changes in Central Square zoning as though it exists in a silo. And even when the committee came up with a high-impact proposal that could bring 16-story towers into surrounding neighborhoods, nobody felt it necessary to question the possible outcomes from such massive and, to me, heedless zoning changes? Why didn’t anyone ask “How many more cars will this bring into the city? Or into Central Square? Or how many additional commuters onto already crowded buses and trains? Of course, nobody can accurately predict the final numbers, but we can certainly come up with a possible range, as has already been done for recent Kendall Square zoning proposals.

I don’t question Mr. Tannenbaum’s sincerity. I question his refusal to take a good look at himself as a participant in a process that was badly flawed. Anyone watching from the gallery could see where things were headed. There was never an attempt to search out other solutions besides massive upzoning. It was downright embarrassing to watch CDD advisors and specialists feeding misinformation and pro-development pablum to committee members. One transportation expert stated there was still 40% additional capacity available on the T during rush hour. Another quoted that 50% of the residents living within a ¼ mile of the T owned no car, neglecting to mention she included college dorm residents in her study population. Another specialist studied nine intersections that were never listed as bottlenecks rather than the dozen or more that were seen as problem areas in an earlier study.

Makes me think of one CDD official’s comment "if we had to look at traffic bottlenecks we would not be able to allow any new development."

Mr. Tannenbaum also cites the logic-defying 14% traffic reduction in Kendall Square that has accompanied 4.8 million square feet of development there in recent years. He seems to imply that all the additional projected development will bring similar reductions, while never mentioning the fact that the city’s own traffic study projected that there would be an additional 30,000 car trips per day from the Kendall Square buildout in the future. These figures served as the basis for our projected 50,000 additional car trips per day.

Finally, I would echo Mr. Tannenbaum’s comment that Cambridge deserves a robust discussion about its future. I would only add that unless or until the city studies citywide impacts from proposed upzoning, that discussion can’t take place. Nor will attempting to mischaracterize the CRA’s position or integrity take us any further down that path.

_______The lengthy post by Saul Tannenbaum on December 14 contained numerous inaccurate claims about the Cambridge Residents Alliance. But one key point he made is not his fault. It was Cambridge City officials who first claimed that almost 5 million square feet of development has caused traffic in Cambridge to go DOWN. Saul's version criticizing the Alliance is : "If they had relied on data," he said "they'd be forced to acknowledge that 4,800,000 square feet of development in Kendall Square over the last decade had resulted in traffic decreasing by 14%."

_______The City takes credit for the success of parallel efforts to encourage people to take transit, ride bikes, walk, etc. The facts are these : transit ridership has gone up .... and measured traffic flows at numerous locations have gone down over the past ten years. So the City leaves us with the impression that development is good, because it causes traffic to go down. This is Saul's interpretation, and he has been joined by groups such as Livable Streets and Walk Boston who accept the Cambridge claims as true and trustworthy.

_______Cambridge has failed to look at all of the facts and has jumped to false conclusions. Over the past decade, the Big Dig was completed and the Zakim Bridge opened up. Big Dig operation meant that there were eight new traffic lanes crossing the Charles River. Think about the wave of traffic coming down I-93 and trying to get into the City of Boston. Those lanes hit the nearest bottlenecks in Boston.  Welcome to the Leverett Circle and Charles Circle bottlenecks. That lower end of Storrow Drive becomes an almost impassable wall.

_______It becomes harder to go from Boston into Cambridge or from Cambridge into Boston. Drivers are not dummies. They avoid these routes. The result of the Big Dig?  TRAFFIC COUNTS GO DOWN.  Cambridge officials say "See?   They're connected. More development, less traffic"  The logic is false, and the City cannot prove anything. 

_______What does that mean? Fewer cars successfully getting through means less traffic on many streets in Cambridge. The intersections are still congested. The queues and delays are still long. But there is less MOVING traffic. Take the logic to its extreme. If the Big Dig created total traffic gridlock and all traffic was stopped, the City could not properly claim "We reduced traffic to zero. Aren't we wonderful."

_______The real factor in the drop in traffic flow is Big Dig congestion, not anything that City officials have done and no magic from developers. Drivers make the logical choice and switch to transit or bikes or walking.

_______Here is the essence of the logical flaw. Suppose we take two events and try to create a causal connection. In November President Obama was re-elected. In December, Rich Rossi was promoted to City Manager. Is it logical for anyone to claim that because Obama was re-elected, Rossi was appointed? Could Obama claim credit? The answer is a simple no.

_______Could it work the other way -- that Rossi was appointed because he caused Obama's re-election? That doesn't make any sense either. It is not right to take two separate events and try to claim there is a causal connection -- without proof. And the City of Cambridge provides no proof. They did not consider the Big Dig results, and instead have suggested this false causal connection that more growth means less traffic. Saul Tannenbaum, Livable Streets and Walk Boston have all fallen into the same trap -- by trusting in their government officials. In this case the Community Development Department got it wrong, and many people have trusted them. Undue trust is not a crime. It is merely a very common human error.

_______Meanwhile, the City is telling us that development from the upzoning at Kendall Square will result in more than 30,000 new vehicle trips a day. This calculation completely refutes their own logic that new development makes the traffic go down.

_______If the Community Development logic were valid, we should be able to look at other areas of the City and see new development causing traffic to be less. Is it true at Alewife? Absolutely not. Traffic conditions morning and night are still very congested, with no relief in sight. This congestion continues even with the continued operation of the nearby Alewife Red Line station to the MBTA.

Stephen Kaiser
Mechanical Engineer