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.
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.