The Cambridge City Council this Monday declined to suspend its rules to allow immediate consideration of a resident-authored petition to downzone land in the vicinity of Central Square. The goal of this petition, public commenters said, was to preserve their neighborhood against what they called a "juggernaut" of "unbridled" development that they said was being rushed through the approval process. Dubbed the "Area 4 Neighborhood Preservation Petition - A Proposal for Sustainable Development in Central Square", this petition proposes to downzone portions of Central Square, Area 4 and Cambridgeport and enshrines municipal parking lots with the permanence of zoning by creating a "Municipal Parking District".
In comments repeated by a number of speakers at Monday's meeting, they seek to build a Cambridge that is affordable for the next generation. But as former Cambridge resident and Slate Business and Economics Correspondent Matthew Yglesias writes in his book The Rent is Too Damned High:
"[...]architects know how to design multifloor buildings and engineers can build elevators. Public policy that restricts their ability to do so - not construction costs, or the limited supply of land - is the main cause of high rents in America."
Robert Winters, who serves on the advisory committee that oversees the Central Square Overlay District and opposes the "build big" style of development calls this "most lame zoning petition [he'd] ever seen". Worse than just "lame," this proposal is an example of the public policy Yglesias decries.
While downzoning might preserve the physical form of some of the neighborhood, it fails to bridle the forces that the petition acknowledges are transforming Cambridge. Since the repeal of rent control in 1994, real estate, both rentals and purchases, have been governed by the laws of supply and demand, and Cambridge is much in demand. People want to live in cities and near transit hubs. They want to work in the jobs Cambridge offers and have easy commutes. Firms want offices in Cambridge because of the network of connections throughout Kendall Square and MIT. Unless one does something to make Cambridge less attractive, this trend will continue, placing increased demand on the supply of housing.
In the face of increased demand, prices increase. The only way to change this trend - short of returning to rent control - is to build more housing. This petition, by downzoning Central Square, limits the amount of housing that can be built, thus ensuring the continued increase of the cost of housing in Cambridge and strengthening the trends that are making Cambridge a city of wealthy roommates, not middle class families.
The incentives for developers, absent other constraints, are to build projects that maximize their return on investment. Thus, any housing they build will be "market rate" seeking the highest purchase price or rental they can receive. To limit this, cities use "inclusionary zoning", requiring developers to include housing whose price is below what they could otherwise receive. But inclusionary zoning doesn't change the laws of economics. Developers will only build projects for which they can receive financing and banks will only finance projects that can look forward to an adequate rate of return. To the extent that inclusionary zoning reduces the return from a project, that reduction must be offset by other revenue generation within the project, often done by increasing the height of a project, allowing a developer to build more. Downzoning makes the inclusion of affordable housing less economically feasible, ensuring that only market rate housing will be built in Central Square.
Cambridge has become accustomed to public amenities as part of development projects. But those amenities - open space accessible to the public - are, in effect, paid for by the increased size of a development project. Downzoning takes these financial resources of the table, leaving developers with few incentives to include improvement of the public realm.
But there is one part of the petition that will, if adopted, undoubtedly achieve its stated goal, the preservation of municipal parking lots in a "Municipal Parking District." Owned by the City, these lots represent significant value and the possible transformation into development represents the City's best leverage to develop Central Square in the way the City desires. While surface parking lots are considered by most urban planners to be an egregious use of space because they do nothing to enliven the streetscape, that isn't the worst part of this proposal. The worst part is that "sustainable development" generally seeks to minimize the use of cars. By constraining the supply of housing near transit hubs this proposal takes its first step away from sustainability. By the creation of a Municipal Parking District, this proposal takes a further step, harkening back to the days when cars were king.
The Cambridge City Council will take up the petition in its normal order of business at its summer meeting on July 30th.
Title courtesy Robert Winters
Zoning Map from the City of Cambridge Community Development Department
Disclaimer: The author, a homeowner in Cambridgeport, is a member of Central Square Advisory Committee and spoke against this proposal at Monday's City Council meeting.