10 Essex Street: A Cambridge Policy Failure

10 Essex Street: A Cambridge Policy Failure

A perfectly fine in-fill project, climate change and Cambridge's housing shortage demands more than current zoning allows.

  • Posted on: 1 December 2013
  • By: stannenb

On Monday, the Central Square Advisory Committee will meet at 5:30 PM to discuss a special permit application to build a six story building to replace a parking lot at 10 Essex Street in Central Square. The next night, the City's Planning Board will address the same project. Below is this author's letter to the Advisory Committee and the Planning Board.

To: The Central Square Advisory Committee

The Planning Board, City of Cambridge

I write to express my disappointment in the proposal by 3MJ Associates LLC for a building at 10 Essex Street. Or, more precisely, I express my disappointment in the failure of our elected representatives and City staff to respond more quickly to the crises Cambridge faces, a failure that leaves the property owner little choice but to build far more modestly than the situation requires.

Cambridge faces two simultaneous crises. First, an acute housing shortage is driving up prices, making Cambridge even less affordable, and putting our diverse community at risk. Second, man-made climate change is putting our entire planet at risk.

The necessary policy responses to these crises share a common element. To mitigate the housing shortage, Cambridge needs to build as much housing as feasible, making sure projects include affordable and middle income housing. In response to climate change, Cambridge needs to build dense neighborhoods around mass transit, creating a community that, by design, has as small a carbon footprint as possible. As the debate over net-zero has shown, Cambridge is more than ready to go to great lengths to decrease its emissions of greenhouse gases.

10 Essex Street would be a perfect place to start. Built on a parking lot, development here will displace no one. Steps from mass transit, it is a perfect place to start building to the density that the climate crisis requires. But rather than a visionary development, we get 46 units of housing, only 7 of which will be affordable.

We have repeatedly heard anti-development activists speak of a development process tilted towards developers. Indeed, we have heard it so often that, despite plain evidence to the contrary, we take it as a given. Land use regulation in Cambridge is far from developer friendly. Any 20 residents can file a zoning petition to derail a project. Cambridge was recently downzoned. The process for zoning variances and special permits is long and arduous. Cambridge, for the most part, is not seeing any development, with building largely limited to its edges.

What is true about the development process is that its difficulty and uncertainty imposes costs and risks that can only be absorbed by the largest of developers. That is why we see proposals from Twining, from Forest City, from Boston Properties. Morris Naggar, who has organic roots in Central Square, does not have the resources to shepherd a visionary project through Cambridge's byzantine approval processes, nor to defend it against the incessant attacks of those who feel that progress is a burden that should be left for other people to bear.

What Mr. Naggar proposes for 10 Essex Street is a perfectly fine in-fill project, one that will improve Central Square. But, as our net-zero activist friends have reminded us, the time for business as usual is over. We should be evaluating this project not against the bleak streetscape it will replace, but against an appropriate response to climate change and Cambridge's housing shortage. By that measure, this project is badly wanting.

This is not Mr. Naggar's fault. He is responding rationally to the economic incentives and disincentives created by Cambridge's land use policies. It is those policies that are out of date, that are failing to respond quickly enough to the changes happening in our world and our community. A decade from now, people will be looking at that small building on Essex Street and wondering how, for this project, we failed in our responsibility to the future.

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Comments

The idea of the "Cambridge Policy Failure" as stated above is that it would be a mistake to "build small" at 10 Essex Street. Where does this perception take us? For the Advisory Committee and the Planning Board, the only consistent advice is that neither one of them should advise or act to approve the Naggar special permit. The message to a developer applying to build within the allowances of existing zoning is "We are development advocates and we say no to your request, because instead we all should wait for future upzoning."

Is this any way to treat a developer? Is this any way to treat a neighborhood?

We must also seek clarification of the headline for this article.

What is the Cambridge policy failure being complained about?

The Planning Board last May was considering a draft zoning proposal to increase Central Square building heights to 140 feet. In early June the Twining Properties company submitted a letter to the Board proposing a maximum allowed height of 285 feet -- more than double what was in the draft upzoning. There seems to be no consensus among development advocates as to what the allow heights should be. Is that the policy failure?

Is it the failure of the Planning Board to take action on rezoning?

Is it the failure of the City to hold public hearings and consider alternatives for Central Square?

Is it the failure of the City to complete the traffic study that consultant McMahon & Associates were paid to complete?

Is the policy failure the fact that the City established two committees with the same name ; Central Square Advisory Committee. One is established by zoning and appears legal. The other seems at best informal and directly in conflict with the name and function of the first advisory committee.

Is the policy failure that there no approved plan for Central Square, with public hearings and comment?

The number of policy failures seems to be almost infinite. Why punish one developer because he seeks to build within existing zoning?

S. Kaiser

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To be clear, the policy failure I speak of is the failure to respond to both the housing crisis and the climate change crisis with a plan to aggressively add density (and thus housing) around transit hubs. I think that's quite clear from the article.

And where do I speak of punishing a developer for building within existing zoning?

As for the rest, sounds to me like you've got some reporting to do, Steve.

To be clear, the policy failure I speak of is the failure to respond to both the housing crisis and the climate change crisis with a plan to aggressively add density (and thus housing) around transit hubs. I think that's quite clear from the article.

And where do I speak of punishing a developer for building within existing zoning?

As for the rest, sounds to me like you've got some reporting to do, Steve.

The very first question I asked in trying to get clarification was this : what action should the City take on the request for a special permit? That action is the bottom line for the developer, If he gets the special permit, he can build. if he does not get it, he cannot build.

What is the action recommendation in the original posting?

The project is identified with a headline about the Cambridge Policy Failure, a claim that "this project is badly wanting." and "we failed in our responsibility to the future."

Approve the special permit or do not -- that is the bottom line. I cannot get a straight answer.

My own position is mixed at the moment. The plusses are that the project stays within existing zoning limits and is not grossly out of scale with the surrounding community. It is housing and not office. The new building may be made from wood frame construction, which should be good for reduced energy in construction and higher carbon storage within the structure itself. Also the proposal is not dependent on any so-called "plan" prepared as part of the K2C2 process and does not depend on resolution of the conflict among developers over whether the height limit should be 140 feet or 285 feet. in any proposal for new zoning at Central Square.

The minuses include some of the architectural details that other citizen comments have identified. The project suffers from the City's incomplete traffic and parking study of the Central Square area. The permit application gives no coherent statement of what happens to the existing parking, and how will cars be prevented from spilling over and parking in Area IV residential neighborhoods. There does not seem to have been any outrreach by the developer into the surrounding community to talk about the project and its traffic and parking impacts.

Finally the Red Line between Central and Kendall is the peak load point on the Red Line. Peak load means maximum crowding and congestion. No one has proposed solutions to that problem. My Nov. 2012 traffic and transit report suggested that MBTA, city officials and businesses all work together to improve operations of the Red Line, where headways vary from 2 to 12 minutes during common peak hours. There is nothing in the 10 Essex application or anything else I have heard from City officials that progress has been made in enhancing Red Line capacity.

My understanding is that the incomplete traffic study (done by the City but not released) looked only at traffic and not parking. Moreover, most of the intersections considered in the K2C2 study did not consider pedestrians in the capacity calculations. There are so many problems with the planning process and proposed zoning at Central Square that we are really challenged when a developer comes in and wishes to build under existing zoning. I am uncomfortable being in a position to support or oppose special permit decisions towards one developer when the quality of the planning and other policy failings are not the fault of this one developer. These are the primary policy failures that are important in the instance of 10 Essex Street, not anything related to climate change. .

S. Kaiser

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SK

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Steve,

It strikes me as highly illogical to even thing about opposing a project built under current zoning because future zoning, zoning that isn't close to being approved, might not meet with your approval.

But, more to the point, given Cambridge's housing crisis and the world's climate change crisis, you respond: but what about traffic and parking? Noted.

And, as one NeighborMedia journalist to another, if there's an unreleased study, traffic or otherwise, make a public records request for it. That's accountability journalism, of which we have far too little.

There has long been talk of the need for more housing,affordable and otherwise, in Cambridge and it might well be that more neighbors in Central Square would be a good thing for us all, however, new residents and workers will want at least as much parking and public transit as is now available to a smaller population and older ones will not want less. How will the developers provide those and more adequate services to our new neighbors, as well as ourselves, while the T is cutting bus stops, not adding buses or trains, parking is being eliminated and streets not widened?
It seems to me that more discussion of all the relevant issues is needed--as well as some further clarity of aims and means.

There's no evidence that new residents will want as much parking as is now available, and considerable evidence that they'll want less parking, especially this close to mass transit. And, underground parking is expensive, adding to the cost of development and passed on in the form of increased rents. Building as little of it as possible is important for keeping Cambridge affordable.

Newer Cambridge residents seem more likely to want a car-free lifestyle. That would be a major reason to move into a building like this, steps from mass transit. If it's marketed to people who don't have cars, there's no reason to believe that we'll need to add any more parking. Many urban planners would advocate, in fact, that a building like this have no parking at.

One thing about cars that's proven true again and again is that if you build capacity for them, they will come. Widening roads (or adding parking) doesn't actually relieve congestion. More cars arrive and congestion just happens again.

The T is cutting bus stops so that it can serve more passengers more efficiently. The fewer stops a bus has to make, the quicker it gets you from one place to another and the quicker it turns around for the next trip. As a member of the City's Public Transportation Advisory Committee, I've chosen to put my time into making services better because they need to be. But there's really no reason to hold up additions to our city's housing stock while that process happens. The larger the constituency is that wants better mass transit, the faster that will happen.

Cutting stops reduces public transit service. Express services can be added for those in need of speed from large user locations.
As I understand it, the property you are promoting will subtract parking from its current users and the from City, not leave it the same. It will also fill a rare open space in the city, sometimes used by non-parking public and make it totally private and unavailable, while housing a relative few.
Less parking and fewer stops may well increase the business of taxis, for those who can find or afford it--but will not reduce the need for adequate streets and available parking.
Medium sized vans making many stops, as used in many cities around the world, would considerably increase service and reduce the need for cars, taxis and parking and reduce the need for some of the large expensive buses.

One of the problems in Cambridge decision making is that a real outcome is compared to something unrealistic and found wanting.

For example, whether or not you want open space on 10 Essex Street, it's not going to stay open space. The land owner's plan is to build as-to-right, which is to say, he's building what current zoning allows. He doesn't need variances to do this and stopping him, while theoretically possible, isn't going to happen. So, forget open space on this lot.

The one piece of infliuence Cambridge does have is how much parking he has to build. Here's your choice. You can force him to build as much parking as current zoning requires, increasing the cost of the building and thus the rents he'll have to charge, or you can grant the reduction to one space per every two residences, lowering the cost of the building. Urban planning experts, as well as current Cambridge experience, suggests that reduced parking fits with current Cambridge trends and will discourage the use of cars, fitting in with Cambridge's climate change policies. It's certainly a valid choice to address neighborhood parking concerns at the cost of increased residential and commercial rents and a larger carbon footprint, it's just not my choice.

And, you can call a plan that gets the overwhelming majority of bus riders to their destinations more quickly - including people going to and from 10 Essex Street - a "reduction in service", but then I guess I can call the Number 1 bus a failure because I have to walk six blocks to the stop.

Lastly, I'm not "promoting" anything. I'm expressing my opinion as a multi-decade resident of the Central Square area and commenting on what I believe to be a Cambridge policy failure.

Great discussion…I live on Essex and am very excited to see this underused and sometimes abused (a lot of loitering amongst other unpalatable incidents) eyesore turned into a space used for living and playing. I appreciate Saul’s position and believe Cambridge should go in a greener (fewer cars, more public transportation, and higher density) direction. But, I cannot emphasize this enough; the City must build the infrastructure and implement the policies required to support it, NOW! The City is already behind the 8 ball. If the plans, as suggested by the Central Square Advisory Committee, had already been finalized and implemented, or at least started, then Mr. Naggar could quite conceivably have come to the table with a more ambitious plan and less opposition. When I can’t trust the City government to keep the trash barrels and sidewalks maintained and cleaned in Central, how am I to trust them to make and, keyword: execute, the big plans and aggressive policies needed to keep Central a livable and sustainable neighborhood in the future? The last meeting I attended concerning this issue was almost laughable; it, in essence, was a de facto meeting of whether we should have another meeting to decide on whether or not, to have another meeting to decide if a timeline should be imposed on starting the work on the Advisory Committee’s recommendations… Really?

Problem:

At the risk of sounding like a NIMBY, current Essex St. residents are in a unique and problematic position. Including 10 Essex, our street is bordered by 4 surface parking lots and another huge surface lot 200 feet down from Essex and Bishop Allen on Prospect. I will bet my bottom dollar, all of these lots will see development within the next several years, bringing hundreds, if not thousands of new residents to my backyard, literally (my house borders one of these parking lots). Essex St. residents are not only thinking about 10 Essex, but future development on our street, as well. My top concern: PARKING. We are already squeezed to capacity for street parking, mostly due to other Cambridge residents using our street as a free parking lot when coming to Central or using the Red Line. Add to that, Hmart (at Mass. Ave. and Essex) will be opening in the coming weeks. It is a large and very successful Korean supermarket chain, there has been no plan to mitigate the traffic and parking issues this store will create in our immediate neighborhood. When is the last time you schlepped 8 bags of groceries on the bus?

Solution:

If Cambridge wants to play like the “big boys” in Boston, then they must enact similar policies to accommodate an increase in population density.
1. Like Boston, issue neighborhood specific parking permits. If other Cambridge residents want to drive to the Red Line, they can park and pay at the oft touted underused Green St. garage, or take the bus. I’ll do the same when I come to your neighborhood.
2. Make developers put “more” of their money where their mouth is… 10 Essex wants a special permit to decrease the required minimum parking from 1 space/unit to 1 space/2units (from 46 to 23) because they believe they will market to people who don’t have cars. OK, then residents living at 10 Essex should only be issued 23 parking permits.
3. There are 19 metered street parking spots at the intersections of Essex and Bishop Allen. If residential buildings are going to be built here, then resident only parking needs to be created. This will push more non-residents who use the metered parking, to the Green St. garage. I’m sorry, but the people who live here and pay rent and property taxes take precedence over the people who just visit.
4. Validated parking. Why wasn’t HMart required to offer validated parking, similar to the Star Market at Sydney St.? Is anyone talking to the CSBA (Central Square Business Assoc.) about area businesses pooling their resources to offer validated parking? My guess is a resounding “NO”.

As a side note: The building design is not optimal, I could do without the white and blue metal panels, opting for a more organic feel, like Loft 23 on Sydney.

Great points, Lori! I really appreciate that you are making some concrete suggestions to bridge the conflicting opinions on these issues. That's the way to get somewhere.

I'd like to chime in on a few:
I, too, feel very queasy about the parking issue - kind of caught in the middle having come from the two-car family model - I see where the trend is going, away from driving, but will it come fast enough to avoid the pain that residents will feel? I really like your suggested solutions - they are very sound and I hope someone listens.

Regarding the Central Square Business Association: the association is constantly seeking new parking opportunities for member businesses - not for their customers, but for the people who come to work in Central Square. There is not enough for the demand, BUT, I think the question about seeing whether the bigger property owners can offer short term, validated parking for a certain number of cars is worth asking. Another thing that was explored by the Central Square Advisory Committee was sharing of spaces - customers during the day, residents at night.

Please keep this constructive conversation going.