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Up-zoning Give & Take

Up-zoning Give & Take

Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. has purchased seventeen acres of land in East Cambridge.(The areas highlighted in orange and aqua in the picture) They are petitioning the City Council for zoning relief. They are asking for an increase in allowable square feet of floor area for their parcels. Current zoning allows 767,700 square feet. Their petition, if passed, would allow for 1,585,000, an increase of 817,300 square feet.

Alexandria has proposed that in return for this, they would donate a two acre park to the city. The park would be comprised of the entire block bounded by Rogers, Second, Bent, and Third streets.

This looks like a generous offer. It's a big piece of valuable land. In a densely built city like Cambridge, acquisition of open space is always difficult. They will be responsible for preparing the site and building the park. That will run at least a couple of million dollars, and I have heard estimates up to ten million.

We need to look at this transaction. What does Alexandria give up- and what does it gain?

Alexandria’s business model is to build and lease lab and office space. Floor area in their buildings is where they make money. How can they afford to give up two buildable acres? Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). This means they will be allowed to build the square feet of leasable space that would have been allowed on the park parcel on other sites in the development. Alexandria is not losing here. It might even be a savings to them by not having to build a separate foundation, shell, and mechanical system.

Next, consider what Alexandria gains by up-zoning. What is 817,300 square feet of leasable lab space worth to them? It more than doubles the size of their project. A competitor, Jones Lang LaSalle, states in a third quarter 2008 summary of Greater Boston market statistics that lab space in Cambridge goes for an average rate of $53.80 per square foot per year. When you multiply that you get over $40 million per year. $400 million over a decade. A very nice windfall.

The question now becomes “What should Cambridge get in return?” An increase in the commercial tax base and a park are a place to start.

This area was rezoned less than a decade ago to favor housing over commercial use. Since then, we have seen much new housing and commercial development in East Cambridge. What we haven’t seen, is any urban planning. The land Between Charles Street and Broadway/Main Street remains, for the most part, an area that shuts down at night leaving deserted streets that are only attractive to muggers. The noise from mechanical equipment in many spots exceeds EPA guidelines and the Cambridge ordinance.

This area should be much more than that. With some intelligent planning it can be. Working together, the community, the developer, and the city can insure that all three parties come out winners. We believe that these recommendations will ultimately benefit the developer by creating a richer environment for tenants containing shops, parks, and even day care and after school programs for children of tenants and residents.

Below is a summary of what we believe is necessary to make this happen.

1) Mixed Use:
A. Housing: Require approximately 300 units of housing to be distributed throughout the development.
B. Retail: In the initial phases of development, make approximately 25,000 square feet of ground floor retail space available, to be located in areas agreed to be the most attractive and clustered near the intersection of Third and Binney Streets. In subsequent phases of development, an equivalent amount of such space be made available in locations agreed to be desirable. Require a program to insure occupancy and to favor local and regional small businesses.
C. Community Center: Require +/- 50,000 square feet of space be made available for use as a community center.

2) Noise:
A. The owners of the rezoned parcels shall allow no net increase in ambient noise levels, and shall fully comply with all federal, state, and local regulations regarding noise.
B. Require annual checks on compliance and performance.
C. Require a commitment from the City of Cambridge that enforcement will be rigorous and continuous.*
D. As ambient noise is generally recognized to be a public health issue, transfer enforcement responsibility to the Cambridge Public Health Department.*

3) Transportation, Traffic, and Parking:
A. Set maximum parking levels at 25% below currently required minimum.
B. Require a comprehensive Parking and Transportation Demand Management Plan (PTDM plan).
C. Require a comprehensive transportation study of eastern Cambridge considering local and regional conditions and plans. Study will include proactive area wide master planning of pedestrian, bicycle, and future mass transit routes (urban ring etc.)
D. Implementation of street parking and traffic calming measures on Binney Street.

4) Open Space and Density:
A. Require that all park parcels be delivered in acceptable condition to and accepted by the City of Cambridge prior to the issuance of any certificates of occupancy in the development.
B. Require that open space be zoned as such with zero allowable gross floor area (GFA).
C. Set strict limits on height (including rooftop mechanicals) and GFA based on mitigation trade offs and established design guidelines.

* These items will require amendment of the noise ordinance.

Mark Jaquith
Alexandria Development Study Committee of the
East Cambridge Planning Team