I will not be able to attend the June 5th City Council Roundtable discussion of the Envision Cambridge/Alewife Planning Process, so I have submitted comments.
June 2, 2017
Dear Colleagues, Mr. Manager, CDD Staff and Team Utile,
I regret being unable to attend the June 5th Roundtable meeting on Envision Cambridge, as I will be out of the country for a family wedding. In fact, on the night of the roundtable I will be in Copenhagen, a side trip I planned specifically to experience firsthand Denmark’s advanced bike network and bike- and pedestrian-friendly culture.
I have attended many of the Envision strategy workshops, several Envision Advisory Group meetings, and most of Alewife Working Group meetings, and this morning I discussed the Roundtable meeting materials with CDD staff. Having advocated prior to joining the Council for making Alewife the early focus of a citywide planning process, I am very glad to see this area receive further attention and study. I commend the efforts that Utile and CDD staff are making to address the thorny and longstanding land use planning challenges of the Alewife area. I continue to have concerns about adding any additional density to the Quad in light of the traffic and connectivity issues and flooding projections, and respectfully submit them for consideration.
When the concept of the mixed-use industrial scenario was first introduced in late January, the projected district FAR was 1.27, twice today’s as-built FAR in the district (0.61). At the April 27 more housing along Concord Ave had been added to create a hybrid light industrial-plus-housing scenario, and the district FAR had increased to 1.56, which is above both the district’s current potential FAR (1.3) and the “optimized” baseline (1.5).
Any up-zoning will increase land values and may displace similar light industrial and start-up uses currently operating in the Quad — uses that many wish to retain. The 3-over-1 buildings modeled as “mixed-use light industrial” are 75% office and the blocks remain large even with the proposed new streets. I have concerns about increasing the volume of truck and commuter traffic along Concord Avenue and sending it through a new residential area along Concord Ave. I feel the Quad plan still needs to identify a “town center” with community uses, street-front activity and open space that would define and anchor the area.
The original impetus for Envision’s early focus on the Alewife area was the urgent need to address and course-correct the shortcomings of the prior Concord Alewife plan, namely that high-density residential growth has far surpassed expectations without making enough progress toward improving the area’s longstanding mobility, place-making, urban design and environmental deficiencies. All the scenarios under consideration in the Quad risk repeating and compounding these challenges evident in the Triangle, since the Quad is a larger and similarly constricted land area that relies on an overburdened roadway (Concord Ave) for egress. Both the Triangle and the Quad feed into the same clogged Rt 16 regional artery, which does not currently have the extra capacity to provide any margin for error; when there is a crash or a detour on any portion of the network, traffic backs up unacceptably at the limited egress points with ripple effects on North and West Cambridge. When the planning and development focus turns to the two shopping centers, the density may further increase. There remains much work to do to improve walking, biking and transit connections for the existing level of development and the known pipeline projects. Could tax revenue from recent development in Alewife (as much as $10M a year) be earmarked to fund infrastructure improvements in advance of new development?
Further, in the time since we embarked on the Envision process the City’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments have brought into sharp relief the Alewife area’s vulnerability to effects of increased rainfall, sustained heat waves and the potential for storm surge from sea level rise. Take a look at this new interactive map of the flood zones. I have concerns about up-zoning this area in the face of the certainty that the Alewife area will become much hotter and wetter within the expected lifespan of the new buildings being erected and within the lifetimes of the younger populations living and working there. Certainly the newer buildings and streets can be constructed to be more resilient than the existing ones, but are we striking the most responsible balance of incentives and requirements?
A word about process: The working group meetings I have attended have not allowed adequate time to elicit meaningful input from and debate among the working group members. Often the members have appeared frustrated with how little time they have to probe and discuss the assumptions, the amount and accuracy of data presented and the conclusions drawn from it. Presentations are not shared in advance, so people do not have the opportunity to study the data and come prepared with questions. And it can be hard to track the changes made to the scenarios between meetings because the presentations don’t include direct comparisons to the prior versions. There is little time left at the end of the meetings to hear comments from residents who have been closely engaged with the process throughout.
In closing I respectfully suggest that we:
Again, I regret I could not participate in the Roundtable discussion, but I look forward to watching the meeting video when I return home and to continuing this discussion at future meetings. Thank you to the CDD staff and the members of Utile’s team for diligently digging into a perennial planning puzzle.
Jan Devereux, City Councillor
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA