A three-building development at 55 Wheeler St. was approved by the Planning Board on 12/19. (See story in the Cambridge Chronicle) Despite concerns about traffic and potential flooding, this 525-unit development was approved on a 5-1 vote. It won the support of housing advocates as the first project to comply with the new 20% affordable requirement, contributing about 100 units to the city’s inclusionary program. “It comes down to affordable housing,” said board chair H. Theodore Cohen. “It overrides any negatives I perceive in the project. Every large project that comes before us, regardless of what neighborhood it is in, we hear the same questions about mobility. We can’t solve regional issues with individual permits, but it is our responsibility to put affordable housing wherever we can.”
As I said in my comments at the hearing, “We are solving one problem, but not solving others.” Unquestionably, we have an affordable housing crisis, but around Alewife especially we also have a mobility crisis as well as a looming environmental crisis. 55 Wheeler is the largest by far of a string of new residential developments around Alewife. This week it was announced that a non-profit developer received state funding to build about the same number of affordable units (98) as 55 Wheeler a little further down Concord Ave in an 100% affordable project. And 300 units (with roughly 60 affordable) will soon be proposed closer to the Alewife T station. Another 186 units have been already permitted in three other buildings located around the Fresh Pond shopping centers: one on Concord Ave at Wheeler St, one on Fawcett St across from the 428-unit Atmark complex, and one under construction on New St. Meanwhile construction is nearing completion on 378 units on Cambridge Park Dr.
The addition of these almost 1500 units will give people more options to live around Alewife, but adding more residents to the area without significant investments to improve mobility is not the smart growth planning it could, or should, be. The argument that the notorious Alewife congestion is a regional problem that no single development can solve, and that more development around Alewife won’t make mobility much worse, has grown stale — it has been repeated at every Planning Board meeting I’ve attended over the past several years and the Envision Alewife planning process appears to be falling back on the same excuse. I hope that in the 2018-19 term more political muscle and public/private/state/local resources can be leveraged toward improving mobility to support new development. Alewife cannot support continued growth without some combination of: a commuter rail stop at Alewife that would also get people across the tracks, better bus service in and out of Alewife including express lanes for buses on Rt 2., a new connection between Terminal Road and Wheeler St and New St, and safe/convenient/pleasant routes for people walking and biking to the shopping centers, Danehy and the T. I invite affordable housing and environmental advocates to join me in demanding “housing + mobility + resilience” to better serve and protect current and future residents of the Alewife area.
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA