Affordable Housing Overlay, Details Matter (Part IV, 7/29/19) (3 Responses)

There are two memos with some suggestions for possible amendments to the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) on the agenda of the City Council’s Special Summer Meeting on Tuesday, 7/30. Given the length of the agenda, I expect — and hope — that we will simply refer both memos to the Ordinance Committee, which is scheduled to meet again on the AHO on Thursday, 8/1 at 5:30pm.

Communication from Mayor McGovern and Councillor Mallon

I’m disappointed that while the stated goal of these changes is to help the AHO be the “right fit” for our community, some of these suggestions could make its impact on neighborhoods and abutters even more significant. I can support incremental change but not radical change, and my sense is that in trying to “level the playing field” for affordable developers the AHO is tilting it too far in the other direction. Also I would add that affordable developers for the most part do not compete for sites with large market-rate developers, as asserted in the rationale for these changes. I’m not aware of any instance where an affordable developer sought to acquire a site in, say, the Alewife Quad or Kendall Sq, where much of the recent “luxury” housing development has occurred, and was outbid by a big for-profit developer like Hanover, EQR or Twining. So the density multiples may not need to be as great if the competition is other local small developers and even some “end user” buyers looking for a place to live, whether it’s a single family house or a multi-family where they would be an owner-occupant.

Reduce Maximum Height in BA and BA-2 Zones: I agree that there need to be transitional zones so that we don’t allow as-of-right AHO buildings that are 80′ tall directly abutting smaller scale residential neighborhoods where existing heights are only two or three stories (35-40′). This amendment would reduce the allowed by-right height to 60′ (six stories) in BA and BA-2 zones only. (In BA-1 and BA-3 zones the maximum height would remain at 50′ for AHO buildings with a non-residential ground floor use.) In practice most affordable developers wouldn’t build over 60′ anyway because they would need to use steel and that is more expensive than stick-built construction. The reduction from 80′ to 60′ in these two transition zones would cover most of Mass Ave north of Harvard Sq (largely a BA-2 zone except around Porter and Harvard Sq) and most of Cambridge St from Inman Sq eastward (a BA zone). There is a small BA zone on Broadway from Norfolk to just beyond Columbia St. The MicroCenter/Trader Joe’s lot on Memorial Dr is a BA zone and it is poised for redevelopment, likely as a mixed use PUD with greater density. It’s confusing because there is a still a requirement that the portion of an AHO building within 35′ of small-scale residential area be stepped down to 60′ but it describes it as five stories, not six. The AHO language has introduced “stories” when the rest of the zoning code only uses “height” as the measure, making it more confusing since residential and commercial floor heights are different. (See 5.2.1.b and 5.2.1.c)

No Basement Units: I agree with this and have suggested it myself. (See new Section 5.2.1.d)

Maximum FAR of 3.0: This addition, which is described as a “limit” on Floor Area Ratio (FAR), is not a limit that would reduce AHO building size in comparison to neighbors bound by the base zoning; in fact it would be an increase over what was originally proposed. And it only applies to AHO projects in residential zones where the maximum height is 40′ (Res A-1, A-2, B, C, C-1, BA-1, BA-3, O-1, IB-2). In the three prototypes that CDD gave us for AHO developments in such areas the FARs were only 1.5 and 2.0. It’s not clear how you would even get such sites up to 3.0 FAR within the other dimensional requirements so this “limit” seems irrelevant. Introducing an allowance for up to 3.0 FAR into a form-based zoning overlay that originally used 2.0 FAR as the maximum and later eliminated all FAR requirements could incentivize the aggregation of lots and the construction of larger buildings, which would have an even greater impact on residential neighborhoods. (See new Section 5.2.2)

Don’t Allow Reduction of Open Space for Parking: This change would not allow parking to reduce the required open space from 30% to 15%, which in general is a good thing. (It strikes Section 5.2.a.i). Their rationale is a recent Boston Globe article that stated that 30% of parking in Boston developments is unused. That may well be true in the large new transit-oriented developments that are popular with millennials who aspire to car-lite lifestyles, but it’s not clear the same low usage would apply to tenants of affordable housing located in less transit-oriented locations in some Cambridge neighborhoods. I’m not sure how many AHO projects this change actually would affect since the parking requirement is already waived in many instances. (See Section 6.1) And the next proposed changes could take away from ground-level open space anyway.

Allow Common Areas on Roof Decks and Balconies to Count as Open Space: I disagree with this change because it would allow an AHO building to cover more of its lot in exchange for giving AHO residents a shared space on a roof deck or balcony. It’s hard to plant and preserve a tree canopy when there is less open (green and permeable) space at ground level. Open space at ground level also allows more separation from abutters. (See new Section 5.2.4.d.ii).

Eliminate the Requirement for Preserving Existing Ground Floor Retail: The rationale for this change is that traditional retail is dying — so they suggest a change that could hasten its demise! Instead it’s suggested that existing neighborhood-serving ground floor retail space may be replaced with services or spaces targeted for AHO residents like workforce development or job connectors. And the AHO building would still get an additional floor by-right for offering an “active” non-residential use at street level regardless of whether any of the other residents of the neighborhood found the new tenant-serving use very useful.

Five-Year Review: This suggestion for a review — only every five years — of the “effectiveness” of the AHO is too vague. What are the criteria for determining if it has been “effective” and is the review presented to both the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board at public hearings so that the public may comment? I think an annual progress report to the Council and Planning Board is warranted, given the significant public funding for AHO projects and the totally untested nature of the zoning. Why wouldn’t we want to monitor what some members of the Planning Board described as an “experiment” more closely?

Communication from Councillor Carlone

Councillor Carlone has gone through the draft text of the AHO zoning and added some comments/questions and some suggested amendments. As an architect, he has focused most closely on articulating strong design objectives and requirements, since CDD still has not delivered on its long-promised detailed design guidelines (7/30 UPDATE: CDD sent a set of draft design guidelines to the Council on 7/29 at 7pm after I wrote this.)  In general I defer to his judgment about how to ensure that the massing and architectural design standards will lessen the impact of greater density and height and will result in buildings that fit into their context more harmoniously. I appreciate that he asks for special attention and sensitivity to context and architectural detail when an AHO project is placed next to an historic structure. Debating design details on the floor of the Council does not seem like a good use of our time since the rest of us are not architects, so I hope that CDD staff will meet with Councillor Carlone to talk through his suggestions.

Here are a few other suggestions he makes:

He makes suggestions for the maximum building heights and number of stories (Section 5.2.2.b) that are slightly lower than those proposed by the Mayor and Councillor Mallon. I tried to compare their two amendments for this section and am only more confused by what exactly is being proposed in each. In general the AHO is drafted in such a way that it is far too difficult for a layperson to understand. As has been said many times in our discussions of the AHO, “the devil is in the details” and this is a case in point.

He asks for more financial analysis to justify the proposed density multiples over the base zoning, which I agree has been lacking.

He asks for a context analysis and a design statement for each site, and a pre-design meeting with abutters and neighbors to get their feedback, which are good ideas.

He asks for clear site-selection priorities, which I agree are needed. He offers suggestions for a scale of 1-5 with the top priority being in city squares and small business districts and the lowest priority being mid-block residential (non-corner) sites. I agree that not all sites are equally suited for AHO projects and the Council should set policy on this.

He has also made suggestions for changes to AHO yard setbacks that are keyed to the setbacks on existing abutting properties. My question is, what happens if the neighboring property’s setbacks change subsequently? This needs more discussion.

He would require that ground floor uses in AHO developments serve the general public and meet a need desired by both the surrounding neighborhood and the AHO residents. I agree. (A neighborhood food market or cafe might do this, for example)

He asks for a report from CDD to the Ordinance Committee on the AHO’s effectiveness at the end of the fifth year. Again, I feel progress should be reported on much more regularly since these projects would be receiving public funding and would be allowed by-right at greater density and heights than properties subject to the base zoning.


The Council agenda for 7/30 also includes the committee report from the Ordinance Committee’s most recent hearing on the AHO on 7/2. (7/30 UPDATE & CORRECTION) The Committee concluded by tasking the Mayor with requesting that the City Solicitor provide a legal opinion on whether the AHO is legal under the Uniformity Clause of the state’s Chapter 40A, since it sets different zoning requirements for affordable and market-rate housing — the same use (housing) — in the same zoning districts. (7/30 UPDATE) A printed copy of the City Solicitor’s response was distributed on paper during Tuesday’s City Council meeting and referred to the Ordinance Committee for discussion. I do not have a digital file to attach.

At the most recent Planning Board meeting we learned that the Chair is still working with CDD staff to draft a report of their second hearing on the AHO on 7/9 at which they did not reach consensus on recommendations for the Council. They will discuss the draft at one of their August meetings, so it may be on the agenda of the 9/9 Council meeting. That meeting will be another marathon because it also includes a hearing-within-a hearing on the First St Garage Disposition, which will be long and contentious; the likelihood that we can have a productive discussion about amendments to the AHO on 9/9 is slim to none.

Given the complexity of drafting a brand-new form-based zoning ordinance that would apply to every parcel in every zoning district in the entire city, it will be very difficult to amend the language in the limited time we have on the floor during Ordinance Committee and City Council meetings between now and Mon. 9/23, the latest date the petition could be voted on before it expires. In addition to the challenge of scheduling meetings during the summer, we are hampered by the Open Meeting Law, which inhibits councillors’ to deliberate collaboratively outside of public meetings. As I have said before, a better outcome may result from allowing the petition to expire without a vote and then sending it back to the staff to re-draft and re-file following revisions that reflect feedback from the Council, the Planning Board and the public.

This is the 4th in a series of blog posts on the AHO.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA