New Street Storage Upzoning: Just Say No (Updated & Corrected) (11 Responses)

This post has been corrected since it was first published.

Among the many items on our agenda when the Council holds its next regular meeting on Monday 9/9 will be the New Street Self-Storage Zoning Petition. Some may recall that this petition was originally filed over a year ago, but expired after a quorum snafu at the Planning Board last August. (I blogged about it on 8/10/18.) The petition was amended and resubmitted this year. The Planning Board considered it on 6/19 and sent an unfavorable recommendation to the Council, which normally would be enough to kill it (see the excerpt below from their memo). But the developer subsequently added a component of affordable housing, which despite the questionable optics of housing low-income people within a self-storage building, has kept the petition on life support. Now, with the petition’s 9/24 expiration date approaching, the Council is poised to take a vote in September. It has been forwarded without a recommendation to the full Council. (I was the lone vote against “passing it to a second reading.”)

Despite the addition of affordable housing and promises to make the building Net Zero and to put solar panels on the roof, I remain opposed to this up-zoning request by the storage developer. Here’s why.

It’s an upzoning that seeks to more than double the allowed by-right density for self-storage — a land use that has not been identified in any of our recent Envision planning as a city need or as the desired use for a site abutting Danehy Park.

The petition covers two parcels with a total land area of 95,619 sf. The developer has an option on the smaller of the two, the parcel at 52 New St where the Evolve gym is located on a 43,793 sf lot directly abutting Danehy Park. This is a prime site to continue New Street’s transformation from the road to the town dump to a multi-family residential district around the park that was built atop the landfill.

Currently, the land is zoned Industrial A-1 and is allowed a 1.25 FAR for non-residential uses and a 1.5 FAR for housing, with a maximum height of 45’ and a lot area per dwelling unit of 700 sf. The greater FAR for housing than office is intended to incentivize that use.

The petition would increase the density for both storage and housing to 3.0 FAR, increase the height to 65’, and reduce the lot area per dwelling unit to 300 sf. There are no minimum setbacks or open space requirements for IA-1 zoning, so a building can cover virtually the entire lot. And the one proposed for the Evolve site would. A late June amendment added this: “no building shall exceed 55 feet without complying with the 45-degree bulk plane” but the scale and massing would still be much larger than the very large 93-unit project going up across the street.

It would also reduce the amount of parking required, based on an untested assumption that self-storage customers won’t visit very often and the tenants of affordable units won’t need much parking. I’m not opposed to reducing parking ratios below the 1:1 ratio in the code, but I’d prefer to do it based on data rather than wishful thinking.

Under the current zoning with the allowed residential FAR of 1.5, plus a 30% inclusionary bonus, a very significant amount of housing could be built on the two sites together — the maximum allowed density would be 186,000 sf with 20% of the gross FAR required to be affordable (about 37,000 sf, which could yield up to 37 affordable units).

As most recently amended in late June, the proposed storage building could be 65’ tall (so long as it had a 45-degree bulk plane setback, as described above) and with a density of 149,469 sf, of which 20% would be dedicated to 22 affordable housing units (for tenants earning 30-60% AMI) and about 3,600 sf devoted to a retail use that could be a small fitness studio (the current Evolve gym is 18,000 sf so this would not be comparable). 

The current zoning appropriately incentivizes housing over other uses, but the storage developer (SSG) was able to outbid a competing offer from a housing developer, in part, because the company was confident that it could persuade the City Council to upzone the land to make self-storage “commercially viable” (that terminology and goal come straight from the petition text). Allowing any developer an upzoning that goes against our stated planning goals sets a bad precedent. 

The Council has spent countless hours this term debating ways to address the housing crisis, and approving an upzoning that spot-zones land that any planner in her right mind would say is ideal for housing and gives a storage developer a financial advantage over a housing developer is counterproductive. I want to know what made the developer and his attorney so confident they could get an upzoning petition through the Council? And what does that tell other developers about how committed we are to our planning objectives?

Significantly, once it is also upzoned, the lot next door to Evolve at 22-48 New Street, which is the larger of the two parcels (51,826 sf), would be required to include only 20,000 sf of affordable housing to get a special permit for a self-storage facility, and any housing component would be exempt from the FAR calculation. The presence of a massive 65′ tall self-storage building between this lot and the park (and a facility built right to the lot line) could actually make the second site less attractive for future redevelopment as housing. Do we want that?

I would say that the affordable housing requirement for either lot redeveloped for self-storage should be at least 20% of the gross floor area and that the affordable space should not be exempt from the FAR calculation. 

Further, the petition would double the FAR to 3.0 and increase the height to 65′ for any housing development in this New St Storage District, which is a giant gift of value to the owner of the other lot being upzoned. None of the requirements for Net Zero or a bulk plane setback would apply in that scenario. This is an upzoning equivalent to what has been discussed for the Affordable Housing Overlay, but it would not require the units to be 100% affordable. So affordable developers would be priced out of competing for this site, and the other owner would get a huge windfall profit if he sold his parcel to a market-rate housing developer.

If housing is the city’s top goal then we should not have spent the past year trying to help hold this storage deal together. Even with the affordable housing added to sweeten the deal, the developer is getting more than twice as much space for storage than they would be allowed under the current zoning (120,177 sf vs 54,741 sf for an overall FAR of 3.42). Does this make the deal only “commercially viable,” or is it a big gift from the Council to two property owners? I realize that it is hard for some of my fellow councillors to reject any offer of affordable housing, but I think this is a bad bargain all around.

A few additional details about the petition:

At the 6/26 Ordinance Committee hearing (see report), the storage developer further increased its offer of space within the new building for affordable housing to 26,634 sf, which Just-a-Start, the affordable developer partnering on the deal, says would yield about 22 units with a unit mix of: eight 1BR, ten 2BR, and four 3BR units. The developer would underwrite the land, permitting and site work costs at an estimated $232K/unit, and Just a Start would seek funding from the City for 7 units (estimated at $1.4M). 

Storage space would be 120,177 sf, housing would be 25,634 sf, and the retail or gym would be 3,658 sf. The covered parking area that takes a chunk of the ground floor is not included in the gross floor area. They calculated parking for the residential units at .75/unit (11), plus 5-7 spaces for the gym and several more for the storage center and a loading area under cover. 

The height is 65′ but they but they added a bulk plane setback requirement at 55′ to step back the top floor by 45 degrees. The graphic they showed had a large windowless box on the roof that represented the stepped back top (5th) floor. 

The building covers pretty much the entire lot, but the developer offered a 9′ path along the Danehy Park side of the building parallel to the methane trench that encircles Danehy (as required for landfill off-gassing). The path would dead-end at the rear lot line shared with a Bay Street abutter until the City gets around to extending the path to Field Street. A future connection to a spur on the other side of New St would not be possible until an auto body shop is redeveloped, and even then the connection across New St would be an awkward zig-zag, not a straight line. The renderings showing how this path would relate to the park are misleading. The methane trench still would have to be fenced off, and there are electric poles and I assume a utility easement of running along the lot line parallel to where the path would be. Given the security issues raised by putting a path to nowhere alongside a largely unoccupied 65′ building and along a lower, fenced-off portion of the elevated park, this path’s purported “contribution to connectivity” is minimal.

Finally, I have to ask: how many self-storage facilities do we need in one area?

A self-storage facility offering about 66,000 sf of space has operated on Concord Ave between Birch and Fern St for many years in a one-story building within just a few hundred yards of New St. The Concord Ave storage business owner served on the Envision Alewife task force whose recommendation was to encourage more housing on the remaining industrial lots along New Street. He agreed with that recommendation. If more storage is really what we want/need in the area round Danehy, then why not consider rezoning the Concord Ave site to add more storage either above or below ground, even with some housing included? The storage business also owns a developable parking lot on Fern St that could be used for housing. Do we really need to create a larger storage district around Danehy Park by upzoning two other lots for storage? 

I realize that much of the new “luxury” housing going up around Alewife is being built with no basement storage and small in-unit closets, but the notion that we should rezone land next to the city’s largest public park to accommodate a self-storage building, or what the developer calls a “community closet” and a Boston Globe columnist recently described as “America’s other clutter problem”, has me scratching my head.

Excerpt from the Planning Board’s 6/19/19 memo, which gave the petition an unfavorable recommendation:

“Following deliberation, the Board voted to recommend not to adopt this petition. Overall, the Board is not opposed to self-storage uses, but does not see a good planning rationale why a self storage building should be allowed to so greatly exceed the normal limitations of the zoning district on these two particular parcels.

Moreover, the Board is concerned that a commercial building of the proposed scale, bulk, and volume would be too large for this particular district, which has been undergoing a transition from commercial to residential character in recent years. The proposed 65-foot height would have significant visual impacts from Danehy Park as well as from other vantage points, and the impact would be exacerbated by the “blank wall” character of a self-storage facility that would isolate that section of the park and would have impacts from other vantage points as well. 

The Board appreciates the proposed addition of affordable housing, which helps to make the project fit better with the evolving character of the district, but does not resolve all of the Planning Board’s concerns and raises additional potential concerns regarding safety for tenants in such a hybrid building. The petition suggests that the adjacent site could also be developed to a higher-density residential use, which might further mitigate the impact, but such a development would not be certain under the current proposal and would still raise concerns about the overall size of the total development. The Board is also sympathetic to the community’s desire to retain the gym on the site and appreciates the Petitioner’s commitment to include such a use, though the reduction in size would be significant, and it is unwise to make zoning decisions based on a specific retail establishment that may or may not remain under any zoning scenario.”

My Note: If the land is up-zoned, the storage developer would still have to get a special permit from the Planning Board for the final building design and many of the urban design concerns raised by the Board would come up again.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA