CambridgeSide Zoning Passes; My Remarks Before the Vote

On December 16 during the final City Council meeting of the 2018-19 term, the CambridgeSide re-zoning petition came up for a final vote. The zoning petition was due to expire on December 25, so it would have had to have been re-filed again in the new term if we had not voted. Going in, it was clear that the petitioner, New England Development, had secured the 6 (of 9) votes needed for the zoning amendment to pass, which it did that night (see recap). I voted in the minority along with Councillors Carlone and Zondervan, and here is my explanation.

This is my last zoning vote as a councillor, and it is one of the most difficult decisions I have made. I think this can truly be said to be an instance where reasonable minds can, and do, differ. And I hope that people on both sides can respect that there is room for difference on this and other issues that come before the Council.

In the context of the prevailing market-driven urban growth model, the petition’s “asks” in terms of additional height and greater density are not unreasonable, though in the historic context of East Cambridge the difference in scale is profound. The assortment of public benefits offered are unquestionably attractive. New England Development has attempted to be transparent about the financial factors driving their desire to redevelop this site, and CambridgeSide has been an excellent community partner over the years. For all this, I am grateful.

And yet…

While the percentage of affordable housing is very generous, the proportion of housing on the site is not enough to meet the additional demand for housing of all types that will be generated by more intense commercial development.

Improvements to the public realm and the streetscape will make one side of one section of First St more attractive and will enhance the development’s overall value, but even with reduced parking requirements and possible improved future connections to transit, the traffic generated by this amount of new commercial development is likely to put a huge strain on circulation of all modes through the surrounding area.

No new green spaces will be created to balance the increased demands on the existing open spaces along the canal and riverfront. 

The process by which East End House was selected as the beneficiary of such a large financial commitment could have been more transparent and whether the payment is even sufficient or appropriately phased to guarantee the desired expansion remains in question.

The promised but unspecified payment toward securing a site other than Fulkerson Street for a new Eversource substation is welcome and appropriate, but having voted to keep Alexandria’s zoning petition in committee until that question is resolved it feels inconsistent to me not to take the same position here.

And despite the growing urgency of reducing building emissions, there is no firm commitment to making the new buildings Net Zero ready or to an energy plan that does not use fracked gas.

I do not want to be in the position of looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, but I reserve the right to doubt whether the deal being struck is the best one possible for the public, and to question whether the contract zoning model is the one we should be following, and the precedent we should be setting, in planning the City’s future.

Over my four years in this seat I have tried to represent the perspectives of people who have studied and lived with the full range of impacts of the prevailing market-driven growth model, and who think it falls short both in public process and in outcomes. Those who, as Councillor Kelley says, feel “outgunned” in these negotiations. This is the constituency that elected me as an “outsider.” I will say that the longer one remains on the Council, the more difficult it is to maintain an outsider’s perspective. So much about our political system — the two-year election cycle, the lack of term limits, the lack of regulations on lobbyists, and the lack of a public campaign financing system that would reduce the influence of donations from the development industry — pushes one in the other direction. Swimming against the tide is tiring.

Knowing that my vote today will not alter the outcome, and wanting my final vote to be one that represents the perspective that brought me to this position, I vote “no” with the hope that the petitioners, residents and my colleagues will respect my decision as one taken after a great deal of thought.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA