Some wise words:
“The lack of resources is no longer an excuse not to act. The idea that action should only be taken after all the answers and the resources have been found is a sure recipe for paralysis. The planning of a city is a process that allows for corrections; it is supremely arrogant to believe that planning can be done only after every possible variable has been controlled.”
- Jaime Lerner
Architect, urbanist, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil
From the introduction to the Tactical Urbanism Handbook 2.0, available online, which introduces an array of tactics that everyday citizens as well as development professionals use to make their city better every day, starting now.
I attended some of the Growth Policy meetings in 1992-93, and the statements provided were an accurate reflection of the times. I also remember that the early 1990's were a good time for reflection because the growth boom of the previous decade had temporarily died down. Nobody expected that lull to last, especially in regard to commercial growth (which was what the main concern was at that time).
Most significantly, rent control was still the law in 1993 and building new housing or converting buildings to condominiums was rare and was expected to be rare for the foreseeable future. Then came Question 9 in 1994 and everything changed. The biggest policy modification that I can see from 1993 to 2007 (and now) was the clear desire to encourage new housing growth, especially when affordable units could be produced. There was nothing wrong then or now with the 1993 policies. Encouraging the conversion from commercial/industrial to residential is the primary new policy and that was clearly in response to the end of rent control.
In my view, much of the current dissatisfaction (of some people) comes down to this policy of encouraging housing growth. I like the policy of housing growth, but clearly others do not.
Care to name anything in the Growth Policy Document of 1993 that is obsolete today? I'm sure that a few additional good policies could be added, but I cannot identify anything from the 1993 document that could reasonably be characterized as "obsolete".
I encourage everyone to read both the original 1993 document and the 2007 update.
As far as Somerville goes, it's great to see them catching up with us. I see great things in their future, especially in the provision of new housing opportunities. All communities in the region need to contribute their share of new housing.
I beg to differ. Unless we're talking about permanent flooding, i.e. a rise in sea and groundwater levels so high as to make housing impossible, the problem is primarily one of property damage and cleanup costs. Any displacement would most likely be short-term even in the worst cases.
I do hope that people understand that most of the Agassiz, Cambridgeport, and Area 4 neighborhoods are built on land that was once swamp, wetlands or tidal estuaries. Indeed, the same can be said for most of East Cambridge except for the high ground that was once an island surrounded by marshes. All are vulnerable.
I'm not quite sure what this has to do with wealthier residents with second homes other than as an attempt to muddy the conversation.
At least two points need to be emphasized in regard to planning in an age where flooding could be an issue. First, builders who choose to build in potential flood areas do so at their own risk and most likely will have elevated insurance costs as a result of that choice. Second, the best way to minimize impervious ground cover is to trade built land area for increased height leaving as much open space as possible for water storage and absorption. Some areas, of course, should simply be deemed unbuildable open space if flooding is expected to be very frequent.
Plans are underway to redesign the O'Brien Highway in Cambridge to make the roadway and its environs more inviting to pedestrians and to ensure safe crossings for people accessing the new, relocated Green Line T station. The new roadway may even be called O'Brien "Boulevard" to emphasize its more urban design.
An outpouring of community support for grounding the McCarthy Overpass of the McGrath Highway in Somerville has persuaded MassDOT to consider removing the overpass and installing a Complete Street with bicycle lanes, improved pedestrian accessibility, and green spaces.
These are both very encouraging developments for increasing bicycle mode share, improving pedestrian safety, encouraging development along the Route 28 corridor, and strengthening neighborhoods. However, as of yet, no formal proposal has been made for the missing link between them – the Squires Bridge. Presently the bridge is forbidding for cyclists and pedestrians alike, with a treacherous, unlit sidewalk that I once hazarded to use at night, nearly tripping several times along the journey.
MassDOT says that the limited width of the bridge constrains the use of bike lanes and widened, improved sidewalks. However, this problem can be easily overcome with a "road diet", removing one outbound lane (and possibly one inbound lane as well). With three lanes in each direction, the present Squires Bridge is hugely overbuilt, with much more traffic-handling capacity than it needs. While bottlenecks happen at other points along the Route 28 corridor (such as the intersection with Land Boulevard), traffic never backs up on the Squires Bridge.
In all the "processes" I've taken part in everyone seems to focus on housing, transit, and use. Some of the lowest hanging fruit to deal with some of these issues is a matter of adjusting portions of the zoning ordinance to comply with modern living. First, remove the FAR calc for basements at or above 7'; it is silly. Is there a show on HGTV that doesn't use that space? I think not. ; ) Just think of how much useable space is out there without the need for anyone to lift a finger to create it. (of course you will need to comply with the new building code regs). Maybe even create a pilot program to incentivize the creation of low to moderate income housing where the lot per dwelling calc allows? Second , allow for an increased mixture of uses in residential districts and make them subject to special permit review. We need small commercial spaces that fit the modern startup world, not $35-55/sqft NNN districts that squelch the creativity Cambridge thrives on. Third, transit nodes are great to build around if the transit works. Lets increase the linkage/mitigation fees to something representative of this decade (I'm thinking $8-9/sqft) and put that money towards transit and sewer/water mitigation. Fourth, ease up on some of the dimensional requirements for setbacks or at least subject to special permits not variances. Zoning must work for us not against. Last, allow for hotdog carts in Central Square, especially if they sell corndogs, because as we all know anything on a stick is delicious.
In response to the assertion that: "The PB has not been looking at a whole frame -- just taking proposal by proposal as if they are not making an collective impact on areas such as Fresh Pond and Alewife in particular." - please note that the Concord-Alewife Plan (2006) passed by the City Council was done in conjunction with the Planning Board. Overall density was LOWERED from what previously was allowed and a Special Permit was required for most projects meeting the guidelines approved by the City Council. More information is available at:
If anyone disagrees with the wisdom of the new zoning associated with the Concord-Alewife Plan, feel free to file another petition to amend it, but it's ridiculous to suggest that the Planning Board is doing anything other than permitting projects that meet criteria lawfully established by the City Council.
Sam's partial letter to Mike Connolly:
I appreciate the work you are doing -- but I simply do not agree. Planning boards were established exactly to create separation between political (i.e., elected) bodies and more technical decisions that need to be made about buildings. It's axiom that politicians can see only as far as the next election. This proposal, I fear, will only exacerbate that.
The political pressures will force us to design by committee. Given the amount of trouble we already have reaching agreement about buildings under our existing process, I cannot imagine how this is an improvement. I also foresee that under the proposal, blandness will prevail in our design choices. People (everyone from developers to community voices) will opt for "safe" because it will be the easiest. Offending the least number of people is not a mark of leadership. Not in environmentalism. Not in urban design. It just seems like architectural retrenchment to me -- and expresses fundamentally conservative tastes rather than progressive and challenging ones. This is not a version of project review I want to see.
So I wonder -- on what basis will unelected aides and their Councillors be making decisions about what passes muster? What happens in the case when only 3 committed and active community members show up to the meeting? Do they become the group to decide? And what happens when nobody shows up to voice an opinion? Is it just the whim of the Councillor?
What I find striking is how the progressive activist community, no doubt inspired by Jane Jacobs as much as I am, has latched on to the idea that "master plans" are a good path to a healthy city. If you go back to Jacobs (and others) you realize that Cities live when they consist of the thousands of small plans of their residents. The more we try to master plan out every detail of the evolution of our city, the more we squelch the individual creativity and agency of our citizens. A master plan, even with the input of hundreds of people, and resulting zoning, cannot capture the full range of life or possibility. Planning needs to be more about catalyzing more incremental change rather than raising the barriers to action so high that only the largest form developers can hope to get anything done.
I wish we were spending out time on ideas like this:
rather than trying to freeze our City in amber (whether by intention or consequence of well meaning actions).
I agree that I'm very underwhelmed by the design work of most development in Cambridge today. I have a longer critique of the architectural professions, but building cost economics play a huge role (which I only understand now that I'm on the development side). The standard approach to the special permit process is bad. It forces the development team to have a project nearly 100% designed before even coming forward for public comment or approvals. This is VERY expensive, like 100's of thousands of dollars out of pocket for the developer before they even know if they have a chance of success or not. (Development is a very risky game, it's easy to point to people who get rich, but plenty of others lose all their money on projects--I dare you to take that bet).
Anyway, there are better approaches, including mandating early meetings with neighbors, staff, and the planning board prior to beginning design, running meetings through a more collaborative shared gains approach than a roberts rules of order winner take all type process, and finding ways to expand the range of people whose opinions are solicited about projects (including people who don't live here yet). I suggest we explore ideas like that first.
I haven't attended any Cambridge Planning Board meetings lately, but if that's how matters stand, I'm not surprised that you're frustrated. Further, it seems to me that the first thing that we should do is try to fix the existing board, filling the vacancies for example. Why don't you and I both apply? I'd be happy to work together to rebuilt trust in the dignity, courage, humility and compassion of development decisions.
(At the same time, I'd ask you to guess why the Chair might feel so threatened by the community activists to take that approach. I've seen how high tempers get in these meetings in other communities. How would you react if you felt like people were always yelling at you? Compassion is an important virtue in our relationships with each other.)
What I mean about "daily problems" is that you will have Councilors spending time literally micromanaging the spacing and species of planting around a property... when they should be spending their time on city-wide policy matters. I've seen it.
I'm really disappointed in this idea which Dennis Carlone has advanced through another petition, to have the City Council sit as the Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA) for new development. Having actual experience with an elected council serving as the SPGA, I can tell you that it is not a great system. The main problem is that it pulls the elected leadership down into the weeds of mucking around with everyone's daily problems... instead of dealing with larger issues of policy. I can see how it's appealing; I can see how it's hard to have to say to angry constituents that you can't solve their immediate problem. But sometimes you have to tell people no, you can't make everyone happy.
In addition, many have complained that the development process is too political, subject to influence by individuals or campaign contributors... well giving the council that authority will only make that problem worse. It's not a good idea to have an elected official sitting as the City's design police. An appointed planning board isn't perfect either, but it helps insulate development from politics. The Council gets to write the ordinance and set the policy agenda. Others get to implement.
The framework - The Growth Policy Document - was indeed done about 20 years ago, but the principles were sound and, indeed, quite visionary for the time. Most of the activities of CDD in the intervening years have built upon that framework and there has been no need to return to Square One. "Thoughtful planning" is not something you do in one shot - it's something that is done continuously, and my observations have been that CDD has dedicated ample staff to almost all aspects of good planning for a long time. The mere fact that we have a division on environmental and transportation planning is one example, but there are others.
But, yes, if you wish to reinvent the wheel, don't let me stand in the way.
I'm glad we're having these conversations and I've enjoyed the ones I've attended so far. I hope that Cantabrigians from all perspectives will participate. It's often the case that activists represent only those who are dissatisfied with something (or perhaps many things), and it would be a real shame if this becomes a one-sided conversation dominated by the disgruntled.
I personally believe that City of Cambridge staff have been conducting very thoughtful planning for a long time. The are some tweaks and rethinking of some things that will be helpful, but we have much to build on.