Cambridge to consider downzoning Riverside

A slice of Cambridge could be downzoned if neighborhood groups get their way.


The Riverside neighborhood, which is part of the Cambridgeport artea along the Charles, is a beautiful place to walk around in with narrow streets, tall trees, a variety of commercial establishments scattered throughout and good access to public transportation. Not only is it walkable to Harvard and Central Squares, but the area is served by several bus routes.

Information on the city website defines Riverside as the neighborhood between JFK Street, Massachusetts Avenue and River Street. It contains 4.9 percent of Cambridge, is home to 12,695 people and 75 percent of the dwellings are renter-occupied.

Currently, the area is zoned C-1, but the downzoning proposal would rezone it to C. According to the Community Development Department, the downzoning would reduce the maximium floor-area-ratio from 0.75 to 0.6; increase the lot area per unit from 1,500 square feet to 1,800 square feet, thus reducing the dwelling unit density; increase the minimum side yard and increase the minimum open space from 30 percent of the lot to 36 percent.

Riverside change

The downzoning proposal would apply to more than half the neighborhood — 372 out of 639 parcels and, again, according to the CDD, was mostly built out before Cambridge adopted its first zoning ordinance in 1924. In its analysis the department found that 59 percent of buildings in the neighborhood already exceed the C-1 floor area ratio maximum and if the rezoning were adopted that would rise to 80 percent; 70 percent of existing buildings wouldn’t meet the C zoning’s lot area per dwelling unit limit; and while 80 percent of buildings do meet the open space requirement, but if the area were to be downzoned that would fall to 67 percent.

The downzoning petitioners want to “preserve and enhance the residential character and existing scale of Riverside Neighborhood in Central Cambridge, establish zoning uniformity, and encourage compatibility of use, consistency in height, density, design, yards and other development standards among abutting parcels” and “to encourage good building design and discourage new building design that is inappropriate in both scale and design; to ensure that changes within the neighborhood are compatible with the scale and character of the abutting dwellings that define the Riverside Neighborhood; to encourage the retention of existing dwellings of historical value and the preservation of green space that presently exists within the boundaries of the Riverside Neighborhood.”

The petition concludes “We believe in retaining existing single family home parcels and the green space that surrounds them as good for the neighborhood and community and believe that the change in zoning will help serve to protect this basic concept and value that we hold as a neighborhood.”

It is woth noting, before moving on to the analysis, that this petition was signed by a grand total of 103 residents. That’s 0.81 percent of the population and 12 percent of homeowners. It’s not a democratic petition in the slightest.

The idea that downzoning will accomplish the goals laid out by the petitioners is prima facie absurd. For one thing, zoning is completely the wrong tool for historic preservation. It’s like using a chain saw to perform brain surgery. As the information from the CDD shows, the downzoning will not establish anything like uniformity or consistency, but will make the slightest alterations or changes require special permits and be subject to endless delays, hearings and design reviews.

The most specious of the petitioners’ arguments, however, is the idea of preserving “character”. They have happily actually defined what they mean: single family homes. But the slightest examination of the neighborhood dashes that idea to pieces. The area of the proposed change is a pleasing mix of styles, heights, types, ages and uses. Yes, there are a few single family homes, but there are also triple-deckers, brick apartment buildings, row houses, a complex belonging to the Cambridge Housing Authority, mixed-use buildings, schools, churches and parks. Hardly any two buildings are alike.

Making Riverside into an exclusive country club will only line the pockets of homeowners and prevent people from moving in and imperoving the neighborhood with their individual touches and styles. With its transit accessibility, walkability and a population already going car-free, Riverside is the perfect neighborhood for new, parking-free apartments and homes.

The Cambridge Planning Board will discuss the proposal at their meeting tonight at 7:00 pm.


2 thoughts on “Cambridge to consider downzoning Riverside

  1. Pingback: Riverside downzoning not dead yet | Urban Liberty

  2. Pingback: Of YIMBYs and Widespread Nonconformity |

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