The Cambridge City Council Ordinance Committee heard a presentation by Riverside residents David Cohen and Maggie Compher to downzone the central part of their neighborhood from Residence C-1 to C. The petition would decrease the allowable floor-area-ratio, increase the minimum lot size and increase the open space requirement from 30 to 36 percent. The meeting started at 5:30, when most people are on their way home from work.
“The theme of this presentation is preserving the core of Riverside,” Cohen said.
He said that small houses were being built on backyards, behind existing houses, and without front setbacks. Moreover, some of these new buildings were selling for over one million dollars.
Cohen, who has apparently not noticed either current home prices in Cambridge or many of the buildings in his own neighbnorhood, said that people were “bewildered” by the four new buildings that have been built in the past two years.
“We’re bearing the brunt of this density,” he said. “Open space is under threat now.”
It’s important to note that the “open space” and “green space” Cohen spoke of was not a park or plaza or other place, but verges and backyards. He also let off the following bit of obfusication, concluding his remarks with setting up a strawman argument directed at A Better Cambridge, a group which rapidly organized opposition to the downzoning: “Multimillion dollar infill is not the solution to affordability.”
Of course, the reason it’s multimillion dollar infill is because restrictive zoning, an onerous design review process and neighbors that range from merely hostile to actively litigious prevent housing construction from keeping up with demand.
Jeff Roberts of the Cambridge Planning Department said that under the current zoning most of the lots in the area were already non-conforming and that downzoning would make 70-80 percent non-conforming. He said that there were a couple ways of doing protecting “open space” wiothout downzoning, but the options would need to be studied.
“Changing any one requirement in the zoning can cause it to be difficult to predict what the ripple effects would be,” he said.
About 15 people spoke during the public comment period, with 11 in support and four in opposition. Two young people supported the downzoning and one older person opposed it, but otherwise the support was overwhelmingly on the older side.
“We have an incredible rate of walkability and transit access in the neighborhood,” said Rob Spear. “We shouldn’t be hoarding those resources.”
One of the empirical (as opposed to subjective qualities like “character”) concern the homeowners had was permeability and climate change resiliency. They all had stories of their basements being flooded and one of the reasons Cohen said they were concerned about the loss of “open space” is that the water needs some place to go, especially with sea levels rising.
As a justification for downzoning, however, it fails. Not only does it discount a technical solution, such as better storm drains or the use of permeable pavement, but it ignores the fact that dense, walkable communities are inherently more climate resilient: they use less energy, pollute less and consume fewer resources.
And while it may be true, as Cohen and Compher said, that the 26 units lost by downzoning are immaterial for the affordability crisis in Cambridge, the same cannot be said for climate change. The 26 units not built in Cambridge would become 26 greenfield units in Hudson or Hopkinton or another suburb. Instead of infill, million-dollar or not, they would be sprawl. Twenty-six more cars driving into Boston and back, to shopping centers and back, burning gasoline, voting for highway spending and doing more to speed climate change than an extra house in Cambridge.
In response to a question by Councilor Jan Devereux, Roberts said that parking was not counted towards open space aned she suggested that since the neighborhood is so walkable, the offstreet parking requirements could be lowered to increase the amount of green space.
“It doesn’t have to be so polarized,” said Vice Mayor Marc McGovern. “Density works in some places. This is one of the areas where allowing density doesn’t make sense.”
However, with the petitioners not presenting to the Planning Board until October 25, the councilors opted to leave it in committee.