“Preservation” is one of those weird words. No one wants to be against it, so bringing it up can act like a thought-terminating cliche that ends all debate. Questioning the means and goals identifies one as “anti-preservation” or worse, “anti-neighborhood.”
The other day residents of the Fresh Pond and Observatory Hill neighborhoods of Cambridge found an appeal to “Preserve the Observatory Hill Village District” on their doorsteps. While affecting a much small area than, for example, the infamous Riverside downzoning, this one is just as problematic. The overlay would apply to a section along Concord Avenue from the intersection with Huron Avenue to the intersection with Walden Street.
The goal of the proposal is to “Promote ands retain village atmosphere; small-scale mixed business/residential community” by setting a height limit of 35 feet, adding more design review and increasing the size of the setbacks.
While the petition has some laudable ideas of wider sidewalks, limited parking and slowing traffic, the zoning they propose is not the tool for accomplishing these goals and will work to thwart them by inflating construction costs, housing prices and reducing the opportunities to add new retail space or housing.
An extended explanation, found at Observatory Hill Village, lays bare the real issue: snobbery.
“Because Concord Ave is narrow, the overlay maintains the current 35 ft height (3-story) and not a 4-story canyon.”
An addition made to the rear of an existing house is described as “towering over a neighbor’s backyard”, requiring setbacks. But everything towers over a backyard and one might say that additional housing is more important than a vacant backlot. The authors of the proposal insist upon a sterile conformity for the neighborhood, criticizing buildings that lack roof peaks or a duplex built in 2003 while praising buildings with flat roofs and even a spite house!
As far as the traffic concerns go, zoning is not the tool to slow traffic or reduce truck impact (especially since the businesses need to be supplied). Rather, trucks above a certain weight can be banned and more traffic calming measures can be taken. For example, one of the complaints of the petition is the narrow sidewalks on Concord Avenue. The neighborhood could calm traffic and get wider sidewalks by petitioning the City Council to narrow the street by say, three inches on either side. Combined with parking, this would decrease traffic speeds considerably, if not deter drivers from it. Furthermore, it’s likely that imporovements in commuter rail service and perhaps the construction of a new station at Alewife could reduce the amount of traffic using Concord Avenue.
The fact of the matter is that West Cambridge is one of the neighborhoods most ripe for upzoning. Many houses occupy only half of their lots, leaving a great deal of room for accessory dwelling units or laneway houses; the bus services on Mount Auburn Street, Huron Avenue and Concord Avenue are infrequent, but reliable and the neighborhood is only a 20-30 minute walk to Harvard Square, Porter Square and Alewife. There are a lot of important amenities like branch libraries, grocery stores, restaurants and parks. It’s a fantastically well-placed neighborhood to add the housing Cambridge needs to accomodate its burgeoning population and be affordable.