plans and policies
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of blight and building

I was amused when I came across this flyer a couple of weeks ago:

What I find funny about this poster is that while its creator clearly assumed that the natural answer to these questions would be, “No!  High-rise development is evil!”, some people felt so strongly the opposite that they were compelled to take out a pen from their pocket or purse and write their opinion on the poster.  And that’s how it is in Cambridge, where everyone is an activist, the general assumption is that everyone is against development, and people rarely fail to voice their (strong) opinions.

A little background: the building under discussion was the long-time home of Bowl and Board, a home-furnishings store owned by Mike Giarusso.  It was part of a small New England chain which Giarusso opened in 1956.  He recently came upon some very hard times and moved from the Cambridge location to a storefront in Davis Square.  Unfortunately, due to financial and legal pressure, he was forced to liquidate his stores and close up shop this past summer.

The Bowl and Board building now sits vacant, a vandalized, disused one-story property on the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Central Squares. 

From my experience as an 8-year resident of this neighborhood, this area of Cambridge can be very difficult for businesses. Restaurants and liquor stores seem to do well; retail does not.  The building now is both an eyesore and a major sap on the vitality of the neighborhood.  Its long period of vacancy, low-rise structure, and physical deterioration presents significant obstacles to active community and economic functioning in the area.  Which is why I don’t understand what that poster was all about: doesn’t our neighborhood need new development?

When I walked by today there was a building permit in the window, but but still no development activity going on.  I got curious.  So I checked out what happened at that Harvard Square Advisory Committee meeting.   It turns out that a developer wants to build a large, dense, mixed-use project on the site.  It would be 20 ft higher than current zoning allows, and have a floor-area ratio (FAR, a measure of density) of 6, rather than the 4 allowed with the affordable housing development bonus.   It would also have smaller setbacks and fewer allotted parking spaces than allowed by the zoning.   Any deviation from existing zoning guidelines requires a variance, and the direct abutters (residents of 1105 Mass Ave) threatened to file a law suit if the developers sought any such variances.  Of the 11 community members present at the meeting, all opposed the development.

Ah, community process.  Of course, that person (or people) who felt the need to write “yes” all over the poster about the development hadn’t thought it  necessary to attend the meeting, so only opposing abutters were represented.  I discovered after further reading that the developers have now decided, presumably because of community resistance, against pursuing any variances.  This means that the building will be less dense, require more parking spaces, and have a signigicantly lower profile than the developers envisioned.  This also means that, since it will be a smaller building, there will be fewer housing units created on the site.  Cambridge’s housing vacancy rate is less than 5%, which is lower than the 7+% national average, so we need housing.  We especially need affordable housing.  I also think we need less parking and fewer cars using said parking, but since the abutters vetoed all variances there will no longer be reduced parking on the site. So who’s right here?

I’ll watch these developments closely.

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