Background and update: Forest City and the moratorium

by bill cunningham

FRIDAY, SEPT. 21, 2012—In August the Cambridge city council surprised many people when it failed to adopt a zoning change which would pave the way for expansion of University Park and a big new biolab on Mass. Avenue. For the biolab’s opponents, the council vote was the climax of several months of organizing. For residents of University Park’s 168 low- and moderate-income apartments, it may be a new beginning.

In 1988, the Cambridge City Council signed off on zoning changes to allow University Park to be developed on land that MIT bought in the 1970s, mostly from Simplex Wire & Cable. MIT’s Simplex plan had been strongly resisted by neighborhood groups. To win city council votes, MIT’s developer, Forest City, agreed to build 400 apartments among the labs and offices, and to reserve 150 of them for low and moderate income households. Forest City also had to limit their frontage on Mass. Avenue. 

But in 2011 Forest City came back with a petition to expand University Park on the 300 Mass. Avenue block. They wanted to put up a big new biolab building for their biggest tenant, Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Everyone expected that the city councilors would approve the Forest City upzoning petition this summer.  But they didn’t.  Why not?

Opposition to Forest City had been growing since March when Cambridge city planners showed slides at a meeting in City Hall showing most of Newtowne Court replaced by taller structures that could include retail, restaurants, and mixed-income apartments. ACT mobilized public housing residents to an April 12 neighborhood meeting. They let the city planners know that they were dead set against the idea of redeveloping Newtowne Court.  A few days later the City issued a statement clarifying that the Newtowne idea wasn’t a plan, only a concept; that concept was now “off the table.” The Newtowne blow-up alerted other residents to the wave of development and the possibility of slowing, stopping, or reshaping it. These residents, mostly homeowners, founded the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA) and were quickly joined by veterans of other zoning battles around the city.

The CRA is circulating a petition for a moratorium on upzoning petitions. The petition doesn’t cover the whole city but is confined to certain areas around Central Square and North Cambridge. The CRA does not ask for a halt to development in those neighborhoods; rather it asks the City not to accept upzoning petitions for awhile to give residents time to develop a long-term policy on the future of development. It asks the city council to pass a resolution in favor of the moratorium—a resolution does not require the City to make any binding commitments. On May 26, the ACT Board endorsed the CRA’s proposed moratorium and authorized the officers to take appropriate steps to support that initiative. This included joining the CRA and working against the Forest City upzoning petition. 

Forest City didn’t plan to build any new apartments in University Park. That was the City’s idea: the Community Development Department (CDD) urged Forest City to add housing. As CDD housing director Chris Cotter says, "CDD did not suggest the park site nor work with Forest City to craft the proposal for housing there." Forest City came up with an apartment tower which would have erased a small park next to the fire station.  The neighbors were outraged by this proposal, which they believed would dominate Lafayette Square. Although the inclusionary zoning law would require 12-15 percent of the tower’s apartments to be “affordable,” that would not make up for the tower’s upward “ripple effect” on nearby rents.

As an ACT flier stated, in Cambridge upzoning for more density increases the pressure on rents, both residential and commercial. We have already lost many voucher households as landlords raise rents above the levels that HUD will subsidize. In fact more than half the mobile vouchers recently issued by the CHA have wound up outside of Cambridge.

CRA voiced another major concern about increased density: the impact on streets, subways, and traffic in general. Mass. Avenue and many secondary roads are already near gridlock conditions at peak commuting hours. A report released by the Urban Land Institute in June concluded that the MBTA Red Line is “already at or over capacity.”

The city council was scheduled to vote on the Forest City petition at its midsummer session on July 30. But as the session began, Mayor Henrietta Davis stunned the crowd and television viewers by announcing that she was postponing the vote to a surprise special council meeting a week later, August 6. Hours of public testimony followed, with many speaking against the Forest City petition.  With the mayor out of the chamber, and Vice-Mayor Denise Simmons chairing, former Peace Commission director Cathy Hoffman demanded that the mayor come out and explain why she had put off the vote. Simmons pointed out that the rules didn’t allow a citizen to question the mayor. Hoffman responded that she would not sit down until she got an answer.  As police officers moved toward the doors of the chamber, the crowd rose to their feet in solidarity.  The council voted to suspend the rules and Mayor Davis came out to explain that the City had new information that she wanted the council to take into account.

The mayor and the other councilors who wanted to approve the Forest City petition weren’t sure they had the six votes needed.  Councilors Decker, Kelley, and VanBeuzekom had pledged to vote against it.  Some of the councilors were asking questions about the housing impact of the plan.  Forest City came up with a new angle.  There were 168 low- and moderate-income apartments in University Park, and Forest City offered to guarantee that they would remain affordable beyond the 30 years already locked in.  To discuss this offer the mayor invited ACT and CEOC to a meeting in her office on August 2.  Also present were Councillor Maher, the city solicitor, Peter Daly from Homeowners Rehab (HRI), as well as Brian Murphy and Chris Cotter from CDD.  We listened to them and responded that we could not and would not agree to anything on behalf of the University Park residents.  The residents themselves would have to be involved.  Murphy and Cotter agreed to help us reach all the residents and set up a meeting so they could organize themselves.

A few hours before the August 6 special council meeting Mayor Davis apparently learned that Vice- Mayor Simmons would not vote for Forest City’s petition so it would not have the six votes needed to approve a zoning change.  Following public testimony, the city council voted unanimously to table the upzoning petition, allowing it to expire in a few days.  Forest City may now decide to refile its petition.  In the meantime, CRA will be going forward with its moratorium petition, and ACT will be involved in helping low- and moderate-income University Park residents to organize.

On August 13, representatives of ACT, CEOC, and Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services (CASLS) met with Murphy, Cotter and housing planner Cassie Arnaud in the CDD offices. We discussed an outreach plan.  All parties agreed to work together to draft a letter to the residents in the affordable units at University Park.  It was agreed that we would jointly host a resident meeting in mid-September. Forest City would not be invited to this meeting. However CDD delayed because they wanted to see how Forest City would respond to an August 1 letter from Murphy setting forth the City’s position. At this point CDD is talking about setting the residents’ meeting sometime in October.