Alewife Neighbors, Inc. > projects > south_alewife > BCF July, 2005 - Concord-Alewife Zoning Invites Density, Traffic

The following article appeared in the July 2005 edition of the Belmont Citizens Forum Newsletter, available online at www.belmontcitizensforum.org

Editorial note: The Concord-Alewife study area did include the Highlands, although no zoning changes to the area were recommended. Also, the area known as the Alewife "Triangle" was included in the BCF description of the "quadrangle."

Concord-Alewife Zoning Invites Density, Traffic
By Steve Kaiser

The City of Cambridge has completed a two-year study of the Concord-Alewife quadrangle, the area bordered by Concord Avenue, Blanchard Road, the Alewife Reservation, and Alewife Brook Parkway. The study area excludes the Cambridge Highlands, but includes the Fresh Pond shopping center.

The study recommends "upzoning," or rezoning the area for denser development. The primary upzoning will come from "transfer of development rights." This means that a property owner could sell the right to build an X-square-foot building to another Alewife property owner. The second property owner could then add those X square feet to the size of her planned building. Then the first property owner would receive a bonus for the land, so he can still develop 50% more than the current average building density at Alewife. It sounds like double counting of development to benefit developers. There is no density limit. Development would be restricted only by height.

For example, the Fresh Pond shopping center has about 700,000 square feet of land and a maximum height of 105 feet. Everything built above 85 feet can only be half as dense as development below 85 feet. What the 85-foot and 105-foot limits do is to allow for up to a 7 million-square-foot development envelope on the shopping center site. This is 50 percent more than all of the development in the Alewife area today. It is two and a half times the new development that the Cambridge planners have anticipated for the area for the next 20 years.

The building envelope is simply gargantuan, and the planners should be asked whether this is what they really intended. The failure to provide a reasonable zoning limit for the shopping center is the single largest failure of the new zoning package.

The transfer of development rights has other hazards. Developers could swap development rights several times, selling off first their rights to build housing and then their rights to build office and R& space. Land owners will have higher property values, which means higher taxes. The economic incentive will be to sell development rights, make a cash windfall, and get a reduction in taxes. With this arrangement, pressure for development would become very intense.

The key problems for Belmont are traffic and flooding. The preliminary flood estimates from new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) studies indicate that the 100-year flood level could rise by up to 30 inches (see "What is a Floodplain Map? And Why Does it Need to be Updated?", Belmont Citizens Forum Newsletter, March 2005, www.belmontcitizensforum.org/read_newsletter.htm). Flood waters of this depth would cover almost all of the Concord-Alewife area and affect Cambridge, Belmont, and Arlington. Water could flow over Concord Avenue into Fresh Pond, threatening Cambridge's water supply.

Traffic is the big unanswered question at Alewife. The Concord-Alewife study does not contain any proposals for improving Alewife intersections. Cambridge planners have claimed that all traffic problems are regional, and thus no local mitigation would be useful. Toward the end of the two-year study period, Cambridge staff produced a rudimentary traffic study, which claimed to show that future traffic would be reduced by the new zoning. The apparent rationale was that the new zoning encourages housing, which generates less intense peak-hour traffic than offices would. Unfortunately, the full traffic analysis has not been made public, and there is no evidence that Cambridge planners took future transfer of development rights into account.

The Cambridge City Council will take final action on the zoning recommendations this fall. For more information, see www.cambridgema.gov/~CDD/cp/zng/concalew.

- Steve Kaiser is a civil engineer, and a member of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods.