Alewife Neighbors, Inc. > projects > south_alewife > BCF March, 2005, No Public Hearing on New Quadrangle Zoning For Dense Building On Belmont's East Border

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

No Public Hearing on New Quadrangle Zoning For Dense Building On Belmont's East Border

By Mike Nakagawa

The city of Cambridge has been studying ways to encourage development of its last large "underutilized" commercial district, which lies along the Belmont border. The boundaries of Cambridge's Concord-Alewife area run north from Concord Avenue to the Alewife T station and west from Alewife Brook Parkway to the Belmont town line; the district also includes the Fresh Pond shopping center. Over the last two years, the Concord-Alewife Planning Study Committee has been examining the area, and the results of the study have now been incorporated into draft zoning recommendations for the site. On March 1, without any public hearing to discuss the draft zoning proposal, Cambridge's Planning Board gave unanimous support for the Community Development department to submit a formal zoning petition to City Council for approval.

The Concord-Alewife area currently houses 4.5 million square feet of development, much of which is low-activity, light-industrial usage. The city is already projecting a transformation to 7.3 million square feet of high-activity development in the next 20 years for this half square mile. (Cambridge is 6.5 square miles in total.) Yet this projected new development would be only one-third of the potential allowed under the revised zoning.

One of the key concerns for the city has been transportation issues. The additional traffic expected will not affect Cambridge much because the district is at the edge of the city, at the end of a limited-access highway. However, the area is currently a traffic bottleneck for commuters from the northwestern suburbs, as well as for cross traffic on Route 16.

In fact, two-thirds of the traffic in the area is not heading for Alewife destinations but just passing through, as shown in traffic analyses reviewed in the planning study. Unfortunately, Cambridge is taking the view that because most of the traffic is regional, the city cannot be responsible for solving the problem. In fact, Cambridge was careful to exclude regional traffic issues from the planning study.

During the discussion of the draft zoning at the city's Planning Board meeting in January, an old concept was revisited. One developer stated that since there is a limit to how many cars can fit on the road, once the roadway reaches its capacity, the situation cannot be made any worse. As Alewife Brook Parkway is already at its capacity during peak hours, the developer suggested that more of the vehicles on the road might as well have local destinations rather than just being pass-though traffic. Several Planning Board members expressed their approval of this theory. The idea is an old one, dating back to the large-scale development planned for the heavily contaminated property of the W.R. Grace chemical company, across Alewife Brook Parkway from the T station. (That development has been delayed because of the contamination issues.)

However, the theory fails to acknowledge that pass-through commuters will look for ways to circumvent the Alewife bottleneck as delays become significant. Unfortunately, there are few alternative roadways designed to handle high-volume traffic, and so frustrated drivers will spill onto the surrounding residential streets.

The study predicted an increase of over 1,000 cars in just the peak afternoon hour-which translates into that many cars added to the end of the lines or, more likely, driving through the surrounding neighborhoods after drivers lose patience with the increased delays. However, even these published traffic projections seem suspicious. In the commercial area south of the commuter rail tracks (known to planners as the Quadrangle), planned development will convert the existing 1.9 million square feet of light usage to 3.1 million square feet of high usage, but traffic is expected to increase by fewer than 300 cars total in the peakhour.

Apparently, city planners are counting on a lot of subway use, even though they acknowledge that almost the entire Quadrangle is more than a 15-minute walk from the station. The city isn't even planning to build a pedestrian bridge over the tracks; the hope is that property owners, encouraged by zoning bonuses, will build a pedestrian bridge. In addition, to encourage development near the subway station, property owners far from the station will be allowed to sell all their development rights to sites near the station, while still being able to develop or maintain their own site at a fairly significant level.

What the planning study has failed to consider, despite repeated reminders from residents outside the study area (who were excluded from being members of the study committee), is that almost the whole commercial region is in the Alewife floodplain, which has been subject to repeated flooding in the last few years. Unfortunately, the area surrounding the subway station is the lowest part of the region and is also adjacent to the state's Alewife Brook Reservation, a 120-acre urban wetland and wildlife refuge.

During the March 1 Planning Board discussion, the Community Development department listed two key infrastructure priorities: a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the commuter rail tracks and a new east-west roadway through the center of the Quadrangle. Shown on the map, but not mentioned was a potential large pond that could store storm water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently revising the estimated flood elevations for the area, which would redefine how much area is covered under the state's Wetlands Protection Act. With increases of 2.5 feet mentioned in discussions of the flood study, most of the Concord-Alewife area could be facing state restrictions. Although a resident noted that a draft of the FEMA revisions was planned for release this spring, the Planning Board did not recommend waiting for the zoning to be revised based on the new information before the petition was submitted to City Council.

While existing zoning prevents development in the area from contributing to flooding, building new structures in the floodplain would restrict actions that compensate for past transgressions. Furthermore, future development outside the floodplain, where zoning is not similarly regulated, is sure to create new impervious surfaces, adding more storm water to the sewer system and contributing to flooding. To prepare, Cambridge could build additional flood-storage capacity in areas not already used for floodwaters-a project that could be part of the greater transformation of this area.

So far, the city has paid little attention to the concerns of residents outside the study area. The 30,000 residents of the North and West Cambridge neighborhoods that border the study area were excluded from the Study Committee, as were all Belmont residents. The representatives of the study area's 700 residents have limited their discussion to token improvements for their neighborhood. For more information, visit Cambridge's website: http://www.cambridgema.gov/~CDD/cp/zng/concalew/index.html.

-Mike Nakagawa is a North Cambridge resident and a board member of Alewife Neighbors, Inc.