Alewife Neighbors, Inc. > projects > south_alewife > 4-JUN-2003 It's time to be heard on development in northwest Cambridge

The following column appeared in the June 4, 2003 edition of the Cambridge Chronicle

It's time to be heard on development in northwest Cambridge

By Michael Nakagawa / Guest Columnist
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Over the past few months, the Concord-Alewife Planning Study has been focused on adding three John Hancock-towers' worth of new development to northwest Cambridge, in about 1/2 square mile of our city's 6-1/2 total. The city consultants' projected 5 million new square feet, equal to East Cambridge's North Point, should be generating serious public discussion. Residents could remedy a stunning lack of it at a public workshop this Saturday morning, June 7.

While West and North Cambridge will be most affected, the city manager selected only people from the Highlands area to represent Cambridge residents in the Study Committee for this flawed process. Then the Community Development Department instructed the committee members to focus only within the study boundary, including the Highlands with its 700 residents. By excluding other surrounding areas, such as North and West Cambridge with 30,000 residents, the CDD is able to satisfy only a small population to get "resident" approval.

Safety issues extending beyond the study area should be addressed. A project of North Point's size would add 18,000 car trips per day to this already congested area. With further increases in traffic, frustrated and impatient drivers will cut through neighborhoods. I've repeated witnessed drivers looking to quicken their commutes who, after ignoring "do not enter" and "one way" signs, disregard speed limits and stop signs, including the ones at neighborhood tot lots.

Drivers looking to bypass the Alewife bottleneck, with current Grade F Level of Service intersections, will stream through side streets far from the Highlands. Concord, Huron, Mt. Auburn and Mass Ave. will get the northwest suburbs-to-Boston crowd. Northern traffic will descend through the Mass Ave. side neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the city consultants regard the traffic problem as regional and beyond the study's scope. Incredibly, they ignore the contribution of Concord-Alewife itself to the regional problem. Since we bear the brunt of the problem, instead of adding to it, Cambridge should lead the search for regional solutions. However, the neighborhood Committee members seem placated by the promise to improve local traffic, although any mitigation would certainly be overwhelmed with the additional 18,000 daily car trips.

Equally problematic, the proposed development is almost entirely within the Alewife Brook floodplain. This area experienced significant flooding recently in 1996, 1998 and 2001. Instead of using some of the Concord-Alewife area as a stormwater detention pond, a functional amenity, the city has instead planned to pipe 57 million gallons of street runoff past the study area, and into the Alewife Brook Reservation every year, even though downstream flooding would increase in the larger, and most concerning, storms. But the city seems uninterested in preparing city systems to accommodate future development plans.

While city officials congratulate themselves for our AAA bond rating, they ignore that it came from expansive development without infrastructure improvements to handle it. Other communities actually use bonds to fund capital improvements, which then allow future development impacts to be absorbed.

With early investment in our infrastructure, we can accommodate continued development, while enjoying the benefits of future revenue streams from it, without the quality-of-life sacrifice that is driving families out of our community. Instead, the city manager seems to be courting development for its immediate revenue and to preserve the bond rating, as residents patiently await the next infrastructure implosion, whether of safety, sewers, transportation or flooding, when corrections are much more costly.

Since the city manager appoints virtually every member of each city board, commission and neighborhood study committee, the general public's ability to affect planning is limited. Concerned residents, already swamped with neighborhood issues, let alone those elsewhere in the city, are chastised as simply looking out for their own self-interests. Typical planning processes throughout the city, such Trolley Square, Riverside and East Cambridge as most recent examples, first involve residents, and then ignore their concerns later. It seems reaching the final stage is now sooner in the process.

On Saturday, June 7, at 9:30 a.m. at the Tobin School, the Concord-Alewife Study Committee will hold another public forum, probably the last before they release their vision for the area. With planning of this much of our city, residents throughout Cambridge should grasp each opportunity to voice their support for sustainable development, rather than simply accept the results of unmitigated development.

(Michael Nakagawa lives on Madison Avenue.)