Cambridge Planning Board - Jan 4th, 2022

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from

These notes cover a subset of agenda items. I was interested in the Affordable Housing Overlay hearing, and the discussion of single- and two-family districts.

Advisory Design Review - AHO-1

This hearing involves an Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) proposal for 52 New Street. The applicant is Just a Start.

(Sarah Scott, Community Development Department) Ms. Scott explains that this is the second of two required design consultations. During the first consultation, the Planning Board expressed support and made suggestions. The purpose of tonight's meeting is to evaluate the proposal for compliance with the AHO ordinance, and various city design plans.

(Noah Sawyer, Just a Start) Mr. Sawyer says that Just a Start is a 52 year old Cambridge non-profit whose mission is about affordable housing and economic empowerment. Their goal is to build affordable housing that allows residents to thrive. They design their projects with the intent of being good neighbors. Climate resilience is also a consideration, and this project is designed to passive building standards. They've tried to integrate the building into Danehy Park, and New Street as a whole. The project has a web site at Just a Start organized three community meetings with a total of 60 attendees. The first of these meetings was held on October 26.

(Ben Wan, Architect) Mr. Wan wants to start by talking about massing, facade articulation, and retail frontage. They've used two courtyards to break up the massing, and to ensure good solar exposure for units. Mr. Wan shows slides of a shadow study, including ones that depict possible future development on New Street.

They've changed the building articulation, to break up long stretches of facade, along with adding accent materials to the sixth floor. They've also reworked the entrance to the first-floor retail space and added recessed areas to the masonry.

The building exterior will mostly consist of cementaceous panels. The stock they've chosen has a rough stone-like texture, with some natural variation in appearance. They'll use wood and brick veneer for accents. They've also added accent colors around the windows, solar jambs, and louvers. They'll use color to accentuate the retail space entrance, and planting fences to screen the building drive isles. Building mechanicals will be screened from multiple vantage points.

There will be roof decks on floors two and five, as amenity spaces for residents. The entrance lobby is visible from the street, and fully accessible from the garage. They've also met with the Cambridge Fire Department to ensure their access requirements are satisfied.

They plan to use permeable pavers on the building's plaza and growing screens around bicycle and parking spaces. Exterior walkways will have a 1:20 slope for accessibility. Outdoor areas will have backless benches, planters, and short-term bicycle parking.

(Noah Sawyer) Mr. Sawyer says the project is being done with LIHTC and DHCD funds. The unit breakdown will be

  • 23 one-bedroom apartments (approx 600 square feet)
  • 62 two-bedroom apartments (approx 800 square feet)
  • 21 three-bedroom apartments (approximately 950 square feet)

The affordability breakdown will be:

  • 10 apartments at 61--100% AMI
  • 83 apartments at 30--60% AMI
  • 14 apartments at < 30% AMI

There will be 107 apartments total, in 129,000 square feet of gross floor area.

The amount of space per unit is on par with other affordable housing projects in Cambridge. The building will have amenity spaces, for things that residents can't do in their apartments: a business center, a fitness center, and a community room.

The chair opens the hearing to public comment.

(James Williamson) Mr. Williamson lives across the railroad tracks from the site. He appreciates the comments that Planning Board members made during the first hearing. He thinks the apartments will only be as good as the building management. He thinks there's an opportunity to add balconies, which the housing authority has limited. He thinks this won't be an olympic village, and suggests that some residents might not like living next to a playing field.

(Robert Komacho) Mr. Komacho wants to see further study before Cambridge ends single- and two-family district zoning.

The chair stops Mr. Komacho. She notes that the board is discussing 52 New Street, and the single- and two-family discussion will take place later in the meeting.

(Dan Totten) Mr. Totten likes the project, and hopes it can be built as soon as possible. He has a comment about the outdoor benches. Some people with disabilities can have a difficult time with backless benches, and he suggests that some of the benches could have backs. He thinks Just a Start has done a great job.

(Susanne Blea) Ms. Blea says it's critical to have the planning board do this kind of work. She suggests using wood or metal benches, rather than cement.

There are no further comments from the public.

(Mary Flynn, Planning Board Chair) Ms. Flynn asks if the board members have any questions.

(Steve Cohen, Planning Board) After a pause, Mr. Cohen suggests the planning board is quiet because they're happy.

(Hugh Russel, Planning Board) Mr. Russel says he was interested in the part of the presentation that covered unit sizes and amenities. Changes to the facade improved the project. He likes the benches but thinks concrete might not be the most comfortable material; he suggests using benches similar to the ones outside the public library. He hopes Just a Start will consider tilt and turn windows, and feels that sidewall vents are more energy efficient than venting up shafts. The key with sidewall vents is to camouflage them. He thinks that handicapped spaces should be closer to the entrance, and the entrance can be protected with wheel-stops if needed. He favors updating the planning board report to reflect the applicant's progress.

(Tom Sieniewicz, Planning Board) Mr. Sieniewicz thinks that Just a Start made a serious effort to incorporate the planning board's feedback. He agrees with updating the board's report.

(Alan Price, Planning Board) Mr. Price thinks the applicant did a great job of tracking and responding to comments.

(Lou Bocci, Planning Board) Mr. Bocci says that if this is a high point in affordable housing overlay projects, then others won't be as good. He doesn't think the applicants went far enough in addressing the board's comments.

(Ted Cohen, Planning Board) Mr. Cohen is happy with everything, though he things the brown and beige color scheme is a bit drab. He hopes Just a Start could make the building a little more sparkling. He thinks the S-shape and elevator placement will make the building feel less large than it is for residents.

(Ashley Tan, Planning Board) Ms. Tan has an issue with the benches, but otherwise thinks the improvements are good. She appreciates the addition of more light at the building entrance.

(Mary Flynn) Ms. Flynn agrees that it's a big building, but thinks that Just a Start did a good job at breaking it up. She hopes that Just a Start will be able to work more with CDD on the material selection.

(Hugh Russel) Mr. Russel asks if the floor of the bike room could be raised, so that it doesn't need to be evacuated in the event of flooding. Or perhaps the room could be flood proofed.

(Mary Flynn) Ms. Flynn thinks this issue might be addressed via discussions with the DPW.

There's a motion to revise the planning board report and certify compliance. Passes, 7--0--1 (I believe Mr. Bocci voted "present").

Discussion of rezoning districts that only allow single-family and two-family housing

(Jeff Roberts, Community Development Department) Mr. Roberts will give a presentation on Cambridge's "neighborhood" zoning districts. In the last year, the City Council voted on a policy order that would have the Planning Board look at single- and two-family district zoning, for the purpose of allowing more than single- or two-family dwellings. The districts in question are A-1, A-2, B, C, and C-1. Most of these districts are limited to 35' of height and 2.5 or 3 stories. They have small-sized lots and wood framed buildings.

The A-1 and A-2 districts allow only single-family homes, and one principal structure per lot. The B district allows single- and two-family homes. C and C-1 allow one- and two-family homes, plus townhouses and rowhouses.

These districts date to 1943, and most neighborhoods were developed by that time. The A-1, A-2, and B districts were originally very small, but expanded over time. Most of the current A-1, A-2, and B districts came from downzoned C districts.

About half of Cambridge's housing is in these five districts.

Mr. Roberts summarizes development standards applicable to these districts. These include lot size, lot area per dwelling unit, height, floor area ratio (FAR), lot size and layout, and parking. The density limits were added in 1961 and lot area per dwelling unit requirements were increased in the 1990s.

The minimum lot sizes in these districts are:

  • A-1 - 8000 square feet
  • A-2 - 6500 square feet
  • B - 5000 square feet
  • C - 5000 square feet
  • C-1 - 5000 square feet

The A districts tend to have much bigger houses. A-1, A-2, and B have fixed size yard setbacks while C and C-1 have formulaic setbacks.

Private Open Space has a 15' minimum dimensional requirement, which prevents a number of lots from meeting it.

Cambridge zoning requires one parking space per dwelling unit, and that's a challenge for smaller lots.

Many existing lots meet some of these dimensional standards, but not all of them. New construction must be conforming, which means meeting all of the standards. Cambridge's rules for non-conforming lots are very relevant, because there are so many of them in the city.

Cambridge also requires a special permit for tandem parking.

Mr. Roberts says the city council stated several motivations for changing neighborhood zoning, including:

  • To make Cambridge more inclusive, and dismantle systemic racism
  • To reduce the number of variances needed
  • To avoid reducing the number of units in new construction
  • To make these districts more inclusive

Mr. Roberts shows a two-dimensional matrix, which suggests how the Planning Board might consider these changes. One axis varies with the scope of the change and the other varies with the amount of effort involved. For example, the board could propose rezoning A-1, A-2, and B districts to C and C-1. Another option would be to impose uniform requirements for all neighborhood zoning districts. A longer term effort might be to study and re-draw all of the district boundaries and regulations.

(Mary Flynn) Ms. Flynn asks if the board members have any questions.

(Tom Sieniewicz) Mr. Sieniewicz wants to clarify the foundational premise. It's not whether to consider changing these districts, but how to go about changing them.

(Jeff Roberts) Mr. Roberts thinks that's a good characterization. He says the City Council is interested in pursuing changes to make multi-family housing available city-wide.

(Iram Farooq, Community Development Department) Ms. Farooq says the city council is looking for guidance from the planning board, to see what options are advisable, including whether to do something simple, or something more detailed and granular. The Council is looking for pros and cons of the various approaches.

(Had to leave at this point, so I missed the rest of the discussion.)