Final frontier: Opportunities, challenges arise as Alewife development soars
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series examining the changing face of Alewife.
On a recent weekday afternoon, office workers in Cambridge’s Alewife neighborhood lined up for the area’s newest attraction: food trucks.
The mobile eateries are an especially welcome addition, employees said, to a district otherwise sparsely served by the city’s thriving restaurant scene. That the trucks are showing up at all seemed like a small miracle to some employees, who described Alewife as a “lost” and “forgotten” place.
“The dining situation here is not good,” said Phillip Ng, an employee at VT MAK, a simulation software company.
Ng said he sometimes walks with coworkers to the Whole Foods at the Fresh Pond Shopping Center. On a map or in a car, the distance is small, but walking there from Cambridge Park Drive, the cross street abutting the Alewife MBTA station, can take up to 20 minutes, said Vecna Technologies internal operations employee, Megan Sollis.
Minimizing the time that employees are out to lunch is one of the reasons she worked to woo the trucks into stopping at Vecna’s lot during lunch hour. But, the main reason, she said, was to keep Vecna’s employees happy.
“That’s pretty much the sole purpose of my job,” Sollis said. “The way food trucks fit in is there aren’t many options in this area, but there’s a ton of people working here.”
Once overlooked as an industrial and manufacturing zone, real estate developers have been flocking to Alewife in recent years, adding thousands of units of housing and several large office buildings, which in turn has prompted concerns from existing residents about increased traffic and impacts to the environment and quality of life.
The influx of new residents is also bringing renewed vitality to the area, however, leaving many optimistic about the neighborhood’s future. Just what that future will look like is an urban planning puzzle, constrained by geographic barriers that city officials say are not easy to solve. But, with a nascent residents’ group, an emerging business association, and interest from the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, it’s a conversation many are eager to have.
Anne Fallon started working on Cambridge Park Drive four years ago, she said. Then, the strip was not much more than a few office buildings. Fallon’s coworker at Market Strategies International, Courtney Grimm, said the area reminded her of a “work campus,” dominated by cement seas for parking and an auto-oriented streetscape.
“It’s definitely gotten busier over the years,” Fallon said. “You see lots of buildings sprouting up. … It’ll add more people. It’s a good thing that this area is growing up.”
Although she’s encouraged by the changes, Falllon said she joined up with the nascent neighborhood group, the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, because of concerns she had about overdevelopment. Traffic is her biggest issue, she said.
“There’s only way to come in and out,” Fallon said. “I wish there was some way so it doesn’t feel like such a trap.”
Constrained by Route 2, Alewife Brook Parkway, the commuter rail, and the Alewife Brook Reservation, formidable physical barriers have long restricted the flow of development. It was an area of focus for the city’s Concord-Alewife Planning Study that was published in 2006. Much of the new development, especially the housing, was a direct result of zoning that was enacted as part of the study’s recommendations.
Iram Farooq, acting deputy director of the Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD), oversaw the study. The city had been working off plans drafted in 1979 that were later updated in 1995, she said. At the time, Farooq said city staff had consistently been hearing from both the City Council and residents that Alewife didn’t feel like it was part of Cambridge.
“We wanted to look at the area so we could feel out its role in the city and in what direction it could evolve,” Farooq said. “We decided to take the perspective of developing a vision and then determining what the appropriate set of (land) uses would be, and then looking at what the zoning frameworks should be in terms of heights and densities that would be allowed.”
The study identified a 250-acre swath of Alewife that includes the “triangle,” which is bounded by Route 2, Route 16 and the commuter rail; the “quadrangle,” which is bounded by the commuter rail, Route 16, Concord Avenue and Griswold Street; the Fresh Pond Shopping Center and the Cambridge Highlands, a roughly 200-person residential neighborhood that borders Belmont.
Similar to the city’s K2C2 process, a yearlong planning study of Cambridge’s Kendall and Central squares, the study included residents, property owners, business leaders and transportation management planners. Farooq said the overwhelming desire at the time was to incorporate a greater mix of uses so the area didn’t feel as segmented and separate from the rest of the city.
Almost right away, Farooq said the committee identified some of the area’s biggest challenges from an urban planning perspective: a lack of public infrastructure and a streetscape dominated by cars and parking lots.
“Since it had been very industrial in the quadrangle, and the shopping center has a large parking lot, everything was hardscaped,” Farooq said, adding that the large proportion of cement surfaces presented its own environmental challenges for storm water management.
In general, the zoning lowered the heights for as-of-right developments, but increased the heights for developers seeking a special permit, a process that allows the city to have more oversight of the development and gives the community a greater voice. Developers were allowed to seek “density bonuses” if they agreed to put in pedestrian walkways or roads. The zoning also added some environmental requirements, mandating more open space and a higher percentage of permeable surfaces to allow storm water to seep into the ground.
From 2003 to 2009, a total of nine projects were proposed in the area defined by the planning study and seven of those projects were for residential developments. The largest project was 72 units at 37 Wheeler St., but for the most part, developments averaged 20 units each.
The slow pace of development ramped up in the last quarter of 2009 with a proposal from Oaktree Development to build 54 units of residential housing at 87 New St. Since then, 14 more projects have been proposed, 10 of which are for residential buildings.
Unlike proposals in the past, however, the scale of the projects increased after the zoning was implemented, with projects averaging 175 units each, although they range in scale from 10 units on Bay State Road to 429 units on Fawcett Street. Three of the five largest residential developments are going up on Cambridge Park Drive, a dead-end street that funnels out onto Alewife Brook Parkway.
Talk to the people who drive through it every day, and most residents, business owners and area employees will say traffic is Alewife’s Achilles’ heel. Bill Ahern, spearhead of the fledgling Alewife Business Association, said concerns over traffic dominated most of the group’s early conversations. (Read more about the newly formed association here.)
During rush hour, cars from across the region funnel into the bottleneck that is the Route 2/Alewife Brook Parkway intersection before crawling at a glacier pace up and over the Alewife Brook Parkway overpass and out onto Concord Avenue.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), more than 60,000 cars passed through Route 2 every day in 2010, the most recent data available. The agency is planning to solicit construction bids this summer for a $3.3 million improvement project for the Route 2/ Route 16 intersection, a plan that would add several lanes to alleviate congestion.
“This will allow us to make some changes to the overall signal system and allot more green time for the primary Route 2 movements,” said MassDOT press secretary, Sara Lavoie. “While it is not going to make all of the queued traffic go away, this project should certainly improve the situation significantly.”
Connectivity is critical if the city expects to add significant density to the area, said David Loutzenheiser, a Cambridge resident and a transportation planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
“Because Alewife is laid out for the car, most people will drive there,” Loutzenheiser said. “You compare that with Kendall Square, and there are studies that show how (car) volumes have dropped despite all the increases in development because you have a place where you can take the T. It’s a whole different environment.”
The traffic problems may actually decrease if the development is at a more walkable scale, Loutzenheiser said, a fact the city is already keenly aware of. Farooq said traffic was a major component of the 2006 planning study and one reason the city incentivized housing over other land uses since its seen as the creating the least impact to traffic compared to office or retail.
In July last year, the City Council approved $375,000 to fund a feasibility study for a bicycle and pedestrian bridge that would link the Alewife triangle to the quadrangle, a proposal Farooq said came directly out of the Concord Alewife Planning Study. Farooq said that without an at-grade railroad crossing, which the MBTA won’t allow, it would be difficult to connect Cambridge Park Drive to the quadrangle.
“I’m also not sure it would be that much more helpful since that would take you out to Concord Avenue,” Farooq said. Although there have been lighting improvements and some sidewalks upgrades to the area in the past few years, Farooq said the pedestrian and bike bridge would create a much more pleasant experience for the user. “So it doesn’t feel like you’re in an absolutely inhospitable area walking along with a lot of vehicles.”
Check back in next week for a look at the future of Alewife, including more on City Councilor Dennis Carlone’s “Master Plan” and possible involvement from the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.