Residents, officials discuss ways to manage fast-paced change in Alewife
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series looking at the Alewife neighborhood of Cambridge. The first part examined the historic growth of development over the past 10 years and highlighted long-standing traffic concerns in the area.
More than 150 people filed into the Tobin Montessori School cafeteria Monday, March 24, for the first meeting of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance. Co-founder Jan Devereux described the purpose of the meeting: “We’re here to talk about change, how to plan for change, how to manage change, and how to lobby for change.”
When it comes to development in Cambridge, Devereux said, “The next frontier, as many of you know, is Alewife.”
The desire for a more visible hand in development is one that’s been percolating on several fronts in the city. At the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance’s meeting, Devereux called for solidarity with other neighborhood groups in lobbying for a citywide Master Plan.
City Councilor Dennis Carlone championed the idea while he was campaigning last fall and recently launched an online petition to gather public support.
Drawing comparisons to East Cambridge, Carlone said Alewife would benefit from a more systematic planning process with a more prescriptive vision for what residential neighborhoods might look like, how they might be oriented, where open space could be added, and where roads need to be widened or pedestrian paths created. He characterized Alewife one of the “most complex” areas of the city.
“If we’re looking at dramatic change in Alewife, we need to be thinking about what that means,” Carlone said. “Do we need more parks? Could we have a more organized road system? We don’t talk about those kinds of things in a special permit process.”
The Concord-Alewife Planning Study detailed a priority infrastructure plan that calls for lengthening Wilson Road so it connects Spinelli Place to Wheeler Street. The first intersection of that road has already been constructed as part of the 70 Fawcett St. development, said Mike Boujoulian, senior vice president of Cabot, Cabot and Forbes, the development manager for the apartment complex. The existing design also allots some open space for storm-water management and a pedestrian crossing over the railroad.
Carlone’s Master Plan would include more design guidelines for architectural construction, perhaps even on a street-by-street level, which could be incorporated into the city’s special permit process, he said. Carlone said his policy order would include a provision to pause any proposals that seek to “upzone” a parcel for development. Upzoning refers to proposals by developers to change the city’s zoning ordinance to allow for greater height and density, and it requires a vote of the City Council, as opposed to a special permit, which only requires Planning Board approval.
“I’m not asking for a moratorium on all development, but I am asking for a pause on upzoning,” Carlone said. “The best parts of Cambridge are community-oriented, so this is about how we can make sure that happens.”
It’s the larger areas of the city that are most critical, Carlone said. But, developing large swaths of land in Alewife has historically been difficult, according to Iram Farooq, acting deputy director of the Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD), because property ownership is so fragmented. Although there’s been more consolidation in recent years, Farooq said the disparate landowners mean properties are developed one at a time.
The city has very limited legal abilities to buy and sell land, but the same is not true for redevelopment authorities, which operate as entities distinct from both the city and the state, said Tom Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA).
With the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan mostly complete, the board of the CRA hired Evans and planning consultant Kathryn Madden last year to help the authority determine its next steps, and they’re eyeing Alewife as a possibility. The authority has listed 10 potential sites where the authority might be involved in some redevelopment capacity, including the Concord Alewife quadrangle and Fresh Pond Shopping Center. (To read more about CRA projects, click here.)
CRA chairwoman Kathy Born said the authority was amenable to the idea of working in the area, but emphasized that any CRA involvement would have to come directly from residents asking the authority to be involved.
“The authority has an agility when dealing with real estate transactions that the city doesn’t have,” Born said. “If you have an area with multiple property owners, if the Redevelopment Authority can declare it a demonstration project or urban renewal area, then we can fund public infrastructure.”
Born said they would certainly be interested in working with the city and possibly the state to fund a pedestrian-bike bridge over the railroad tracks, a multi-million project. Evans said they were still working with city staff to understand the scope of the issues in Alewife. Any action on the authority’s part would need to be directed by the City Council, Evans said. (For more information about the CRA’s strategic planning process, see “Where will the CRA go next?” on this page.)
The railroad tracks are a challenge, he said, but perhaps not the only one.
“It’s definitely worth taking a look at for all of the reasons related to connectivity,” Evans said. “(Alewife) has a great mix of uses there, but they’re disorganized and not connected to each other in a way that feels like an urban, mixed use area. You have transit and you have parks and retail – it’s all there – but, it’s just hard to get from one end to the other.”