Alewife building boom spurs worry among residents
Many concerned about quality of life
“It can take 45 minutes to move less than a mile,” said Alison Field-Juma, a West Cambridge resident who suffers through the parkway bottleneck daily. “I do anything I can to avoid this. I work longer hours. I start early. But then that affects my family. It didn’t use to be this bad.”
Alewife has always been a tough slog, but the traffic has gotten much worse, residents say, since a housing boom hit the neighborhood. This year alone, more than 1,000 luxury apartments have sprung up around the MBTA station, and another 1,500 high-end units are slated for this side of the city in 2015, as well as office developments.
Worse is that many residents contend the city did not anticipate how bad things would become when it allowed so much building in the area.
With the local economy booming, the spoils of success include many new high-paying jobs at the technology and life sciences companies rushing to open offices in Kendall Square and in Boston’s Innovation District. A boom that is the envy of many around the world, however, has side effects that ripple through the neighborhoods of Boston and Cambridge: spiraling housing prices and a growing anxiety about affordability and economic fairness.
Rents in Cambridge have spiked to levels beyond the reach of many middle-class families. And the gridlock that has inevitably followed this explosion of development on the west side of the city has crystallized the debate for many in Cambridge about their quality of life. From this comes a new generation of residents who are challenging City Hall to better manage the inevitable pressures to grow and expand.
“The planning process in Cambridge is broken,” said Jan Devereux, a West Cambridge resident who founded the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance this year in response to rapid development at Alewife. “The city allows these projects to be planned and approved one at a time, instead of looking at how you build out an entire neighborhood and a city as a whole.”
With more land available than in other sections of the city, West Cambridge has drawn immense interest from major real estate investors. Sitting at the end of the Red Line, the Alewife area offers an easy commute to labs and startups’ offices in Kendall Square.
Like many other municipalities, Cambridge has long had planning guidelines for each neighborhood; often, though, these plans are not followed closely. At Alewife, for example, the amount of development that was anticipated in city documents for the period between 2006 and 2024 was surpassed in 2014, a full decade early.
And instead of bringing a mix of offices, apartments, shops, and outdoor spaces that would have created an urban center with a distinct personality, the boom has brought mostly housing. There remain so many missing elements — from sidewalks to a footbridge over the sprawling commuter rail tracks — that reaching the Red Line can be difficult.
“We were told that when there is more development at Alewife, it would not affect traffic,” Alison Field-Juma said. “But it hasn’t turned out that way.”
The message seems to be getting through to City Hall.
Brian Murphy, assistant city manager in charge of community development, said the residents’ complaints have forced officials to pay closer attention to the fallout from development.
“This new focus on our work reminded us to reexamine what we are doing and how we are doing it,” he said. To appease the residents, the city has organized around 50 community conversations, asking people what they value about living in Cambridge.
In response, Cambridge is developing a citywide plan that would guide development and examine the impact on infrastructure, neighborhood character, and values emphasized by the community, such as social equity and diversity.
In another move, the city replaced some Planning Board members in November after residents complained that the board rubber-stamped special permits sought by every major development before it.
In December, the new Planning Board made the unusual move of discussing its procedures in a round table with the City Council. Board chairman Hugh Russell acknowledged that most projects were reviewed and settled by the time they came up for a public hearing.
“We are planning to change that and involve residents earlier,” vowed Murphy, the development director.
In a city with a culture of civic involvement, inviting more input from residents could lead developers to rethink their proposals.
In April, when Acorn Holdings and Abodez Development proposed a 93-unit apartment building on New Street near Alewife, residents peppered officials with complaints: The sidewalks were too narrow, there were no bike lanes or other safe ways to reach the MBTA station, for example. They also suggested that the developer include larger units to accommodate more families.
The board has sent the project back to the developer for changes four times.
Conversely, a local developer, Richard McKinnon, had his proposal for a large apartment complex on Cambridgepark Drive sail through in October after he worked with residents to modify the project. Originally, he proposed 378 apartments and a nine-story parking garage behind the Alewife T station. He took steps to keep the neighbors informed, such as posting videos of project presentations on the websites of residents’ groups.
Following the public input, McKinnon reduced the number of apartments to 254 and added more retail and community space, including for shops and a playground.
“This is how it should be done,” said Langley Keyes, former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s urban planning department and a member of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance.
“The city has been extremely reluctant to put pressure on developers and to extract some resources to make it work for the people. So we end up with these buildings plunked down in the middle of nowhere.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, local developer Richard McKinnon’s first name was incorrect.