There’s a move afoot to gut Cambridge’s Planning Board, and put the Cambridge City Council in charge of dispensing development permits. This is a terrifying prospect. In recent years, the City Council has threatened to block the office expansion that kept Google in Kendall Square, imposed a lengthy delay on a major expansion by Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and intervened in a battle against an affordable housing development in Belmont. The quickest way to knock Cambridge off its perch as one of the hottest commercial areas in the country, and one of the key drivers of the state’s economy, would be to give the city’s historically volatile City Council the power to sign off on every major new development in the city.
Even so, the effort to sideline the Cambridge Planning Board has the potential for great progress. The fight between the council and Planning Board is more than a municipal power struggle. It’s really about what development looks like in Cambridge, and how it functions once the construction crews wrap up their work. And it’s happening at a time when Cambridge is in a position to harness the discontent fueling the current fight and use it to fix its approach to development.
Tension over development in Cambridge has been building for years. It runs from Alewife and Fresh Pond, the site of an apartment-building boom, to Central Square, to East Cambridge, where residents are battling the proposed redevelopment of a shuttered state-owned courthouse tower.
These frustrations have found a champion in Dennis Carlone, a first-term city councilor, who wants to strip the Planning Board of its power to approve development permits for large projects. Carlone would hand the Planning Board’s powers to the City Council.
Surprisingly, Carlone’s critique of the way development works in Cambridge has resonated with people who oppose the specific fix he’s proposing. It has instigated a unique citywide conversation about the failings of development in Cambridge.
Carlone is no anti-development zealot. He’s been an architect and urban planner for four decades. He helped shape the redevelopment of East Cambridge. He says he advanced his bid to neutralize the Planning Board to stave off a push by residents to implement a development moratorium. But he is deeply critical of the type of development Cambridge’s Planning Board has approved in recent years.
Carlone and a vocal ally on the City Council, Nadeem Mazen, argue that Cambridge’s Planning Board has been greenlighting development projects without a broader perspective. The result is a pile of pieces that don’t add up to anything. The area around Alewife and Fresh Pond is a warren of subdivisions that feel more like Burlington or Waltham than Cambridge. The projects don’t have much to do with one another, or with the city as a whole. The developers check the boxes on the Planning Board’s narrow zoning checklist, but don’t offer a broader vision of where Cambridge, as a city, is heading.
“What are we creating?” Carlone asks. “The quality of development, and the quality of thinking, has to step up beyond the property lines.”
Mazen believes Carlone’s critique of Cambridge’s development process has struck a chord. The debate has drawn out a surprisingly broad group of people who have come to see Cambridge as wracked by inadequate zoning, weak planning, inattention to quality-of-life issues, and a development process that frustrates residents rather than engaging them.
These concerns are emerging just as Cambridge is ramping up a citywide master planning effort. The master plan puts Cambridge’s zoning, and its development vision, up for revision. It’s not clear that Carlone has the votes on the City Council to take permitting away from the Planning Board. But he wound up mobilizing many residents who have provided a compelling agenda for the city master planning effort.
Carlone has created broad support for a more holistic approach to development in Cambridge — one that doesn’t just create individual buildings, but builds communities. Now it’s up to Cambridge’s master planning team to take this mandate as an opportunity to regenerate the city.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.