Alewife Study Group > government > Aug 22 2004, Executive office of Environmental Affairs Search 

Cambridge Discovery Park
Request for Phase One Waiver

August 22, 2004

The Honorable Ellen Roy Herzfelder, Secretary
Executive office of Environmental Affairs
100 Cambridge Street, Suite 900
Boston, MA 02114
Attn: James Hunt, MEPA Director
Attn: Nicholas Zavolas, Environmental Analyst, MEPA Office

Re: Cambridge Discovery Park
Request for Phase One Waiver

Dear Secretary Herzfelder:

I am writing with respect to the Phase One MEPA waiver for Cambridge Discovery Park requested through Goodwin Proctor on July 15, 2004 for their client, BHX LLC, Trustee of Acorn Park Holdings Realty Trust at the former Arthur D. Little Company site in Cambridge, MA.

I attended the scoping meeting for this request and listened to a presentation by Richard McKinnon regarding the proposal. I am appreciative of the opportunity to have asked questions at this session and was advised to restate those concerns and any others at this opportunity.

I will attempt to distill my several concerns into six subject areas and I assume it will be understood that common to all of these is an awareness that the rarity of 'urban wilds' such as the Alewife Reservation necessitates unique diligence and stewardship reflecting both knowledge and requisite care. The aforesaid areas of concern include:

Use Restrictions:

According to the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, the Zoning category that governs uses and dimensional requirements for this site is Special District 4. Unlike most other Special Districts in Cambridge, there are no explicit 'use' restrictions in Special District 4. Normally, 'use' restrictions are stated emphatically within two or three subsections of the enabling declaration for a zoning district. By example, Special District 4A discusses FAR apportionment specifically with regard to uses before any discussion of dimensional or other considerations. There does not appear to be any similar discussion or suggestion of use limitations in Special District 4. The expected impacts of a residential development are quite different than the environmental impacts associated with an office development. Given the environmental sensitivities associated with this area it was an oversight that this matter was not dealt with more specifically when the rezoning was agreed to.

If MEPA regulations do not add any further governance in this particular regard, I would observe that a waiver of the normal phasing requirements is an unnecessary surrender of the limited authority that would otherwise act as a barrier to legal uses that might in fact be detrimental. In the absence of meaningful zoning controls, deferring potential authority is simply not warranted and not in the publics best interest.

Traffic Impacts:

A more fulsome explanation of traffic impacts needs to be made. The City of Cambridge has announced their intention of transferring development rights from the more remote areas of the Quadrangle and the Triangle to the area abutting both sides of Route 16. In addition, putting the Fresh Pond Shopping Center Parking spaces underground to maximize above ground development potential has been forwarded. Literally, the current plan aims to double the potential development and total # of parking spaces. This could result potentially in an increase of 15,000 vehicle trips per day into an area of notable traffic congestion where most major intersections are at level F for increasingly extended periods of time. The management of this situation has become non-existent not for lack of will or acknowledgment but rather for lack of interested parties fully admitting that the level of development in this area is inappropriate. It would be a shame to invite a solid and potentially benevolent presence such as the Smithsonian to invest in a location whose infrastructural constraints may very well terminate their presence prematurely. A pleasant location can be made unpleasant if it becomes practically inaccessible. Unless it can be developed in such a way that the foreseeable traffic impacts for the rest of the Alewife area are not constraining, we would be creating an incentive for short term tenancy if not eventual vacancy.

The City of Cambridge and the State of Massachusetts awareness of the problems in this area are well documented. In the City of Cambridge's Alewife Planning Study, June 22, 1993 it is stated on page II. 5:

"The most recent traffic studies that have been conducted for the Alewife area are the City's EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for the Alewife Local Roadway Improvement Project approved by MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency) in 1984 and the various studies undertaken by the Massachusetts Highway Department in the mid to late 1980's. All analysis in these studies has indicated that most intersections are now at or above capacity and that this condition is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. In addition, since only a small portion of the vehicles traveling through the Alewife area actually have a destination in Alewife - according to a recent CTPS (Central Transportation Planning Service) study, only 40% of the traffic even has a destination in Cambridge - any program to increase capacity would only make travel through the area easier and in all likelihood actually attract more traffic."

In February of 1987, the US Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Department of Public Works jointly submitted in accordance with Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (EOEA No. 4539) the following statement:

"The Route 2/Alewife Brook Parkway project area, located in Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has long been in need of transportation system improvements. The abrupt transition from an eight-lane Route 2 expressway to a four-lane Alewife Brook Parkway has caused significant traffic congestion, particularly during peak commuter periods, and vehicular and pedestrian safety problems. Recent completion of a major transit station and 2000 car garage, as well as continuing development in this area, are increasing the traffic demands imposed on this roadway network. The environmental sensitivity of the corridor is also a major concern, because it includes publicly owned recreation areas, extensive wetlands and water resources, and a shallow floodplain."

Since the awareness of traffic problems in this area have been so robustly acknowledged to and by MEPA in the past, it is troubling that the MEPA would now consider sidestepping this major consideration.

In addition, there is an associated problem with idling traffic and it's measurable impacts upon air quality. Particulate emission from idling autos is quite bad in this area and it does not improve with little or no attention paid to harnessing development to the manifest limits of infrastructure. Several times each year my neighbors and I have to hose down our porches to remove soot generated from automobiles. If we had the tonic ability to hose down our pulmonary systems with similar dispatch, we would. At the very least, some attempt to chronicle particulate level in the atmosphere ought to be provided for and results from such measurement should be submitted to both state and independent agencies to be analyzed for health effects.

Alongside of this health concern is the additional concern of the ability for safety vehicles to negotiate the increasingly congested roadways abutting and adjacent to this development quickly and efficiently. And as the US Department of Transportation points out pedestrian safety as well is of significant concern.

As long as the City of Cambridge maintains a philosophy of 'build first, ask questions later' the aforesaid concerns will affect all development in this area. As an 'Edge City' environment, residents now expect that the worst sins will be committed here. But businesses are not immune to the limitations. As newer businesses are created and the development potential is more fully realized, even strong desirable existing business will not be immune to the accumulated adversity. If the area continues to be difficult to access, businesses will simply not view it as viable. Some businesses already have.

Asbestos Contamination:

It is mentioned by the proponent that asbestos containing materials (ACM's) have been identified in at least one of the structures earmarked for demolition. At the scoping meeting it was revealed that it was limited to pipe cladding and flooring materials. Given the age of this building ACM's are likely to be more various and widespread. Other potential sources of this sort of contamination would include insulation, electrical wrappings, exterior cladding, fire and other masonry brick, concrete, wall board, plaster and associated products, ceiling tiles, paint and paint additives, cementitious materials, etc. It is in the interest of the property owner to test the perimeter soils before demolition and once again after demolition is completed. This would be health protective for existing tenants at the site as well as for potential tenants. Provided residential uses are not contemplated, limited and simple PLM and PCM measurements would suffice to determine the effects of demolition to the soils. But barring any sort of exclusion for residential use, a higher standard involving transmission electron microscopy or its EPA sanctioned variants should be brought to bear.

Habitat Impacts:

I am particularly concerned about the impacts of both development and use with regard to habitat for established species. Noise and human activity ought to be kept to a minimum. It is understandable that the level of development that is being contemplated requires a great deal of both activity and noise, but to the most practical extent feasible, this should be minimized. The precise description of how this occurs could be more usefully laid out with a fuller MEPA review.

Any proposed tenant should understand the necessity of acting as a benign steward. This would apply to both the reservation and abutting properties that present the same environmental sensitivity. One of the benefits that Arthur D. Little provided to the reservation was a quiet and generally respectful daytime presence with limited or no nighttime activity. To the maximum extent possible, I would encourage this same approach for any new tenants/managers and/or owners. This would include discouraging within reason human activity that would disturb habitat that needs to be reserved for species in far greater need than our human population. It seems to me that this goal would be more fully understood and readily achieved through a full MEPA review.

Absence of Master Planning:

From the point of view of the Public Interest, I have to express my disappointment that given the previously stated desire for reservation master planning from the MADEP and from other associated agencies, that a variance from normal MEPA regulations is being both contemplated and suggested. It sends the wrong message to the private sector about the seriousness with which the MEPA process views environmental protection particularly in an area so obviously in need of more honest stewardship. MEPA should explain why master plan considerations are no longer an overriding part of the "scope" and why a tenant's economic concerns override the area-wide environmental concerns. This is made all the more fundamental since the stated basis for the "waiver" request is the proposed tenants economic hardship.

Altogether too often, the Alewife area is trumpeted by architects and developers as an example of "Smart Growth". To those of us who live here, and to architects and developers with a more manifest sense of honesty, it is an example of "Dumb Growth". If even the pretense of "master planning" is to be abandoned here, the sort of flexibility that might be justified by a general agreement of a bigger picture becomes unjustified. In the proponents request, there is no discussion of how this project affects and is affected by the wider context. This is more the rule than the exception at Alewife. But without a full MEPA review, how can a better result be achieved, let alone justified?

Waiver Criteria:

The stated rationale for the variance request from a full MEPA phasing is:

"Unless the proposed Building 100 is allowed to proceed under a Phase One Waiver, the Proponent will be unable to accommodate Smithsonian's needs: the loss of Smithsonian as the principal tenant of Building 100 would preclude construction of the building and would further delay starting the redevelopment of Cambridge Discovery Park and the associated environmental improvements."

I would submit that there is no hardship here. It is true that in a competitive office-building environment, the owner is under a burdensome disadvantage. If this property were not located in an environmentally sensitive area, perhaps there would be justification for considering such a waiver. But I would argue that MEPA has a duty to look beyond current or other market forces and consider the Public's Interest preeminently. It should be stated somewhere in the MEPA comment response what the legal basis for granting a 'waiver' is and a narrowly stated justification of such. I am herewith requesting that the criteria, the justification and the limits of such an allowance be made public and manifest.

The aforesaid are my major concerns. I have as in the past benefited from the simplicity and straightforwardness of Richard McKinnon's facilitation in this and other projects. And I must acknowledge that I believe the proposal to situate the Smithsonian at this location to be both appropriate and welcome. The growth needs of the academic community in Cambridge could be met by locating in this area. It would do much to relieve development pressure on the interior sections of Cambridge while providing the sort of tenants to areas like the former Acorn Park that benefit from a potentially benevolent presence. With this in mind I would underscore that a truncated process does not achieve this goal. It would be preferable to do this more comprehensively and with the sort of care and thought and planning that would be associated with a full MEPA process.


Joseph Joseph
20 Kassul Park
Cambridge, MA

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