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(This page created Apr. 16 2000)
The Oaktree Apartment Tower Proposal:
We need a better way to build housing in Cambridge
By Lew Weitzman, Montgomery Street
A nine-story 366,000 square foot apartment tower has been proposed for 30 CambridgePark Drive across the street from the Alewife T-Station by Oaktree Development. The project is currently moving through City permits and construction could begin this spring.
The Cambridge Conservation Commission has already approved an Order of Conditions for the Project and the Planning Board has approved a Multi-family Special Permit. The final hurdle is a Planning Board Special Permit for the Floodplain Overlay District.
This Tuesday, April 11, the Cambridge Planning Board will consider Special Permit #154 for the Oaktree Development proposal for 30 CambridgePark Drive.
Housing at all costs?
On the face of it, an apartment building at Alewife seems like a good idea. Cambridge needs more housing and this part of Alewife could certainly benefit from the street level activity generated by residential uses. But this factor alone cannot outweigh all others. Cambridge needs more housing but is this the best way to accomplish that goal?
An Apartment Tower Larger in Volume than a Rindge Tower
In total floor area this building will be the largest privately owned structure ever built in this portion of Alewife. Considering the other structures in this area that is quite a statement.
By most accounts Alewife is already overbuilt with large structures and its roadways beyond capacity. Anyone who has tried to drive the Alewife Brook Parkway can attest to this fact. Traffic queues get longer each year and now extend well beyond the rush hours.
Past Mistakes at Alewife
There is a growing consensus in Cambridge that the kind of development that has already taken place at Alewife and East Cambridge is not building the kind of City most residents would like to live in.
The Cambridge Community Development Department in their latest planning document for Alewife acknowledges that, "new buildings along CambridgePark Drive seemed isolated from abutting neighborhoods and did not reflect the traditional fabric of Cambridge".
Anthony Quint the City Hall Bureau Chief for the Boston Globe has recently commented that Kendall Square is "a place that makes the architectural statement of a corporate office park" (Sunday Globe, March 26, Focus Section lead story). The same could well be said for Alewife.
In light of these admissions of past planning mistakes at Alewife it is unclear why another large apartment building at Alewife has the full support of the City planning departments.
Those living outside the Alewife area may not be aware that Alewife lies within a floodplain of the Mystic River. Those familiar with street and basement flooding in North Cambridge will attest to the fact that this floodplain does in fact still operate and poses a significant threat to health and safety. During the 1996 rainstorm the Alewife Brook crested across the Alewife Brook Parkway and entered North Cambridge neighborhoods.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has declared most of Alewife to be within their 100-year flood zone and therefore particularly at risk for the ravages of periodic and major flooding. This is the only major portion of Cambridge to be so designated. FEMA has warned municipalities that "development in or adversely effecting floodplains should be avoided".
I have spoken to State and FEMA officials who expressed surprise and concern regarding the amount of development that has already occurred in the Alewife Floodplain. State Regulations under the Wetlands Act (310 CMR) were designed to limit development in these environmentally sensitive areas. Apparently these Regulations have failed to protect the Alewife Floodplain from one of the largest commercial build-outs in the City.
Oaktree and the Floodplain
The Oaktree development is a precedent setting proposal for the Alewife Floodplain. This is the first proposal to come before the City for a site that is entirely within the 100-year flood zone mapped by FEMA. During a major storm event this entire site is expected to be under one to three feet of water.
Many cities and towns in Massachusetts place severe restrictions on development within their floodplains and some forbid it altogether. As a minimal requirement developers are required to compensate flood storage taken up by their development with new flood storage on a different part of their site.
The Oaktree proposal does not employ this standard method of compensatory flood storage. It is one of the first projects in Massachusetts to propose underground flood storage in structured tanks.
The Cambridge Conservation Commission remains unconvinced of the effectiveness of these underground flood storage chambers and their compliance with State Wetlands Regulations. In addition the Conservation Commission has determined that Oaktree has violated State and Local Laws by tearing down a structure on the site without a permit from the Commission.
For reasons that are not entirely clear the Conservation Commission has decided to set aside these concerns with the Oaktree proposal. An Order of Conditions has been approved based on site conditions before the Notice of Intent was filed.
This is a highly irregular ruling and leaves many questions unanswered.Zoning Regulations and Oaktree
This Tuesday, April 11, the Planning Board will consider the Special Permit required for the Floodplain Overlay District in which the Apartment Tower is to be built.
The Floodplain Overlay District (Section 11.70 of Cambridge Zoning Code) was created by the City Council specifically with the Alewife area in mind. It was intended, "to protect human life and property from the hazards of periodic flooding, to preserve the natural flood control characteristics and the flood storage capacity of the flood plain, to preserve and maintain the ground water recharge areas within the flood plain and to provide a mechanism for a comprehensive review of development in the Flood Plain Overlay District and the design and location of flood water retention systems and their relationship to other surrounding development."
It is clear that the Planning Board can and should revisit the flood storage issues that were discussed and then dismissed by the Conservation Commission. The Floodplain Overlay District requires them to do this and to come up with their own independent judgment regarding these issues. At no point is there wording that suggests that the Planning Board should merely be a rubber stamp for the decision of the Conservation Commission regarding the floodplain issues.
Design Issues in the Floodplain Overlay District
The Floodplain Overlay District requires that, "applicants for development in the Alewife Revitalization area shall be familiar with the Alewife Urban Design Study Phase II, April 1979, and shall demonstrate how their plan meets the spirit and intent of such study, particularly & Appendix One, District Development Policies".
The spirit and intent of this planning document are clearly laid out in the Appendix referred to: "Develop in Alewife a wide range of public and private open space amenities…organize flood retention areas as public amenities and incorporate them into a publicly accessible open space network in Alewife…minimize the amount of surface parking and impervious cover built in new development to help mitigate Alewife's hydrology problems…reclaim Alewife Brook as a significant visual amenity…develop parkways and boulevards as regional wildlife corridors connecting the Charles River, Fresh Pond, Alewife Reservation and other open spaces along Alewife Brook".
The Zoning Regulations for Alewife are clear. Significant development in the District is to be balanced by the creation of significant green open spaces and waterways. One of the ways in which this will be achieved is to use flood storage areas as "public amenities", in other words turn these areas into ponds and other waterways that the public can benefit from.
Unfortunately one look at modern day Alewife proves that the spirit and intent of the Floodplain Overlay District Regulations have not been followed. Most of the large developments conceived for this District have in fact been built while none of the open spaces and water amenity objectives have been achieved.
Oaktree and the FloodPlain Overlay District
The Oaktree Apartment Tower proposal is precisely the type of proposal that the City Council intended to discourage when the Alewife Floodplain Overlay District was created. CambridgePark Drive was supposed to be a tree-lined Boulevard with significant building setbacks and lots of waterways and canals. The site at 30 CambridgePark Drive was envisioned as having approximately 40% open spaces including several ponds.
Instead Oaktree has proposed to cover nearly every square foot of lot space with buildings and parking spaces and to move the flood storage from ponds to underground flood storage tanks. This clearly does not meet the spirit and intent of the Zoning District.
The Planning Board is fully cognizant of the failure of other developments along CambridgePark Drive to meet the spirit and intent of the Overlay District. In their Flood Plain Special Permit #47 issued for 150 CambridgePark Drive on January 22, 1985, the Board wrote:
The Planning Board continues to be concerned that the open space and amenity objectives of the Alewife Plan have not been advanced with the first two phases of development at Cambridge Park. The Board recognizes that the early development in this part of Alewife must deal with disruptions due to the construction of the MBTA Red Line and uncertainties regarding use of the Red Line extension by employees in the near future. With those considerations in mind the Board has been prepared to accept large expanses of parking at grade for the initial two buildings. However, with the initiation of active planning for future buildings the Board will insist that flood storage advance the overall open space and amenity objectives in the Alewife Plan. The Board is prepared to insist that a significant portion of the required storage capacity be accommodated within grassed areas, a resurrected Alewife Brook, new water bodies or other features even if such a requirement were met only through the reduction of desired surface parking spaces.
Adding more housing is and should continue to be a high priority for Cambridge; However, this does not necessarily mean that every proposal for housing is appropriate.
For over thirty years City policy has encouraged the construction of large office buildings and apartment towers at Alewife creating an environment that is stark and isolated from the fabric of the rest of the City. There is now strong public sentiment to move away from this policy.
The Oaktree Apartment Tower would set the wrong kind of precedents for Alewife. The enormous proportions of this building will have an enduring effect on the Alewife skyline and its disregard of common flood storage practice will send the wrong message to future developers.
There appears to be no explanation for why City agencies are supporting this project as it currently stands. It would appear to be in clear violation of Cambridge Zoning for the Alewife District and in violation of Massachusetts Wetlands Regulations governing development in floodplains.
Residential uses at Alewife should continue to be encouraged in smaller scaled developments that fit into a sustainable plan for Alewife's future. Oaktree should be encouraged to resubmit a plan along these guidelines.
Cc: Margaret Drury, Cambridge City Council
Florrie Darwin, Cambridge Planning Board
Carolyn Mieth, Coalition For Alewife
John Moot, Association Cambridge Neighborhoods
Julia Bowdoin, Cambridge Conservation Commission
Gwen Noyes, Oaktree Development
April 10, 2000
Enclosed is a copy of a position statement I have written regarding the proposed Apartment Tower to be built near the Alewife T Station in North Cambridge. I am sending this information to the City Council because I believe that this proposal has not yet received the kind of oversight it deserves.
As my position statement points out there is a growing consensus in Cambridge that the kind of development that has already occurred at Alewife and other parts of the City is no longer appropriate or desirable.
The Oaktree apartment tower is a precedent setting development that needs close scrutiny from the City and a true consensus from the community. Is this really the type of development our City ought to be supporting at Alewife or should we be working with the developer to find a different kind of housing proposal? Why have City Zoning Regulations and State Wetlands Regulations been swept aside in order to approve this project?
I would be grateful if Councillors could investigate this issue further and if so moved to make their feelings felt at the Tuesday, April 11 meeting of the Planning Board.
If I can be of assistance with any further information feel free to contact me at 864-3431 or by email at email@example.com
Contact the Alewife Study Group, North Cambridge Massachusetts, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org