Taking Advantage of Big Opportunities
Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront are exciting smart growth opportunities. But they also are magnets for fear—and sometimes anger—about large-scale development and the rising cost of housing.
We were reminded of that fear and anger when WBUR included the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance in a short call-in segment this week on development in those new neighborhoods. There has been big news coming out of Kendall Square this year, with a proposal to rezone 14 acres for redevelopment of the federally-owned Volpe Center site and MIT’s announcing specifics for six new buildings on parcels rezoned in 2013.
The big picture is very good for smart growth: there has been a swing away from auto-dependent development in the suburbs and ever-expanding subdivision frontiers and single-use office parks, and towards development in walkable, transit-connected, urban places. Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront are examples of this trend, as parking lots are turning into buildings and people on the street. We have to make sure that opportunities are maximized, but having the opportunities is exciting.
The rising cost of housing is something we care deeply about and promoting mixed-income neighborhoods is a critical smart growth goal. That is also a goal of Cambridge and Boston, which have inclusionary zoning requirements for residential developers and linkage fees for non-residential developers so that both help produce deed-restricted affordable housing. Cambridge is on its way to tripling the linkage fees it requires and Boston is likely to start considering higher linkage fees as well. This is important, as we need to raise expectations for affordable and middle income housing when and where a market is hot. One can reasonably argue about the “right” level of these requirements—cities and advocates need to be realistic and remember that other goals (e.g., creating great public spaces) may also require developer concessions.
In the debate over housing costs, we have to remember that the current crisis is fundamentally because Greater Boston has significantly underbuilt multi-family housing since 1990. Effective rents have generally risen since then, turning us into one of the highest-cost metro areas in the country. That’s why Governor Patrick and Mayor Walsh both set ambitious housing production goals.
Large-scale development can also be a scary thing, and nothing triggers that more than abstract debates about building height or massive amounts of square footage. (The Cambridge Planning Board has discussed the possibility of a signature 500 foot tower and a city councilor has talked about 1,000 feet.) Reasonable people can differ about exactly how much, but if you can’t have significant density in places like Kendall Square where can you do that? In our view, the debate should center more about making a walkable, vibrant neighborhood. That includes the mix between housing, office and retail/restaurants; public spaces; traffic and parking management; promoting small retail uses; design that enhances a lively street; more investment in transportation infrastructure; and public/private district management to help create and sustain the new “community.”
The fear and anger are out there for a reason. Part of the challenge when there are such big opportunities is building a true community vision about the mix of incomes and the density necessary.