Trouble Developing?

Alewife, in the northwestern end of Cambridge, is, in sports, and industrial ghetto, 350-odd acres of cracking pavement, dead end streets and decaying factories. On the other side of the city, where Simplex Wire and Cable once dominated the Cambridgeport neighborhood, trash collects in vacant lots where giant pools of steel were stored. Crumbling, vacant brick warehouses stand silent; barbed wire fences guard nothing.

But some day-- a some day city planners foresee within 15 years--commerce will return to these barrens. Cambridge politicians speak almost reverently of The Boom, the citywide economic miracle that will end fiscal trial and muffle social discontent. They cite statistics--a 60 per-cent increase in the tax base, 40,000 new jobs. Their phrases include "irresistible momentum" and "unprecedented growth." David Vickery, the city's chief planner, says, "If we went away and did nothing, the market would still operate to expand industry in Cambridge."

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will help spur Cambridge's expected economic resurrection. "Cambridge on the letterhead is an asset to a lot of companies," Vickery says, adding that other corporations' executives also teach. And the kind of business that research universities lure--high technology, research and development--are the growth industries of the next 25 years. The state's High Technology Council predicts 70 per cent of new jobs created in Massachusetts in the '80s will be tied to high technology. With inflation making it cheaper to expand into previously developed areas, and with the advantages of urban production during fuel shortages, all the ingredients for a boom are there.

It's an opportunity Vickery has no intention of letting pass. Most cities the size of Cambridge make only token planning efforts. Vickery has 50 full-time employees on his staff, and lately most have been at work on an ambitious development program, aimed at the Alewife and Simplex areas and East Cambridge. "We are setting a policy for the city; we are telling businessmen, 'We want you to expand.'" Vickery says. "To know the city is willing to pay for streets, for drains, for curbs--that's a big thing for a company."

Opposition to some of the development programs, though, began to surface last month, when Vickery and his staff took their plans for turning Alewife into a bustling office and light-manufacturing complex to the city council. Although neatly packaged and backed by a phalanx of silver-haired businessmen, the "revitalization" program met a quick, though probably temporary, rebuff. The council tabled the petition, instructing the planners to sit down with the councilors to discuss ways of modifying the plans.


The proposal would have set height and density restrictions on land in the Alewife area and commit the city to renovations such as paving streets, installing lights and fixing drains. The chief objection to it came from Councilor David Sullivan, who says, "the city has an affirmative duty" to shape economic development in an effort to maintain blue-collar industry in the city. High-tech industry is fine, so long as traditional industry also expands, he adds. "There is a real risk of gentrification in the city's work force. The jobs that will be provided could go overwhelmingly to college people," Sullivan says, adding that economic growth should not be left to the private market. "I'm skeptical of the pricing system. The risks of development--an elite job market, overdevelopment in certain areas, increased traffic and pollution--just don't figure into their equations."

"I don't see what the hurry is," Councilor Thomas W. Danehy told the council recently. "Let's take the time to plan--to smooth out, to hone, to refine," he added.

But Sullivan and Danehy probably comprise a political minority, at least on the Alewife issue. Vickery argues that even at Arthur D. Little, a renowned consulting firm headquartered on Route 2 in Cambridge, 49 per cent of the work force does not hold a college diploma. "I know there's the argument of high tech versus traditional industrial uses," he says, but adds that "every business has secretaries and technicians and programmers and janitors."

The manufacturing plants that helped Cambridge grow earlier this century "clearly will never return," Mayor Francis H. Duehay '55 says. "Anyway, there was nothing romantic about 50 years ago," he adds. "Those jobs were low-paying, they didn't go anywhere," he says.

A battle just as stiff may be brewing in Cambridgeport, where the Community Development Department is currently surveying all properties to come up with a plan for growth. One neighborhood faction is for development at any cost. "The blight of the Simplex site is encroaching on our homes," James Caragianes says. Another group also wants to see the site used, but preferably by industry. East Cambridge, where massive infusions of federal money have increased incentives for development, is the best example of successful planning in Cambridge, Vickery says.

The major business growth in the city will come in those three areas, he explains. "Our comprehensive community planning surveys done in 1975 and 1976 showed people were very interested in preserving their neighborhoods. They also showed the need for a bigger tax base, for more jobs. Those are the areas where those two goals can be reconciled," he says.

Very few argue Cambridge shouldn't or can't encourage industrial development in the city. The form of those incentives and their effects may spark debate, but the need for new income and jobs will mute that controversy. "Idealistically, in ten to 15 years, what we will see is a very strong tax base with the neighborhoods intact," Vickery says.

But factories and think tanks are only one side of the development picture. Elsewhere in the city, development of another kind--chic retail outlets for the modern carriage trade--already blossom in concrete and glass on half a dozen corners and new development is likely. "The basic question is whether the area becomes Bloomingdale's on the Charles, or Quincy Market revisited," Duehay says. "The area between Central Square and Harvard Square could turn into another Fifth Avenue," Sullivan warns, calling for zoning restrictions to prevent a "canyon of buildings" lining the street.

The development controversy is symbolized by the fight over Parcel 1B. The planned multimillion-dollar complex will feature retail shopping, restaurants, a movie theater, offices and housing--enough of each so that some environmental impact reports estimate traffic flow in Harvard Square could double at times ("After a certain point," Sullivan notes, "traffic flow ceases to be a meaningful term.")

But the city, again in search of tax revenues, has already approved the plans for the complex; now local citizens have carried their fight to have the project shrunk to the state level. All agree that Parcel 1B will be developed, but some residents say they've learned their lesson. A campaign to downzone Mass Ave between Harvard and Central Sques is under way, and the recently passed Harvard Square zoning overlay may, by limiting building heights, discourage large-scale facilities. "I don't think the chicness really appeals to the average person who lives in Cambridge, certainly not to the average Radcliffe or Harvard student," Duehay says. But it does appeal to area merchants, making it impossible to slow the spread of fashionable concrete and smoked-glass chic. "The income levels in the immediate area have gone up in the last five years, and the market in the Square has obviously tried to respond to that," Vickery explains.

City government can really do little to completely stop all the changes. "You can deal with them in two ways," Duehay says. "You can stand there like King Canute and try to hold the water back while the tide is coming in. Or you can try to shape the opportunities for your community."