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Cambridge City Council to Vote on Taller Affordable Housing Height Maximums

Cambridge City Council meetings are held at Cambridge City Hall, which is located in Central Square.
Cambridge City Council meetings are held at Cambridge City Hall, which is located in Central Square. By Marina Qu
By Julian J. Giordano, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council is set to vote on a controversial zoning petition that would increase the maximum height restrictions for buildings with 100 percent affordable housing — allowing for development projects as high as 15 stories in some parts of the city.

The petition — dubbed “AHO2” — would amend the Affordable Housing Overlay, an ordinance passed in 2020 that streamlines the approval process and lowers costs for developers seeking to build affordable housing in Cambridge.

Sponsored by Councilors Burhan Azeem, Marc C. McGovern, E. Denise Simmons, and Quinton Y. Zondervan, the amendment was first discussed at a Housing Committee meeting in February.

After six months of deliberation and public input, the Council’s Ordinance Committee voted 6-3 to move forward with the amendment at its Aug. 3 meeting. The Council will review the amendment and conduct a final vote when it resumes regular meetings in the fall.

“We need more affordable housing,” Simmons said at the committee meeting. “The first leg of AHO got us down the road, but it didn’t get us where we wanted to go.”

The annual AHO report, released earlier this month, shows that six AHO developments with a total of 616 units are actively underway, while another 16 sites are under review.

But Cambridge’s affordable housing waitlist currently has more than 22,000 applicants, with nearly 4,500 living in Cambridge.

“We’re not talking about housing in the abstract,” Simmons said. “We’re talking about people, families, homes.”

Under the proposed amendment, affordable housing projects in 13 designated “AHO corridors” and areas zoned for residential heights of 40 to 65 feet would be able to build up to nine stories (or 100 feet) — an increase of three stories from the original AHO.

Similarly, areas with maximum residential heights above 65 feet could see projects up to 13 stories (or 150 feet) tall — a six-story increase. And in Central, Harvard, Union, and Porter squares, future developments could rise as high as 15 stories (or 170 feet).

Setbacks — spaces between developments and their property lines — would be eliminated for all buildings under the amendment. The singular exception would be for projects less than four stories (or 45 feet) tall, which would be required to have a minimum rear yard setback of 15 feet — a five-foot reduction from the original AHO.

The proposed amendment also removes limits on floor-area ratios — the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the area of its zoning lot — in the designated squares and corridors, allowing buildings to occupy all of their lot space regardless of their height.

“This is one tool, and it’s not going to solve everything,” Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said, voicing her support for the amendment while calling for the Council to do more to encourage affordable housing developments.

“This is our number one issue,” Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon said, citing daily calls she receives from families asking how they can afford to keep living in Cambridge.

“At the end of the day, we are creating units not just for today and for those families that are calling,” Mallon said, “but families 10, 20, 30 years down the line.”

Still, Mallon and other councilors said that they were not satisfied with the process of this amendment’s creation.

“I don’t love how we got here, I don’t love that there wasn’t a community process,” Mallon said.

Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 — who voted against the amendment — said that she would have liked to support the change if there had been more time to discuss and edit it in committee.

Nolan disagreed with the increased height limits for the 13 newly defined “AHO corridors,” which include Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway, Cambridge Street, and Memorial Drive. She argued that these streets should be defined as “secondary corridors” and have lower height limits. Nolan also raised concerns about whether transportation infrastructure can support new residents, noting that the amendment reduces mandatory parking minimums.

Councilors Paul F. Toner and Dennis J. Carlone also voted against the amendment, both objecting to the increased height maximums.

“It’s going to haunt people,” said Carlone, who has been a vocal opponent of the amendment since March, when he called the proposal “the most dramatic change in zoning” in the nearly 50 years he has lived in Cambridge.

An urban designer and architect by trade, Carlone said that families “have a better life in lower buildings” and that “large buildings reduce the value and livability of its neighbors.”

Toner also expressed concern about the potential for taller affordable housing developments outside of Harvard Square and Central Square.

“If you tell people in a neighborhood that there could be a building up to 12 stories next to their single-family home, I have a problem with that,” he said.

McGovern replied by saying that he doesn’t think that Cantabrigians will notice the difference between a 10-story building and a 12-story building in their neighborhood.

“The people who will notice,” he said, “are the people who aren’t going to get to live in those extra units.”

McGovern encouraged his colleagues to “be on the right side of history,” saying “no matter how everybody votes on this, there’s going to be a lot of people upset with all of us.”

Indeed, just four days before the Ordinance Committee’s vote, councilors heard a vast array of comments for and against the amendment at a two-hour public hearing.

“I think this proposal is about what kind of city we want to be and what kind of citizens and neighbors we want to be,” The Port resident Esther Hanig said, urging councilors to support the amendment. “Do we want a diverse and just city? Do we want to be caring and compassionate, looking beyond our own individual needs to a larger view?”

Some supported the goal of increased affordable housing but disagreed with raising the height maximums.

“I oppose these amendments to the AHO, and it really breaks my heart to do so,” said West Cambridge renter Billie Jo Joy, who argued that “it is the developers and the landlords who will benefit the most” and instead called for a moratorium on all market-rate construction.

Other speakers opposed the amendment and original AHO legislation in their entirety, not wanting for more affordable housing to be built in Cambridge.

“It is a vicious cycle,” Young Kim said. “The more affordable housing we build, the more people will apply to live there.”

Public input continued at an Aug. 8 Cambridge Planning Board meeting that received more than 125 comments. Board Chair Mary Flynn said the amendment was one of the most divisive items taken up by the Board, which reviews proposed zoning amendments and submits recommendations to the City Council.

With four of its seven members absent, the Board voted to continue discussion at an Aug. 29 meeting.

The Planning Board’s recommendation will be taken into consideration by the Council when it votes on the amendment in the fall.

While regular Council meetings resume on Monday, Sept. 11, the amendment is not on the agenda for the first meeting. The deadline for the Council to vote on the amendment is Nov. 1.

Correction: Aug. 31, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Esther Hanig as a resident of East Cambridge. In fact, Hanig lives in The Port.

—Staff writer Julian J. Giordano can be reached at julian.giordano@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @jjgiordano1.

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