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Council tables zoning petition

By Dave Watt

and Brian Rosenberg

The Cambridge City Council tabled a petition last night to re-zone 70 acres in the Cambridgeport area, 40 of which are owned by MIT. Six council members voted for the petition, one short of the seven necessary to pass the measure. If eventually passed, the measure could affect the construction and placement of future dormitories.

The petition, sponsored by neighborhood activists, may set limits on the type and amount of development in an area bordered by Massachusetts Avenue, Pearl Street, and Vassar Street.

Though voted down after nearly five hours of debate, the petition was rescued by the six councillors who supported it. They voted to suspend the council's rules, a move which required six votes. Under the suspension, they voted first to reconsider the petition, then immediately tabled it.

The petition will probably come before the council again after the city council elections in November.

One councillor suggested to the audience that they oppose candidates who opposed the petition. "You must send seven votes to this council if measures like this are to pass," said Cambridge vice-mayor Kenneth E. Reeves in his closing remarks.

A separate petition sponsored by the Cambridge Landowners' Group and endorsed by the Cambridge Planning Board was defeated 6-3 by the council last week. The CLG represents the interests of both MIT and area businesses. "We came up with a zoning strategy we believed we could live with, though it was a down-zoning, but unfortunately it was defeated," said Sarah J. Eusden, MIT assistant for government and community relations.

Cambridge resident Geneva Malenfant, who signed the neighborhood petition, said the residents did not "want to see development within a block or two of existing housing. We wanted to make a policy statement now before someone builds a new manufacturing plant and ruins the area for housing."

According to Cambridge law, zoning changes must be approved by two-thirds of the council, or six members. Last night's petition required an extra vote, however, because more than 20 percent of the land owners in the affected area filed protests against it.

Residents' petition

more restrictive

The neighborhood petition calls for MIT to donate space to the city to create a park in the center of the Cambridgeport parcel. "Basically, we would like MIT to move its development rights on a 2.5 acre parcel south of Pacific Street to an area on Vassar Street. The Pacific Street area could then be left as an open area, a kind of central sports field," said Malenfant.

The size of the proposed open area was later increased to 3.1 acres by an amendment made at the council meeting.

The neighborhood plan would zone an area bordered by Brookline, Sidney, Pacific, and Putnam streets for residential use. Similar zoning would apply to an area south of Henry Street. The plan would also set aside regions for office-based research and development efforts as well as an area for a manufacturing building, according to Malenfant.

"We see all these uses as mutually beneficial," Malenfant said. "MIT students could use the sports field, and the manufacturing area would be available to MIT spin-off companies. Some of the housing would probably be used by students as well," she added.

According to Eusdon, the neighborhood petition "reduces development capacity and flexibility and jeopardizes both ongoing business operations and MIT's plans for housing in that area."

Those plans include undergraduate dormitories on Vassar Street, Eusden said. But while MIT has a goal of housing 50 percent of its graduate students, she added, there are no specific sites planned for graduate dormitory construction.

The petition that was defeated last week would have set up more mixed-use areas, allowing both MIT and local businesses greater flexibility in their expansion plans.

The three councillors who voted for the earlier petition, Sheila Russell, Walter Sullivan and William Walsh, opposed yesterday's proposal. Russell argued that construction of new dormitories would help "alleviate the housing crunch in Cambridgeport."

The neighborhood petition includes a clause requiring one-sixth of the units in any new residential area to be designated for low- or middle-income housing, which Malenfant and others saw as one of the plan's benefits.

But the city manager's office thought it unlikely that any such housing would actually be built. "Significant residential development throughout a district is unlikely without public or private investment," said Michael Rosenberg, assistant city manager for community development.

CASPAR shelter untouched

by either proposal

Members of the MIT Homelessness Initiative attended the meeting to voice their support for the neighborhood plan. They were concerned about the future of a homeless shelter run by the Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcohol Rehabilitation (CASPAR). The shelter's 240 Albany St. location falls within the area being discussed.

"The planning board's petition claims to care about [affordable housing], but then it leaves things as mixed-use. If you care about something, you ought to set aside an area for it, or else the market will determine what happens," HI member Christopher Stipp G told the city council.

But Eusden denied that either petition would have any effect on the shelter. "Everyone cares about the CASPAR shelter," she said. Supporters of both petitions agreed at last night's meeting that the shelter was not an issue.

Petition modified for

Stefani's Pizza

During debate over the petition, Dianna R. Stallone, an attorney representing Stefani's Pizza, voiced the restaurant's objections to the plan. The plan would have prevented Stefani's from moving across the street to a new site at 263 Brookline St., which the restaurant has been trying to make for some time.

Councillor Ed Cyr, who supported the proposal, introduced an amendment to exempt the Brookline Street lot from the proposed restriction. The amendment passed by a voice vote. Without the change, Stefani's would have had to close on Oct. 1, said Stallone.