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City Council Approves New Development Ban

Petition Creates 18-month Moratorium Zone

By Frank Dabek

With the passage of the Larkin petition early yesterday morning, the Cambridge City Council has imposed an 18-month moratorium on large developments in east Cambridge, across Main Street from the MIT campus.

The petition was sponsored by the East Cambridge Planning Team, a neighborhood group which includes MIT staff member Shannon M. Larkin and passed by a vote of seven to two after being amended by the council.

The petition is designed to allow time for the city to conduct a comprehensive planning study of east Cambridge. The petition prohibits any new development over 20,000 square feet in an area bordered by Main Street on the south, the Somerville border on the north and between Windsor street and the Boston-Cambridge border.

A two-block area on Binney Street at Fifth Street was exempted from the moratorium if used for telecommunication utilities by an amendment introduced by Councillor Anthony Galluccio.

Resident after resident voiced concerns at the meeting about evictions, condominium conversion, and commercial developments that they feel are destroying neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city which has been increasingly targeted for new developments.

“It’s getting scarier and scarier to live in East Cambridge,” Larkin said of the encroachment of development.

School Committee member Fred Fantini also delivered an impassioned defense of the moratorium. He called the passage of the Larkin measure a defining moment for the council and urged councillors to “reflect on what our city will be like in 100 or 200 years.”

The vocal support residents’ groups showed for the petition was matched by parties opposed to the moratorium.

Attorney James Rafferty said that the petition used a “far broader brush” than its authors intended and that it denied fundamental property rights. He proposed dealing with the problem through modification of zoning regulations rather than a moratorium.

Councillor Michael Sullivan, who introduced an unsuccessful amendment to drastically reduce the amount of land included in the moratorium, argued that the city depends on the tax dollars generated by development. Sullivan encouraged a planning study but felt that the moratorium would unfairly exclude new development in the already highly developed area of Kendall Square and at the Biogen site.

Petition passes after much debate

Although every councillor expressed support for the concerns of East Cambridge residents, the Larkin petition was not passed without a great deal of posturing, backroom deals, and compromises.

The initiative needed the support of seven of the nine councillors for passage and was doomed in its original form. The authors of the petition grudgingly indicated that they were willing to accept amendments, however, leaving the door open for a bitter fight that lasted well past midnight.

Freshman Councillor David Maher, who eventually voted against the petition, said that the “horse trading and back room dealing” involved in the petition left him “disheartened and disillusioned.”

“It is shameful to pass something just to be able to tell people politically you got something done,” Maher said.

During the debate, heated exchanges took place between Sullivan and Councillor Timothy Toomey, who traditionally draws support from the affected east Cambridge area, as well as between Toomey and City Manager Robert Healey.

The council first accepted several amendments proposed by the city’s planning board which made it possible to use existing structures to create more than the 20 units of housing allowed in the original petition and to exempt two projects from the moratorium: a office building on Third Street and a Southern Energy plant.

Galluccio’s telecommunications amendment prompted concerns about “spot zoning” and a potential legal challenge but was clearly more popular than Sullivan’s more liberal but defensible redrawing of the moratorium zone’s borders. The Sullivan amendment removed all of Kendall Square from the zone by moving the southern border to Binney Street.

After several lengthy recesses and discussions which included owners of property affected by Galluccio’s amendment, a substitute amendment was proposed by Councillor Marjorie Decker which added a requirement that any project over 100,000 square feet in the exempted area include 20 units of housing. The affected area is not currently zoned for housing but the council expects to vote soon to re-zone it.

The compromise amendment sealed Galluccio’s support for the petition and set the stage for a showdown between the Sullivan and Galluccio amendments.

With several important votes remaining undecided, a friendly amendment to seal a perceived loop-hole was proposed by Councillor James Braude to the Decker substitution. Councillor Kathy Born, among others, expressed concerns that builders would evade the housing requirement by splitting large projects into smaller pieces exempt from the requirement.

The Decker amendment finally prevailed with seven votes, being opposed only by Sullivan and a clearly disenchanted Maher.

The amended petition passed along the same lines.