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An Overreaching Moratorium

Michael J. Ring

Last week, the Cambridge City Council passed the overreaching Larkin petition, a measure that goes far beyond its stated purpose of saving East Cambridge from development, and instead becomes an assault on new building projects in an area which could sorely use them.

The petition imposes an 18-month moratorium on developments of over 20,000 square feet in the wedge of Cambridge east of Windsor Street and north of Main Street. Exemptions from the prohibition are made for the Southern Energy complex, an office and research building on Third Street, and the conversion of certain existing buildings to housing.

Areas included in the petition include the residential areas of East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington, as well as a slice of Area 4. But the petition’s boundaries also encompass some underutilized or vacant lots near Kendall Square removed from the residential neighborhoods. While development pressures in East Cambridge’s residential neighborhoods are intense and the area’s residential sectors could benefit from some temporary protections, the petition also includes several blocks on which new projects should be encouraged and welcomed by the city.

An amendment passed at last week’s City Council meeting under the guidance of Councillor Anthony Galluccio exempted telecommunications projects in a small slice of land between Binney and Bent Streets from the petition boundaries. There is already a significant telecommunications presence in the area, as AT&T occupies a building within the parcel and Bell Atlantic occupies a building just outside the block. Telecommunications development would be an improvement over the small industrial buildings and warehouses that currently occupy that block, and a further provision of the amendment requiring some housing in the area is also welcome.

Galluccio’s amendment to exclude the telecommunications parcel was a good measure to promote development without diluting protection to East Cambridge’s residential neighborhoods. However, why stop at only those blocks? The same arguments can be made for the land south of Binney Street, which is further buffered from residential neighborhoods.

Councillor Michael Sullivan attempted to reconcile protections for East Cambridge and the need to encourage growth by narrowing the area bounded by the petition. Specifically, he sought to move the southern boundary of the moratorium zone to Binney Street, several blocks north from Main Street. Unfortunately Sullivan’s amendment was defeated, with only Councillors Kathleen Born and David Maher joining the amendment’s author in voting for its passage.

A walking tour of the blocks between Main Street and Binney Street proves the wisdom of Sullivan’s amendment. The blocks between those two streets are a veritable urban wasteland, peppered by vacant fields, parking lots, and small, aging buildings unsuited for the research companies seeking to locate in the area.

Both Main Street and Broadway host large developments, but north of Broadway is land which should be fruitful for development. Several narrow side streets such as Linskey Way function as little more than access roads for large parking lots.

Binney Street, which runs westward from Land Boulevard, is a desolate thoroughfare. The north side of the street contains a number of small, one and two-story buildings. The south side of the street hosts even less. Parking lots are housed on the blocks between First and Second and Second and Third Streets. West of Third Street, the south side of Binney is dotted by several small, low-rise concrete buildings before giving way to the Biogen complex and curving into Vassar Street.

Were these blocks located adjacent to residential sectors, a strong case could be made for their inclusion in the Larkin petition. But as the neighborhood currently exists, there are several blocks of transitional industrial development north of Binney Street before residential blocks are reached at Charles Street. The areas between Main and Binney should be open for development.

The Larkin petition’s passage raises several potential problems for the city. One potential problem is that the Larkin petition will only raise development pressures in other parts of the city. By sparing East Cambridge from the shovel, does the city only doom other “hot” areas like Alewife to an even greater accelerated pace of development? A process which protects one neighborhood to the detriment of others is not good planning.

But the greater problem is that businesses fed up with all the development hurdles in Cambridge will choose to leave the city altogether. Ultimately, a large commercial and industrial base is necessary for the success of the city. Unless Cambridge is willing to tax its residential property owners into oblivion, a strong commercial-industrial tax base is needed to pay for schools, open space preservation, affordable housing, and the other initiatives important to the city. While the Larkin petition seems like a good idea in the short run, including too many parcels of land prime for development in the petition’s boundaries is detrimental to the city.

Cambridge is already viewed by many as a city hostile to development, and the city’s continued prosperity depends on its ability to attract new, high-technology industries. Shutting off development between Main and Binney Streets for 18 months is a step backwards from that goal.

The city is facing many important questions regarding development and planning, and the needs and concerns of its residents must be central to any discussion. At the same time, city officials must not be careful to turn residents’ protections into an anti-development crusade. A time-out for development in East Cambridge’s residential neighborhoods and along Cambridge Street serves the needs of the former group. But by extending the development moratorium into barren areas which are anything but residential, the Larkin petition decays into a harmful prohibition against new construction in the commercial and industrial districts of East Cambridge.