The Opportunity Cost of Following the Rules
It seems like site work has been started at 55 Wheeler St, which is set to become the largest residential building by units in Cambridge, MA when completed. This site is an exciting opportunity for housing, but as usual, the process has been needlessly timid and fraught with delay.
The Wheeler St. special permit approval happened in January of 2018 — which immediately triggered legal action to prevent the project, involving MassDEP and indicating the owner had failed to do appropriate due diligence related to the protected wetlands status on site.
The initial request for legal review was, to the best of my knowledge, rejected. Given that work is continuing in the area that was previously identified by the proponent as in question, it seems likely that their legal demands for tree protection were not met. While I’m no expert, to me this felt like a case of the issues discussed in Neighborhood Defenders — the use of dubious legal objections to slow down a project post-approval.
According to an earlier picture, breaking ground on construction here likely took place in February; presumably this was delayed bye several months due to COVID, since the difference in site pictures between February and September is pretty limited. Even so, this means that a project approved in January of 2018 was delayed approximately 2 years by an eventually fruitless legal claim. This slowdown alone likely cost the site owners an additional $1.2M in carrying costs — so new Cambridge residents will be spending an additional $1.2M in housing costs thanks to this delay.
But even before the lawsuit, Cambridge’s zoning created a set of rules that drastically limited the amount of housing that would be appropriate for a site of this size — more than 5 acres, only 1000 feet from Alewife as the crow flies! (Admittedly, significantly longer walk, due to the lack of a sensible pedestrian bridge, more than 40 years after the need was identified.)
As is often the case, 55 Wheeler St. sought to request as few special permit conditions as possible. In this case, the building has the maximum number of units allowed on this lot by zoning. (See “Base Lot Area/Unit” at exactly the required minimum.)
What can we take away from this? Had this project not had a requirement for 600 square feet of space on the ground for each residential unit, the project would include more homes. The only thing that stopped them was attempting to follow the city’s guidelines for buildings. The city’s specifications say that no more than 72 units/acre should be allowed in Cambridge, despite significantly higher densities on many sites close to transit locations already existing.
This site will include 110 inclusionary “affordable” units, available to moderate income households (50%-80% of AMI). Had the arbitrary selection of 600 square feet been 500 square feet instead, we would likely have an extra 22 homes to offer to lower-income families — with very little change or impact to the community.
I sometimes feel like there is a perception in the community that because there is a special permit or BZA approval, developers push every lever they can to create the most building they can, but this is demonstrably not true. Again and again we see projects that are timid: they push as little as possible, following the rules of current zoning as closely as possible. What this means is that, as residents, we have direct control over how many homes are created in our community via new development — and we have chosen to keep that number smaller than it would be otherwise.
This is just another demonstration of that: The largest residential development in Cambridge — and the only new large-scale development proposed outside of a PUD since the introduction of a 20% inclusionary zoning requirement was introduced— built exactly as many units as the City wanted, as described by our zoning code.
These numbers of units per acre are not data driven; they are arbitrary. To the best of my understanding, they were created in part with the idea of setting a standard that could be broken with permission — but that’s not what happens. Instead, we see developers following the letter of the law as closely as possible.
In a city like Cambridge, where our rules are all designed to create housing that is unlike what we have today, these rules lose us opportunity. These rules are too timid; and we’ve made builders completely afraid to bend the rules, much less break them.
It’s time for new rules.