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Cambridge City Councilors Propose Amendment to Loosen Height Limits on Affordable Housing

Cambridge City Hall is located near Central Square.
Cambridge City Hall is located near Central Square. By Margaret F. Ross
By Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writer

Just two years after the Cambridge City Council ordained the 100 Percent Affordable Housing Overlay, an ambitious zoning reform to incentivize affordable housing, a group of city councilors have introduced an amendment seeking to think bigger — literally.

The AHO, implemented in 2020, allowed developers to quickly bypass a long and uncertain permitting process for residential buildings that contained only affordable units and adhered to a set of design standards. It also loosened some zoning restrictions on height, size, and density for affordable projects.

Now, four city councilors — Marc C. McGovern, Burhan Azeem, E. Denise Simmons, and Quinton Y. Zondervan — have introduced an amendment that would significantly loosen height restrictions further.

The proposed amendment would allow AHO projects of up to 13 stories along several major streets including Cambridge St., Mt. Auburn St., Memorial Drive, Massachusetts Ave., Concord Ave., and Broadway, and up to 25 stories in Central, Harvard, and part of Porter Squares. The amendment also relaxes certain other dimensional requirements for AHO projects citywide.

During the Council’s Monday evening meeting, councilors voted 8-1 to refer the proposal to committees on Housing and Neighborhood & Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, and Arts & Celebration for further public hearings, kickstarting an ordinance process that is likely to last several months.

McGovern said in an interview that the AHO has been “successful,” but that zoning restrictions have still prevented nonprofit affordable housing developers in Cambridge from pursuing some projects.

“We’ve left some opportunities on the table because of some limitations around some of the height and density,” McGovern said. “We did not want to wait and continue to leave those units on the table.”

Zondervan said in the meeting that the proposal targets areas near transit where increasing density and height “makes the most sense.”

But Councilor Dennis J. Carlone said the proposal was “regressive” and “doesn’t make economic sense,” saying that in his experience, residents of affordable housing “do not want to live” in towering buildings.

“They said they wanted to look like their neighbors,” Carlone said. “They want to fit in, they don’t want to stand out.”

He added that the Council should instead focus on helping the city acquire land for affordable development projects.

In the meeting’s public comment period, the proposal was met with resistance from some residents, who outnumbered supporters roughly three-to-one. Many said they felt blindsided by the introduction of the amendment and called the increased height limits a radical and hasty solution.

Some councilors echoed their concerns.

Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 contrasted the introduction of the amendment to the “year-long discussion of principles” that preceded the drafting of the AHO.

“This is so stunning to people who feel blindsided because there was not that prep work to have ordinance language on the table,” Nolan said.

She added that the proposal came “without context for understanding the rationale,” including an analysis of the most cost-effective methods of affordable development.

In the meeting, McGovern emphasized that the proposal was at the beginning of the ordinance process and that the Council was “not settling anything tonight.”

“I assume that this will be the same as 95 percent of the other ordinances: it will come out looking very different than how it went in,” McGovern said. “That’s the process. That’s what happens.”

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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Cambridge City CouncilCambridgeFront Middle FeatureHousing