Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Koontz decision and planning in Cambridge

(Below is a letter I submitted to the Cambridge Chronicle)

While the Supreme Court's recent rulings on the Voting Rights Act and on the Defense of Marriage Act were getting all the attention, an equally important but much less noted decision came from the Justices on land use.  The case, referred to as Koontz, has wide-ranging implications.  "The Court's decision today has jeopardized local governments' ability to ensure that the costs of new development are fairly born by its developers and users," wrote W. Paul Farmer, the head of the American Planning Association. Professor John Echeverria added in a separate opinion piece, "The decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground.”

What does this decision mean for Cambridge? As many would agree, the challenge in this city today is not how to attract investment.  The challenge is how we maintain a sustainable community, a community that will thrive in its diversity and vibrancy in the 21st century. Talk to any real estate agent and they will tell you the same story -- a condo for sale receives multiple offers all above asking price.  The winner in these sweepstakes is the one who can pay cash up front.  This is not sustainable in the long run.

One of the ways that we are countering these pressures, not just in housing but across the range of needs in this community, is through agreements that the city and developers reach during discussions over development.  The message has been clear: companies in Cambridge must focus beyond just their workforce and see themselves as partners of the whole community. Ultimately, their success depends on the city's success.

To achieve this, we must strive to create predictability in the process, where companies and the city know what the ground rules are.  Make no mistake, these agreements provide significant benefits to the city and its citizens.  The Foundry Building is just a recent example.  

It’s a set of challenges that most municipalities would welcome, but to navigate these waters successfully requires real leadership and vision about how this city can be vibrant, diverse, and eclectic while holding on to its role as an epicenter of economic activity. Negotiated agreements have been an important part of the answer.  Now, let’s hope Koontz doesn’t bring to Cambridge something else that everyone is predicting from this decision: litigation.