Monday, April 14, 2014

Debating Master Plans in the Cambridge City Council

Last Monday’s Cambridge City Council meeting was the place for a committed debate about the wisdom of conducting a city-wide master planning process led by the Council.

Opponents of the master plan proposal wonder if the master plan discussion really is just a stalking horse for a development moratorium.

Advocates of the master plan say: the situation in Cambridge has gotten out of control. Someone left the barn door open and no horses are left inside.

The battle lines are interestingly drawn.  The greatest schism is the generational one, particularly in Central Square, where the discussion has been raging for quite some time.    Those who support the master plan idea don't trust a 2-year planning process for Central Square known as “C2”.  This group tends to be older, with many property owners among them.  Some harbor a deep cynicism towards the whole effort and those who ran it: the process has been rigged from the start, the public was never really listened to, the deals done before any planning actually happened.  They want a fresh look, and they want the Council, as elected leaders, to lead it.  

The other side doesn't trust the master plan idea in large part because they do trust C2, and feel that to undermine it would be highly destructive to public confidence in any planning.  This group has a larger contingent of younger people, newer to the city (though almost all on both sides are not originally from Cambridge).  It has attracted many architects and planners. 

There is a huge amount of development in Cambridge right now. It’s not just in the Kendall Square area.   It’s a reflection of an economic cycle and the overall desirability of Cambridge as a place to live and to work. Most communities struggle to capitalize on either of these. Cambridge is feeling the combined force of both at once.

To be fair, Cambridge’s many squares are what might be called swing zones. Measured by the yardstick of urban land on a major transit line in an old, established community, the nodal areas along Red Line stops (Alewife, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall) are underdeveloped.  Often their pattern is haphazard, with single story buildings surrounded by parking lots, but all this is beginning to change.  

The worst thing the City Council could do is to create a set of expectations that they could not meet, and there is simply no way that the Cambridge City Council, either at the staff level, or at the councillor level, could handle the work involved in a master plan.

The Council’s proper role is as a political body: to hear the community and interpret it — the frustrations, hopes, fears, wishes.  Then the Council must make sense out of these by parceling out policies that will work for the city.  That parceling will establish priorities, and in establishing priorities will be picking winners and losers.  This is one thing a political body does, deciding who gets the final say.  

Of course, in a city like Cambridge neither side is strong enough to win outright.  If ever there was a development story that is "developing ...", this is it.