The assembled neighbors and other stakeholders filled the Meeting Room at the City Hall Annex for the Planning Board hearing on Tuesday evening. We were there to hear more about (and be heard) regarding the affordable housing development project known as 625 Putnam, proposed by local housing developer Homeowners Rehab (HRI). Jane Jones of HRI and Nancy Ludwig of ICON Architecture presented the proposed design for two buildings totaling 40 units, all of which will be financed as affordable housing and targeted for low-income families. The images presented at the meeting represent the Schematic level of progress, meaning they've accounted for all the major program and systems the building requires, but that they will undergo much more development and adjustment before they are ready for construction.
The smaller, three-story building will front onto SIdney Street, and function as a string of six townhouses, each with an individual exterior entry. ICON is designing this building to be the more "traditional" of the two, featuring stoops, clapboard facades and simple trim and cornice. Owing partially to lower ceiling heights in today's buildings, the building is actually shorter than both its neighbors. The larger building will front onto Putnam and contain 34 flats in a four and a half story building. A structured parking garage beneath the building will be half-buried in the ground, raising the first floor to be roughly stoop height. This design of this building, while clad with similar materials, attempts a more "contemporary" interpretation of traditional Cambridge residential buildings, using asymetric bay window placement and vertical plank cladding at the top level. The building's size, while larger than any of the immediate neighbors, is within bulk and height requirements of zoning--it's actually in a special zone created by the city to transition to future buildings nearer MIT similar in scale to University Park.
HRI came to the meeting having submitted a Request for Special Permit, which would allow the design flexibility at one setback and with parking. The first deals with the side yard on the east side of the Putnam building, where the portion of the building along the street is proposed 10 feet from the property line. The response to this request was fairly muted, as the Planning Board isn't entirely sure relief is warranted (the language on multiple setbacks in the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance is not terribly straightforward; see section 5.24.4 (3).)
The second issue dealt with the number of parking spaces provided, which usually follows a 1:1 ratio. This development proposes fewer off-street parking spaces than the city customarily requires. In this case, HRI is proposing a reduction to 28 spaces from 40 (for a ratio of 0.7:1). Owing to their experience with other affordable housing throughout Cambridge with developments such as Auburn Court on Brookline Street and Trolley Square in North Cambridge, HRI maintains that their affordable housing tenants often do not have cars and could be accommodated by the 28 proposed spaces. Ms. Jones noted that HRI is careful to develop as little unnecessary parking as possible, as an empty structured garage space wastes up to $30,000 better spent on the units themselves.
When the Board opened the discussion for public comment, a series of similar concerns were voiced by several neighbors worried about the impact of 40 families and their visitors on the area's street parking (especially in snowy conditions) and on nearby parks and sidewalks. Some of the direct abutters commented on the significant change in their immediate environment made by the proposed development--more pleasing aesthetically, but more dense and more constrained light and views. Many residents, both from the immediate area and other parts of the city, commended the project's goals of preserving affordability in C-Port and serving low-income families. The debate hinged on a delicate balance: how many units is too many? How much off-street parking is enough?
Though oral public comments are now closed for this hearing, the Board will still accept written comments through the Community Development Department. The next hearing regarding the project will likely be in September. By statute, the Board has only until November 16th to render a decision on the two variance requests.For previous posts on 625 Putnam, go here and here.