Friday, April 23, 2010

It's the Little Things

Every generation or so, a really huge, transformational change comes to a neighborhood like Cambridgeport, sparking endless discussion, heated argument, and immediate and obvious impact. The redevelopment of the University Park is an example of one such change, masterplanned and debated to the Nth degree. But really it's the little decisions made by each of us, repeated hundreds of times across the years, that shape C-port's physical and social makeup. I've often wondered while walking through the neighborhood if we really grasp how our decisions on our own property affect others, just by adding or altering our daily routines, from using a garish new color of housepaint, to planting a beautiful flowering pear tree, to keeping junk in our front yard. These decisions--and how we react to them as a community--are a big part of what makes up our daily lives.

I've been fascinated to watch this interaction play out in recent weeks in sidewalk conversations and over the CNA listserv as neighbors discuss one single decision by C-port homeowners to build an accessory unit that requires special permission from the city (variances from city zoning laws, but fairly common ones). Some reacted to the physical constraints the new structure would impose on the block and on abutters, reducing light, open space, privacy, and parking in a block with little of each. In contrast, others saw a family following the right process with the city and their abutters, on their own property, to pursue a decision with plenty of local precedent. Some of these observers wondered how they would feel about others opposing a similar decision of their own.

First, from the owners themselves:
We know that there has been considerable development in the area in the recent past, and not all of it has had a positive impact on the neighborhood.We think our project will have a positive impact, for we are renovating (and slightly reducing the size of) an existing structure that's in very bad shape and building a new home in the back of a lot that's also in rough shape. Where no one could live before, two families will be able to reside—in buildings very much in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.
...and selections from the ongoing dialogue:

"several of us in the neighborhood oppose this new construction as it would destroy the privacy and open space currently in place between 15, 21, 23 valentine st, 20, 22 decatur st, and other abutting properties. adding another single family house on the small lot would ruin green space, crowd the neighborhood, and increase the number of cars parked on decatur st. we feel that renovations and an addition to the existing structure would suffice, and see no reason to grant the variances."

"We would much prefer a new unit and a renovated unit on that lot to the existing run-down building. The large number of run-down buildings in our neighborhood is certainly a much greater drag on our neighborhood’s property values than adding a unit in the back half of that large lot would be."

"The privacy and open space enjoyed by the properties adjoining no 24, in Decatur St, Valentine Place and Valentine St, will be lost forever; increasing the density of housing by allowing a second house to be built on a very small lot will alter the character of the neighbourhood for the worse and devalue the existing properties."

"It makes sense for all to work in a cooperative manner if possible - for those who are building to have some consideration for the neighbors and for the neighbors not to raise objections based on their preference of having space they don't own stay vacant."

To me, this is exactly how these things should be done. Reasoned commentary from neighbors leading to a public meeting next week where City planning and zoning officials can make an informed decision based on letters and comments from the public.

Have an opinion? Join the meeting: the Board of Zoning Appeals will be holding a hearing on the variance application on Thursday April 29 at 8:00 PM at the Cambridge Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Avenue.


Ashamed neighbor said...

I find it amazingly ironic that a homeowner who built a new 2nd dwelling on the back of a lot with a dwelling at the front of the lot is leading the charge to prohibit a neighbor from doing the same thing! Hypocrit thy name is ????? How was this a good idea for you and not one now for your new neighbor? Did you go before the zoning board? What was your argument in favor based on? Did your neighbors try to block you? Do you feel you have added to the community or decreased the value? Is this just a thinly veiled attempt to preserve a yard and open space that you don't pay taxes for, yet reap the benefits from?

Anonymous said...

To Ashamed neighbor-

The main difference is that the existing 2 house property lot is much bigger than 24's. Where will 2 residences at 24 park? On the street, unfortunately, crowding Decatur more than it already is.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute ashamed neighbor - the house built in back of the 3 storey bldg was built by a developer. The developer never lived there at all. Simply put the whole place on the market as condos. I was there to witness.
Next, the person who wants the variance to build another house behind an existing house, I hear has a family of 4 children. Question - where are the children to play once another house is plunked in the middle of their back yard? Why not just build onto the existing house and leave some back yard to play. I hear the plan is to have the family live in the new house which is to have 3 small bedrooms. The existing house has 2 bedrooms. It would make more sense to add onto the existing house to accommodate the family with 4 children.
Unless, of course, the real motive is to have 2 houses to sell and never live there in the first place. Who knows what the motive is, but a variance to add onto an existing house is more in keeping with the neighborhood than to build a whole new house on a very narrow lot.

Anonymous said...

let the wonderful people have their house ya bunch of whining and spoiled cambridge slobs.

Rajiv Aaron Manglani said...

Ashamed neighbor: if you are talking about 20 decatur st, note that it was not built by the current owners, but by a developer.

more important to this discussion is that 20 decatur conforms to the minimum set-back requirements of 10 feet from the property line.

those of us in the neighborhood welcome renovation and even expansion of the current house at 24 decatur. but we ask that it be done within the zoning regulations, just like other recent renovations on the block.

Chris said...

We are the owners of 24 Decatur. Because we have made some last-minute changes to rearrange parking and further reduce the footprint and volume of the proposed building in the back of the lot, we will be asking the Board of Zoning Appeals for a Continuance of our case. This means that it will be a waste of time if you were planning on attending the meeting to support or oppose our plans (or simply hear more about them). We regret any inconvenience this change may cause. When the Board instructs us about the new date we will spread the word.

We would also like to take this opportunity to say that it is not surprising that our plans have provoked both positive and negative reactions. We are grateful for the former of course, but take none of the latter personally. All the reactions reflect the pride and care that residents take in the block and neighborhood. It is that pride and care that make us want to live there. We are confident that these inevitably complicated proceedings will in the end bring a result that satisfies all parties. The Cambridgeport blog has it exactly right in praising a process in which input “from neighbors leads to a public meeting… where City planning and zoning officials can make an informed decision based on letters and comments from the public.” It just looks like that meeting won’t happen until June. In the meantime, we are glad to discuss our plans with any and all.
Chris and Mary Walsh