Whose woods these are? I think I know: Part 4, To ask if there is some mistake

November 21, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Belmont, Cambridge, Chapter 40B, Development, Eminent domain, Environmentalism, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Local issues, NIMBY, Protests, Zoning | No comments 179 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 3 and the preceding Part 1 and Part 2.]

By: David A. Smith

Yesterday’s post on the saga of a site’s (so far non-) development ended with Massachusetts State Senator Will Brownsberger introducing, and having the legislature pass, a law that would authorize the Commonwealth to grant Belmont money for Belmont to try to buy the site at issue.

Sources used in this post

Boston Globe (December 24, 2010; gray-blue font)

Boston Globe (June 26, 2014; red font)

Cambridge Day (October 13, 2014; emerald font)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 14, 2014)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 15, 2014; blue font)

Boston Globe (October 25, 2014; brown font)

The legislation didn’t pass, thus mooting the question of whether Belmont would have succeeded in a hypothetical eminent-domain taking litigation, and if so whether the appropriated money would have been enough.  Still, the senator conjured some political vaporware and converted it into localized political capital, and while the senator was artfully not accomplishing anything of substance, the development plan was improving from the conservationists’ perspective:

However, the scope of the project changed after area residents raised objections. O’Neill Properties is in the process of acquiring the building permit to construct an affordable housing complex [Inaccurate; only 20% affordable – Ed.] in the 15.6-acre forest, which is primarily located in Belmont with 2.6 acres in Cambridge.


And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it, I’m against it!

Thus Cambridge has no standing and no legal case.

Of that, 7.95 acres, including the portion Cambridge owns, is protected land under a conservation easement, according to a report Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi submitted to the City Council in September.

The absence of involvement or interest didn’t stop a Cambridge city councilor from chorusing that whatever it was, it too was against it:


I don’t know what they have to say, it makes no difference anyway

Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern, who attended Tuesday’s protest, said he would most likely introduce a policy order on Monday to prevent O’Neill Properties from staging construction equipment and a drainage pipe in Cambridge-owned land.

Obviously, if a portion of the land is owned by Our Fair City, then the city can prevent trespassing by people or by construction equipment – though I am sure Councilor McGovern would take offense if I observed that his actions are objectively anti-affordable housing.


At least the councilor is realistic that his action will have no practical effect and is purely political theater:


In political theater, the curtain never goes down

“It’s tough because I don’t want to get people’s hopes up for something that may not make a huge difference,” McGovern said.  “We can certainly file an order saying that we don’t want Cambridge land to be used for anything, including this drainage pipe that’s on the plans, as well as scaffolding, construction equipment or anything else. Is that going to stop this guy from building a huge project? No, they’ll move it, and they’ll do it somewhere else.”

In any case, I doubt the developers were planning to stage anything on Cambridge land anyhow.

3B. The antagonists: There are new rules. 

Over the last ten years, those opposing the property have shown that if one argument is rebutted, offer another; and if the evidence is refuted, make up your own, such as climate-change scientist Dennis Carlone:

The current housing proposal does not adequately meet the needs for storm water management in the 50-, 75- and 100-year storm scenarios, all of which are expected to increase in severity due to climate change, according to a July 28 policy order filed by Cambridge City Councilor Dennis Carlone.


Dennis Carlone: City councilor and climate change expert?

Environmental activists oppose the project for several reasons.

As no qualifications are required to be an ‘environmental activist’, any such statement should be preceded by ‘self-appointed.’

They say destroying the forest would exacerbate climate change [How? – Ed.] and flooding issues in the Mystic River watershed by removing land that acts as a natural sponge.

More of a sponge than Spy Pond, Fresh Pond, and the nearby streams?

“It’s the last of the large Boston-area urban wilds,” said Ellen Mass, president of the Friends of Alewife Reservation, whose group runs cleanups and educational walks in the forest.  She added: “If those trees are cut down, Cambridge’s largest wetlands will be impacted.”


Fresh Pond in Cambridge: large, wet, and preserved

[Development opponents] also say destroying the forest would squander an opportunity to preserve a natural area in a densely populated region that is home to 21 species of mammals.

That argument would be perfectly valid if the City of Cambridge owned the land, because then the public would be debating what to do with a public resource.  But the Belmont land is privately owned, so the opponents are in effect saying, The public interest demands that we seize your right to develop your private property – without, of course, bothering with due process or just compensation as required by eminent domain.

When you have no argument and no standing, even better than advancing an argument is asking for a delay to give you time to create an argument (and hope everyone forgets your lack of standing):

The project’s opponents are also planning to attend the Belmont Board of Selectmen’s meeting on July 7 to ask that the town delay issuing a permit until Cambridge completes its climate vulnerability assessment, expected to be later this year.

In other words, people from Cambridge decided to visit the neighboring town to ask its elected officials to take no action to address a critical problem in Belmont (affordable housing) while Cambridge spent half a year studying whether Cambridge had a problem.


Do we have a problem, citizens?

Of course, if one has no standing and no legal arguments, one can always try rumor:

[Development opponent attorney Mike] Connolly posted last week a photo purporting to show the cleared section of Belmont forest, warning that “people who are close to the situation report that removal of the trees could take place in a matter of days.”

(A few days later, October 20 to be exact. the developer started clearing the site.)

Preventing the development has become an article of faith, not reason, and is treated as such by the faithful:

Idith Haber, an opponent of the project there for today’s hearing, said she believes there is still hope to stop the project.

“We keep going back to the courts, and that’s based on optimism that when we read our complaints, we feel that they’re strong every time,” Haber said.


“It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.”

4. Investment in the outcome

Multiple area groups have joined efforts in an attempt to save the forest, including Friends of the Alewife Reservation, Green Cambridge, the Mystic River Watershed Association, Lesley University’s Division of Science and Mathematics [Some faculty in that division, not the entity itself – Ed.], Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, and the Climate Action Coalition.

Anyone can have a name and a Web site, and while I didn’t delve deeply, none of the groups except MRWA appear to have any size.  Normally in litigation one is expected to post bond for damages, and in business any seller checks the buyer’s potential credit.  Perhaps these groups should be charged court costs if they litigate frivolously or without standing.


Several years ago, officials and activists discussed a potential plan for the surrounding communities to purchase the property, which was assessed [Appraised – Ed.] at $13 million, but that never came to fruition.

Actually, there’s no guarantee that thirteen million would do the trick, as the owners might have no interest in selling.  For over a decade, they’ve been resolute in trying to develop it, and will have spent hundreds of thousands (if not more) out of pocket, to say nothing of carrying or lost-opportunity costs. 

Thirteen million would be the opening buyer’s bid if eminent domain were deployed, which Belmont obviously has no desire to do and Cambridge has no standing to do.

“Attempts to negotiate with the developer have also failed. Representatives of the Trust for Public Land have been reaching out to the owner – as have concerned residents and even some friendly developers – but so far, every effort to secure an option to purchase the forest has fallen through,” Connolly said.

In this context, ‘option’ is just another phrase for ‘give us time to delay you.’  You want to buy it, Mr. Connolly?  Don’t bring words, bring cash.

But it appears the opponents either have no cash or are choosing not to commit any of theirs.


But we have standing anyhow

[Continued Monday in Part 5.]


convert this post to pdf.

Whose woods these are? I think I know: Part 3, Between the woods and frozen lake

November 20, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Belmont, Cambridge, Chapter 40B, Development, Eminent domain, Environmentalism, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Local issues, NIMBY, Protests, Zoning | No comments 92 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

As we saw yesterday, those in Cambridge who oppose development in development have no legal standing – they do not own the land and they’re not elected or appointed officials with sway over Belmont’s zoning.


Sources used in this post

Boston Globe (December 24, 2010; gray-blue font)

Boston Globe (June 26, 2014; red font)

Cambridge Day (October 13, 2014; emerald font)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 14, 2014)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 15, 2014; blue font)

Boston Globe (October 25, 2014; brown font)

To them, however, any standing, no matter how tenuous, is good enough.

2B. The antagonists: Anyone who opposes can raise any anti argument. 

Realizing the political weakness of neighboring busybodies protesting, the antagonists found some Belmont residents to oppose the project:


The decision will come in response to an application from 14 Belmont residents who live near the project for an injunction on construction, arguing state and federal regulations, as well as local statutes, are not being properly enforced.

None of the fourteen Belmont residents (whose names weren’t in the public record that I could easily find) was a public official, and in fact no public body – not the town of Belmont, not the state – raised any continuing objection, because the zoning and development issues were addressed in prior hearings, applications, and in some cases court proceedings.

The developer has already obtained all the necessary permits from the state and from Cambridge, and has submitted about 95% of the documents needed to secure a Belmont building permit, according to Glenn Clancy, the town’s director of community development.

Evidently the antagonists concluded that the relevant elected officials had failed in their duty, because they sought to bring citizen’s litigation:

According to Cambridge attorney Mike Connolly’s SilverMapleForest site: “The lawsuit, brought forward by 14 Belmont residents … states that there will be harm to the environment if regulations required by the Clean Water Act and the Belmont Stormwater bylaw

Even granting arguendo that the residents have standing, the Belmont Stormwater bylaw appears not to be approved, merely a draft:

– are not enforced.  The suit seeks to stay the removal of the trees until those provisions are enforced.”

In this, the antagonists are adopting the same reasoning and tactics used in California, where under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA; pronounced see-kwa) they do have standing to raise objections for (in alphabetical order) aesthetics, agricultural resources, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, geology and soils, greenhouse gases, hazards and hazardous waste materials, hydrology and water quality, land use and planning, mineral resources, noise, population and housing, public services, recreation, transportation and traffic, and utilities and service systems.  If one cannot find a claim in there, one isn’t even one-quarter trying.  No wonder California has skyrocketing affordable housing costs and hence the nation’s least-affordable market in Los Angeles.


Thanks, CEQA!

The arm-waving environmental argument was made formally in court a few days later:

Thomas Bracken, representing the citizens, said the group’s arguments to stop the project are valid due to restrictions in Belmont’s stormwater bylaw.

“It is our contention that the local bylaw prohibits cutting down these trees,” Bracken said in court. “The permit process is very important, and this process has not been dealt with in the long history of litigation under the Wetlands Protection Act.”

Did the antagonists have a legal case?

3. Legal case

In pursuing legal arguments, the antagonists have certainly been trying long enough – if this report is correct, they’ve been at it for sixteen years:


It seems an eternity ago, doesn’t it?

The ongoing conflict over the Silver Maple Forest, which is an integral part of the Alewife Reservation ecosystem, started in 1998 when O’Neill Properties announced that it planned to clear the woods and build a commercial development.

When it bought the property, O’Neill can have had no idea what it was in for:

The conflict over the Belmont Uplands property has stretched on for the past 15 years, but after dealing with a series of legal challenges and appeals from state and local agencies, developer O’Neill Properties of Pennsylvania would be cleared to begin construction if it secures a building permit from Belmont.

3A. The context: Every legal argument has already been raised and litigated.

For the last decade and a half, O’Neill has been laboriously, and one must conclude patiently, working through Massachusetts’ approval procedures:


Ellen Mass: appeal?

[Ellen Mass of the Friends of Alewife Reservation] said, “environmental groups and the Belmont Conservation Commission litigated for five years with the state Department of Environmental Protection on the grounds that the proposed development violates the Wetlands Protection Act in several categories.” 

Obviously they lost; so that they litigated is unconvincing evidence now.

“Environmentalists claim the development location in the midst of a floodplain forest will be in violation of FEMA floodplain designations when the structure is built, including numerous municipal/ state guidelines, including habitat protection.”

That is why we have courts – so that things claimed can be proven, left unproven, or disproved.

But Julie Barry, who is representing the developers, argued the neighbors’ latest challenge to the project is unfounded, and that after seven years of court battles

All of which the opponents have lost.

– further legal discussion about permitting and regulations is not necessary.


Ms. Barry wants her client to have seven good years after having had seven bad years

The antagonists also lost with the state agencies, none of whom (in my experience) is a patsy or a developer catspaw.


Not a catspaw except in its grip on the issues

The proposal passed the state Department of Environmental Protection’s scrutiny in 2010, when the agency decided that the developer had taken the proper steps to mitigate damage to the surrounding wetlands and protect nearby Belmont neighborhoods from flooding.

The developer accomplished this, one must emphasize, by building environmental infrastructure:

Three acres of the parcel are in Cambridge, and Jennifer Letourneau, Cambridge’s conservation director, said that, in 2008, the city’s Conservation Commission granted the developers a permit to build a vegetated water-quality detention basin on the property.

She said the Cambridge portion is protected from further development by a conservation restriction.

If the environment was the concern, then the law must be satisfied:


Now I’m satisfied

“The fact of the matter is there is nothing left to be appealed here. The project is lawfully permitted and should be allowed to proceed,” Barry said in court.

Some people – say, a state legislator – realize that eventually protest becomes not civil disobedience but law-breaking:

“Even the staunchest defenders of the forest admit we are in a very difficult position” in terms of blocking development, [Cambridge environmental attorney Mike] Connolly said, citing two attempts at preservation funding by state Sen. Will Brownsberger that were blocked by Gov. Deval Patrick and constraints faced by Belmont in stopping a project bringing the town even the minimum amount of affordable housing.


And, governor, I’d like to spend thirteen million of the Commonwealth’s money to thwart affordable housing in my district

Though Senator Brownsberger presents himself as a thoughtful progressive, it seems extremely odd (aside from spending the state’s money on what is purely a local issue) to placate the locals by opposing something that the Town of Belmont so plainly needs. 

The Democrat from Belmont said he opposes developing the land, and would like to have the silver maple forest become part of the Alewife Reservation.

If so, then the senator is objectively anti-affordable housing, and should explain to his constituents either why he believes Belmont should remain so exclusionary, or alternatively how he proposes to have Belmont develop affordable housing – as far as I can tell, the town has no affordable-housing production plan whatsoever – and how he intends to protect Belmont from the risk of even worse depredations by the Dreaded Texas Developer

(Also, and not trivially, even if the money had been appropriate, the Town of Belmont would then have had to undertake a formal eminent domain taking procedure, and there’s no guarantee either that the case would have prevailed in court or that the thirteen million would have been enough – in fact, it likely would have been too little, meaning that the voters of Belmont would have had to pay for it out of their real estate taxes.)

The governor actually pocket-vetoed the proposal, so I do wonder if the whole thing was simply a political kabuki dance designed to create mutual political capital with no actual cost:


See, constituents?  I seek to bring you what you want

  1. The senator tells the governor that he is bringing this forward to show his constituents he was doing something.
  2. The senator and his colleagues arrange it within the legislative calendar so it would be passed only at year-end.
  3. The governor is thus able to veto it by doing nothing. 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]


convert this post to pdf.

Whose woods these are? I think I know: Part 2, He will not see me stopping here

November 19, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Belmont, Cambridge, Chapter 40B, Development, Eminent domain, Environmentalism, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Local issues, NIMBY, Protests, Zoning | No comments 119 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

Yesterday’s post, opening with the arrest in Belmont of anti-development protesters who live in Cambridge for trespassing on private property that a Philadelphia-based company has been trying for a decade to develop into high-density housing, 20% of it affordable, ended by asking, where in fact is this property?

Sources used in this post

Boston Globe (December 24, 2010; gray-blue font)

Boston Globe (June 26, 2014; red font)

Cambridge Day (October 13, 2014; emerald font)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 14, 2014)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 15, 2014; blue font)

Boston Globe (October 25, 2014; brown font)

We can zoom in to here:


Carved by an off-ramp from Route 2

Look in the upper right, the blue and green striped section bounded to the north by the Concord Turnpike (Route 2), and bisected by the curving connector street labeled “Ramp-Lake St to Route 2 EB” and “Ramp: Rt 2 EB/ Acorn Park Rd to Lake St.”).  See the area just south of it? 

That is the development site. 

  1. It’s as far from Belmont as it is possible to get and still be in the town.
  2. It’s as close to transportation (aside from Route 2, Alewife, the outermost stop on the Red Line, is walkable from the site) as it is possible to get in Belmont.
  3. Its immediate abutters are commercial and office (Acorn Park).

Regarding Cambridge Discovery Park (formerly known as Acorn park), Wikipedia has this to say

The Park is master-planned for six different LEED-certified office and laboratory buildings totaling up to 820,000 sf and two structured parking garages. Today the Park consists of an abundance of green space with walking and bicycle trails as well as two buildings and a parking garage. More specifically: The Smithsonian Building at 150,000sf+/-; The Forrester Building at 200,000sf+/- (LEED Gold certified), and a 650+/- Car Parking Garage. Permits are in place for three to four additional buildings totaling 450,000sf+/- as well as a second structured parking garage.

High-tech jobs doing globally important green work.  We certainly wouldn’t want anyone working there to live close to their jobs, would we?

Cambridge Discovery Park and surrounding Alewife Brook Reservation represents one of the largest campuses in Cambridge (after Harvard and MIT) and is home to world-class tenants including Forrester Research, The Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory, Siemens, Pfizer, and Genocea Biosciences.


If I understand correctly, the proposed development site is the greenery just below the access road at the picture’s left.

As we saw in Milton, antagonists can find something to criticize in any location – so if one cannot develop in Belmont there, can one develop in Belmont anywhere?


This it isn’t just developers who see the issue in those terms; anyone looking at the evidence would conclude that opposing the development of this site is tantamount to opposing any affordable housing in Belmont.

Belmont’s town government knows this.  It knows the town had better do something, and soon; preferably something that’s away from the city center and close to the natural development corridors:

Belmont’s zoning board permitted the project because Chapter 40B allows for zoning leeway in towns where less than 10% of the housing stock is affordable.

This location was and is ideal – close to jobs, close to transportation, close to Cambridge.

The 15-acre forest between Route 2 and the Alewife Brook Reservation is due to get a five-story building of nearly 300 units and around 500 parking spaces called The Residences at Acorn Park. Philadelphia-based O’Neill Properties introduced its $70 million plan in 2005, finding fierce but so far futile opposition from environmentalists and lovers of the densely wooded forest and its wildlife.


Their opposition hasn’t been futile: It has slowed the development, shrunken the development, and cost the Town of Belmont and the developer nearly ten years – so sixty families that would otherwise be living affordably in Belmont are living somewhere else. 


Lost amid the self-appointed environmentalists’ concerns are those of people – that is, those who might like to live in Belmont. 

[Glenn Clancy, the town’s director of community development] said the developer originally applied for a building permit for the project in September 2010, but since then the state changed its building code, so the company has been working to ensure that its plans comply with the new code.

Nor, despite what you are about to read, was there evidence to persuade the state to be concerned about environmental issues.

State environmental officials have dismissed concerns about potential impacts on nearby wetlands and wildlife, since nearly half the project site will become permanent conservation space.

For the environmentalists that is a pure and ‘free’ win, particularly for the Cambridge side, which is where the conservation land is located.

1B. The antagonists: Belmont need no more people.

[The development’s opponents] are a pack of Cambridge environmentalists, joined by members of the left-leaning Cambridge City Council. Cambridge’s elected officials are doing everything they can to hold up a Chapter 40B affordable housing development that’s not just in another municipality, but in another town.

The Cambridge antagonists don’t need the state’s determination, they have their own:

“We now recognize how vital this upland woods is for floodwater mitigation,” said Susan Jane Ringler, 60, of Cambridge.  “With climate change the Alewife area is already experiencing frequent flood events because we have paved so much of the area and not paid attention to the natural floodplain.  It would never be zoned for dense housing if it were zoned today, but unfortunately it was zoned many years ago.”


A 1946 map of the area shows the development area is east of Little Pond, south of Route 2, north of the railroad tracks

Whether or not that’s accurate – there was obviously development at Acorn Park after 1946 – what Ms. Ringler wishes for is counterfactual and belies the presence of large and protected Spy Pond nearby. 

Rozann Kraus, of Cambridge’s Tromp transportation and traffic group, said, “[this] is poised to destroy one of Boston’s most vital floodplain ecosystems, the Silver Maple Forest, part of a contiguous wildlife and river corridor.”

Take a look at the map above.  With Spy Pond just across Route 2, can one say with a straight face that this is a ‘vital floodplain ecosystem’? 

“In this age of climate change officials are removing the flooding safety net – forest and floodplain – for tens of thousands of Somerville, Cambridge, Arlington, Medford residents by clear-cutting the basin’s largest floodplain forest which remains in the Alewife watershed, exposing them to extreme weather,” Kraus said.

Belmont’s elevation is 44 feet above sea level and there are no rivers nearby. 


Alewife Brook from Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington

(The Alewife Brook itself is a sleepy stream.)

For the moment setting aside whether the antagonists’ hyperbole is plausible, do they have a basis in which to raise their claim?

2. Legal standing

Throughout their activities, the antagonists are unconcerned that they have no legal standing to bring a case. 

2A. The context: No entity with standing is opposing the development.

More than winning in court, the antagonists of development sought publicity, and were keen to be arrested, in public:

There were five arrests on trespassing charges at about 10 a.m., all Cantabrigians, said Quinton Zondervan and fellow activist Patrick Donworth.


Gina-Maria Giuliano, 21, of Somerville is arrested during a protest to save Silver Maple Forest from a looming development project.

Those arrested do not own the land, they’re not abutters to the land, they’re not residents of Belmont, they are not professional experts hired by any of the principals (including the state or the Town of Belmont), and for that matter, the Cambridge land will not be developed at all.

About 2.7 acres of Silver Maple Forest are in Cambridge – but not the area slated for development, minimizing [Cambridge] city government’s ability to play a formal role.

[Continued tomorrow in Part 3.]


convert this post to pdf.

Whose woods these are? I think I know: Part 1, His house is in the village, though

November 18, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Belmont, Cambridge, Chapter 40B, Development, Eminent domain, Environmentalism, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Local issues, NIMBY, Protests, Zoning | No comments 130 views

By: David A. Smith

In my endless quest to unravel the mysteries of affordable housing, a few decades back I uncovered the Production Paradox: Whatever an affordable housing developer wants to do, the neighbors will oppose it. 


No matter what it is or who commenced it, I’m against it!

More recently, with the demise of as-of-right zoning, I’ve likewise discovered that people who would otherwise never associate with one another can band together to oppose affordable housing (collectively, I call them the antagonists).  Even more cleverly, the various tribes of antagonists learn how to take turns being the antagonists, and will foreground whichever among them can gain the most sympathetic audience. 


I like the arguments you’re making

Sources used in this post

Boston Globe (December 24, 2010; gray-blue font)

Boston Globe (June 26, 2014; red font)

Cambridge Day (October 13, 2014; emerald font)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 14, 2014)

Cambridge Chronicle (October 15, 2014; blue font)

Boston Globe (October 25, 2014; brown font)

Previously, in Milton we saw exhaustively (Milton’s Paradise Lost? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8) how the town burghers were able always to find ‘just one more hurdle’ on Tantalus’s obstacle course for any developer to surmount.

This time, we’ll painstakingly examine a microcosmic case study of people whom George Orwell would call ‘objectively anti-poor,’ and their endless part-time campaign to prevent people from moving into another Boston inner suburb, Belmont:


My country, right or left

A group of local environmental activists took over Acorn Park Drive Tuesday morning to protest a looming development they say will destroy the Silver Maple Forest at the edge of Belmont, Cambridge and Arlington. The civil protest ended with the arrest of a Somerville woman and four Cambridge residents.

Words are not reality, but when fighting a war of words, they can be effective.

Activists met the revving of chainsaws and cracking of trees with protests. Since then, 13 people ranging in age from 26 to 78 have been arrested for civil disobedience, including Amy Mertl, a Lesley University [assistant] professor [in biology, specializing in rain forests such as the Amazon].


Mertl believes in drilling for ecology, not for development

As far as I can tell, the only people calling the area in question the Silver Maple Forest are those who want to block development, who are an unusual alliance:

There’s no stranger set of bedfellows than the current alliance obstructing a housing development at the Belmont-Cambridge line.


What are you doing here?

The groups are lining up against Belmont Uplands, a 298-unit rental project proposed for a stretch of woods off Route 2. The project’s developer, O’Neill Properties, will make 20% of those units affordable.


Does that look like a forest to you?

Before getting into the arguments, allow me to provide some context, using the satellite photograph above.

The area pivots around the three-way interchange (labeled ‘Little River’) known locally as the Route 2 rotary, as it brings in Route 2 from the west to join with what the map shows as US 3, known locally as either Fresh Pond Parkway (south of the Route 2 interchange) or Alewife Brook Parkway (north of it). 


Heading west out Route 2 from the interchange

To the east of Route 3 is (North) Cambridge.

To the north of Route 2 and west of Alewife Brook Parkway is (East) Arlington.

To the south we have Belmont (the obviously residential sections on the image’s left) and industrial/ office Cambridge.

The green forested area, which its proponents are calling the Silver Maple Forest, is bounded on the south by railroad tracks (the broad brown stretch) and on the north by Route 2.


Aerial view looking east down route 2, with the new apartments (foreground) and the Alewife Red Line stop (background).

The developed area between the woods and Route 2 is known as Acorn Park; it’s all offices (including the original home of Arthur D. Little), and from the perspective of urban real estate development, it should absolutely expand, what with its great access, at the virtual intersection of highway (Route 2) and subway (Alewife and the Red Line).

O’Neill Properties is applying for a 298-unit complex under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing regulations. The law allows a developer to bypass local zoning laws in exchange for designating a certain percentage of a project’s units for income-eligible households, if less than 10% of the host community’s housing stock meets the state’s criteria for affordable housing. Belmont falls short of the threshold that would exempt it from Chapter 40B, according to Clancy.

Actually, they’ve been applying for at least nine years, possibly longer.


A Harvard undergraduate in CS 50, 2005

Do the antagonists have a case against this development?  Are we just raping the environment for greedy capitalist profit?

1. Policy high ground

Developers depict the Silver Maple Forest “Residents of Acorn Park Drive” as a conflict between conservationists and affordable housing advocates.

That, of course, is lazy journalism – though to be fair, it’s in a local paper reporting on local news, and written by someone who probably lacks my obsessive interest in these subjects.  Nevertheless, as the basic investigative journalism wasn’t done in the media, we can do it here.  Establishing the factual background, and the strategic imperative of affordable housing, is important.  Without it, we might as well be talking about nine acres in northern Maine, instead of a development resource that for the Town of Belmont is incredibly precious and must be used.


Lots of forest in Maine

Belmont is a town [Of 25,000 – Ed.] where a meager 3% percent of the housing stock is classified as affordable.

Arlington has 19,900 homes, 5.6% of which are affordable under Chapter 40B.  Cambridge has 46,700, of which 15.2% are Chapter 40B-affordable.  Belmont, leafy Belmont, has 10,100 homes, only 3.8% of them affordable, and it echoes the duality that we saw in Milton: a streetcar suburb glued together with a mansion-filled exurban enclave:

Belmont remains a primarily residential suburb with little growth since the 1950s. It is best known for the mansion-filled Belmont Hill neighborhood, although most residents live in more densely settled, low-lying areas around the Hill.

1A. The context: Belmont needs affordable housing and has extremely few options where to put it.

Belmont residents have the privilege of living in one of the state’s wealthiest towns, and apparently would like to keep that privilege to themselves.

When compared with the Town of Milton, whose anti-affordable housing system I previously excoriated (Milton’s Paradise Lost? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8), Belmont has a worse situation, with only 3.6% of its inventory affordable, versus Milton’s 4.4% (and the state requirement of 10.0%).  And, from the perspective of affordable housing, Belmont’s zoning is a nightmare.


Town of Belmont Zoning Map; worth downloading for full resolution

Even a cursory glance show that Belmont is almost entirely single-family residential: the green-lined, yellow, light blue, and gray swathes are all residential, the development of which is a tightly restricted process even within the limits of the zoning.  Commercial development is gerrymandered into a sliver of lavender along Pleasant Street, a patch on Trapelo Road (lower right), and the City Hall area (the intersection of Pleasant Street and Concord Avenue.

Where, you may ask, is multifamily?  Basically nowhere: the tiny orange polygon in the northeast.  Hence it would have been legally impossible for Belmont to accommodate high-density housing without intruding on some form of existing zoning. 

And where, you may ask, is the contested forest or development site? 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]


convert this post to pdf.

Adding new dormers: Part 3, A list of suitable locations

November 17, 2014 | Affordability, Apartments, Boston, Boston College, Boston University, Development, Dormitories, Enforcement, Housing, Land use, Northeastern, Real estate taxes, Rental, Student housing, Universities, Urbanization, Zoning | No comments 114 views

[Continued from last week’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

If Boston is to thrive, as we say yesterday then its universities must thrive, and for them to thrive, they want to grow, and for several of those domiciled in the city itself, the constraining factor is land that can be developed in student housing.  As reported in The Boston Globe (October 9, 2014), the universities would love to have access to that land:

The plan, part of the mayor’s new housing initiative, would encourage colleges to work with private developers to build the new facilities.

By implication, the new student housing will be built off-campus:

Devin Quirk, director of operations at Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development [Which handles affordable housing, and has taken over BRA linkage disbursements after Mayor Walsh stripped the BRA of that authority – Ed.] , said the city would facilitate partnerships between colleges and private developers to build new dorms, with one or more colleges agreeing to lease all or portions of the buildings.


Devin Quirk, up against a City Hall Brutalist raw concrete wall

That’s the student-housing model of the proposed off-campus student housing in Flagstaff, Arizona that I profiled six months ago, which faced so much opposition that its development has been tabled.

Such agreements would save schools from having to put up large amounts of capital to construct the facilities, while giving developers a guarantee that the property would be rented.

Off-campus dedicated student housing is also a win for the city:

Privately developed dorms can also be taxed, unlike dorms built solely by colleges, which are classified as nonprofits, city officials said.

This is a much larger issue than it might appear.  For Boston, the silver lining of all its universities conceals an inner cloud – plenty of high-value real estate that is exempt from property taxes.


A bit overstated as it includes parks, airports, and the Mass Pike, but still ….

The city thus loves and hates expanding universities: it loves the students (and their money), jobs, and visibility/ prestige university expansion brings, and hates that when a university’s campus expands, the property is exempt from taxes unless the university and city negotiate a pre-acquisition PILOT agreement. 

Boston, like Providence with its Ivy League university Brown, has been suffering from severe case of endowment envy – relishing the universities’ success but wanting a piece of that action.  So, as I reported 3½ years ago (The Battle of Charities’ Taxation, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4), Boston has been asking its local non-profits – mainly universities and hospitals – to pony up a share of what they would owe if they were actually taxable.  Though there wasn’t (and isn’t) a scintilla of legal argument for it, the city mustered up a political one – that universities were getting city services for free – of dubious validity but good potential for head-line grabbing.

Building more dormitories on-campus would raise the awkward shakedown ask again; building them off-campus would simply win the issue for the city – and the amount is enough to say grace over.


And please lord, let there be dormitories for these young wayward youths

Boston’s annual real estate taxes are probably in the vicinity of 1½% of value, so each dormitory bed built privately, rather than on campus, would yield the city roughly $2,100 a year in additional real estate taxes, for a resident who wouldn’t otherwise consume any city services.  An additional 18,500 beds could give the city an additional $40 million a year, relieve overcrowding and placate the neighbors, and lower upward rent pressure, making housing more affordable throughout.

So off-campus dedicated professionally owned and operated student housing would be a clear win for the city – and also for the university, which compared with seeking more on-campus dormitories gains two critical benefits:

1. Liability and operation of the real estate would be outsourced.  If bad things happened in the off-campus housing, that would be the landlord’s problem, not the university’s.

2. The university doesn’t need more land!  The university can expand its enrollment without expanding its own land footprint.  For the urban universities, that’s the biggest win of all.

“I think most universities will be on board with the general principles of the plan,” Nucci added.

As one might expect, the universities have figured this out:

The proposal, greeted positively by officials at several colleges, comes amid increasing concern over shoddy, dangerous conditions common in off-campus student housing. The additional dorm space would give colleges greater oversight of students and ease the rapid growth of the student rental market in many neighborhoods.

Universities don’t want to be bad neighbors, but if it’s between growing the student body and being a good neighbor, they’ll grow the student body and take their chances. 

Quirk said that during a pair of recent meetings with city leaders, local college presidents supported the ideas outlined in the report.

“The big change here is the commitment from the universities to work with us on this issue,” said John Nucci, a spokesman for Suffolk University [And long-time Boston city politician – Ed.], which houses 21% of its 5,800 undergraduates on its downtown campus he said. “It’s really a partnership.”


One Boston Italian-American speaking before another one: John Nucci at Suffolk groundbreaking

Building up the campus takes time, and landlocked urban universities know that the outside market can take only some limited number of additional renters, so where they can, they have been building – if they can get city approval:

Some area colleges have a head start on increasing undergraduate housing, as more than 7,000 new undergraduate dorm beds are currently under construction or have preliminary city approval, including at Boston University, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

UMass Boston has always been the red-headed stepchild among Boston’s universities; geographically isolated out by Harbor Point, the erstwhile Columbia Point and blocked off by the southeast Expressway, only recently arrived on the scene, and the state’s public university (and outstation campus of UMass Amherst), it struggles for academic recognition and for students – but it has steadily built its campus over the decades, and it has the acreage to grow.


UMass Boston, on its peninsula, with the Kennedy Library at far right

BC, out on the border between Boston and Newton, likewise has room to grow.

Boston College houses 80% of its 9,000 undergraduates on campus, the highest percentage in the city. The school has plans to add another 810 dorm beds soon, which would push its on-campus housing rate to nearly 90%.

“We support Mayor Walsh’s housing plan and look forward to working with him to meet our common goals,” campus spokesman Jack Dunn said.

The universities particularly like that it will be the mayor taking the lead in pressing the public policy issues:

City officials said they plan to work with neighborhood residents to establish, by 2015, a list of suitable locations and other criteria for new student housing.

And that, boys and girls, will be where the mayor’s real political capital will be required – when the desire for improved student housing clashes with the NIMBYs.


I’ll be against development … once I get my dorm room

convert this post to pdf.