The Ordinance Committee held a public meeting on June 28, 2012 at 4:08 p.m. in the Sullivan Chamber.
The purpose of meeting was to continue discussion on the petitions from the Planning Board to rezone the North Massachusetts Avenue area and to amend the Zoning Map for an area along Massachusetts Avenue in the vicinity of Trolley Square and Linear Park from Business A-2 to Residence C-2B.
Present at the hearing were Councillor David Maher, Chair of the Committee, Councillor Leland Cheung, Councillor Craig Kelley, Vice Mayor E. Denise Simmons, Stuart Dash, Jeff Roberts, Taha Jennings, Savitri Khalsa, Aide to Councillor vanBeuzekom, Paula Crane, Administrative Assistant, and Marybeth Cosgrove, Operations Manager, City Clerk's Office.
Also present were John Darrah, William Winder, Katiti Kironde, John Daher, Macky Buck and Charles Teague.
Councillor Maher stated that after the previous meeting it was necessary for clarification of the language in the petition. This petition expires on September 4, 2012 and has been moved to a second reading with the expectation to act on this petition at the July 30, 2012 City Council meeting. He introduced Stuart Dash, Director of Community Planning, Taha Jennings, Planner, and Jeff Roberts, Project Planner, Community Development Department (CDD) and asked that they give a brief overview and outline of the CDD's Memo to the Planning Board outlining alternate zoning language to address the issues that have been raised by community members and others at prior public hearings (Attachment A). A document listing suggested revisions is also attached (Attachment B).
Taha Jennings stated that the CDD had two petitions before the committee - one is the petition to rezone the North Mass Ave Overlay and the other is a zoning map change. The Trolley Square map change petition will expire based on timing required procedurally and that time would be used to continue discussions with affected property owners in the area. The other petition is the North Mass Ave Zoning petition. This petition includes zoning changes that the CDD recommended through a planning study. He noted that all changes affect only the portion of the Massachusetts Avenue Overlay District north of Porter Square, some language has been clarified following questions and comments made at the public hearings, new language has been introduced to address concerns raised at the ordinance committee meeting including limitations of the frontage of bank uses. The parking exemption for 5,000 square feet of non-residential use is removed in the alternative language based on comments received at the public hearings and because there is already a small business parking exemption in the zoning ordinance.
Councillor Cheung stated that he would like to start by extending his appreciation for incorporating the feedback into the documents. Regarding bank frontage, he inquired how this is limited and regarding the fast food ordinance, how do we modify this to make it more in line as to what people consider fast food. Mr. Jennings replied that in regards to bank frontage, page 8 bullet #7 is language that says no bank, trust company or similar financial institution may occupy a building frontage of more than twenty-five feet. He noted that in Central Square there was a wide range of bank frontage. Mr. Jennings noted that CDD believes that the 25 foot maximum frontage is appropriate. Regarding the fast food provision, Mr. Dash stated that CDD has researched this issue and they will be analyzing the appropriateness of limiting formula-based businesses. He stated that there are some cities that have tried this and the CDD will contact those cities for information. Councillor Cheung inquired if there is a reason to not included this language into the petition at this time. Mr. Dash answered in the affirmative and stated that CDD wants to ensure that sufficient research is conducted. Mr. Dash noted that it is a significant change and it would not be in the best interest to make that change within this ordinance cycle. Mr. Dash stated that currently it is difficult for a fast food business to come into the city. Regarding bank frontage, Councillor Cheung inquired if the CDD consider limiting the overall amount of bank frontage over the entire Massachusetts Avenue similar to what is currently in place in Central Square where there is a cap of the number of fast food establishments. Councillor Cheung stated that people are reacting to the sheer number of banks in Harvard Square. Mr. Dash stated that in discussions in the Kendall Square process, the approach in this petition was a good place to start. Councillor Cheung questioned why the city doesn't have a cap on banks similar to that of fast food restaurants. Mr. Dash stated that frontage is where they are working currently.
Vice Mayor Simmons asked about the fast food issue and the formula that is used. Mr. Dash stated that this is not being proposed for this ordinance. Vice Mayor Simmons questioned the definition of a formula-based business. Mr. Dash stated that an example of a formula-based business is a business wherein every menu is the same, the same uniform is worn and every store has the same protocol.
Vice Mayor Simmons asked about the vision of limiting bank frontage. She inquired if it is the length along the street that is entails the twenty-five foot requirement. She stated that nowhere in the proposed ordinance speaks to the number of banks, only the frontage of the same. She noted that this is something to keep in mind when talking about commercial development and zoning changes. She stated that this is something to think about with all development projects.
Councillor Kelley stated that he feels that the major questions have been addressed. He believes that there needs to be quick work on the fast food piece within the Zoning Code as a whole rather than in any one particular district. The issue of banks is something that the city should explore and that the use zoning is an important tool to keep places that are driven by large scale economics to twisting our residential economics.
As it relates to bank frontage, Councillor Cheung inquired of the possibility of an overall cap for bank frontage. He stated that in hearing the support of his colleagues on this issue this would be a good thing to limit in this petition. He noted that he believes that a big part of the problem is the sheer number of banks. He questioned if the CDD could come up with a reasonable amount of total bank frontage along the avenue that would be considered appropriate. Mr. Dash stated that he is concerned with this becoming a more restrictive petition if we move in the direction of that position. He stated that the alternate zoning language was a reasonable balance into that foray. Mr. Jennings added that the character of North Massachusetts Avenue is different than Central Square. The community was focused on a mix of uses and walk-ability. He agrees with Mr. Dash that the issues in Central Square are not the same kind of issues of North Massachusetts Avenue. Councillor Cheung offered the suggestion of the possibility of any particular bank having a certain amount of branches. Mr. Dash stated that CDD will take a look to see if there are ways to get totals. Councillor Cheung stated that the CDD is reasonable but that he is looking to be more aggressive and creative thinking would be a good thing.
Mr. Jennings stated that the neighborhoods between Harvard Square and Porter Square were not involved with coming up with zoning changes. They brought up some of the issues that some of the changes affect. Mr. Jennings stated that changes were limited to North of Porter Square.
Councillor Maher stated that while he understands the concern about banks, it seems odd to think that changing this sliver of Massachusetts Avenue would solve all of the problems. He counted four branches that fall within this overlay and for as long as he can remember, there used to be three in this district and one outside. He noted that the number of banks has not changed. He thinks that the problem is a much bigger problem in Central Square and Harvard Square and should be looked at. He spoke of a recent study that said most banks are looking to close branches and that they went on to list that there are only two or three spots that are bucking the trend such as Harvard Square, Copley Square and Brookline Square.
Councillor Maher opened the meeting to public comment.
John Darrah, 47 Reed Street, stated that there were at least half a dozen meetings with the planning staff. He stated that there was strong neighborhood support to preserve retail along Massachusetts Avenue and to stop the condominium-only developments. Out of that process came this ordinance. The CDD asked about retail repeatedly and never once did the issue of restricting retail come up. It was not a big neighborhood issue. He stated that the concern of the neighbors is that once a condominium is gone, the retail is gone as well. He strongly urged the City Council to pass this petition and stated that the neighbors want this ordinance in place.
William Winder, 11A Meacham Road, stated that one of the things that disturbs him in the zoning is that parking does not have to be included within the square footage. He stated that he is concerned about that part of the ordinance and how the streetscape will be affected.
Macky Buck, 20 Gold Star Road, stated that Mr. Darrah spoke well about the concept of this neighborhood. It is a place where people can walk. She stated that right now it is a big theme to have banks every four feet. The fast food issue has to be resolved as a citywide issue. She noted that the petition was signed by all but one person when asked for signatures. She stated that this is what people want. Regarding the parking issue, Ms. Buck stated that what brings the parking problems are the condominiums due to the developer not putting in enough parking. She noted that North Cambridge works for the residents.
Charles Teague, 23 Edmunds Street, stated that he is concerned about the use of the language. This is law and not to be taken lightly. He noted thirteen special permits by his count and he challenged the City Council to take out the piece where it states that anything can be overridden by special permit.
Dennis Carlone, 15 Martin Street, stated that there are a lot of good things about this zoning. He stated that to support that amount of retail there needs to be dense buildings. He suggested that there should be a summary chart as it relates to zoning. He noted that he is trained in zoning but when it is on a chart it is clear what is being said. He stated that as it relates to fast food piece, many businesses south of Porter Square are against it but would not speak to that.
Nancy Bjornson, 49 Locke Street, stated her concern that the BA2 to CA2 was left out.
Public comment closed at 4:58 p.m.
Councillor Maher stated that Trolley Square is a separate map change. He noted that CDD will be revisiting the proposed map change and that procedurally, the timing is such that the petition will expire. He noted that property owners had legitimate concerns with future issues with their property. Councillor Maher stated that there were two separate petitions and they were hearing them at the same time because they were in the same area. He noted that the City Council has to move on a timeline and it was apparent that timeline would not be met so that the petition will probably be refiled in the September/October timeframe.
Councillor Maher asked about the issue of parking when a building is elevated and parking is beneath it. Mr. Roberts stated that there are a couple of ways to address that. He noted that when the original Massachusetts Overlay District was established, that was one of the key concerns. The concern was maintaining an active street presence on the ground floor and to not allow structured parking. This is incorporated under the current language. He noted that a building cannot be fronted by parking. Mr. Roberts stated that many provisions are to prevent offensive features of buildings. Councillor Maher advocated the concept of a summary chart. He asked to have a summary chart for the July 30, 2012 City Council meeting.
Councillor Maher then spoke about the fast food issue. He questioned that if this is taken a step further, do places such as the 1369 or the High Rise Bakery fit into that same category. Mr. Roberts stated that the Zoning Ordinance defines fast food as food which is intended for immediate consumption and available upon a short waiting time and packaged or presented in a manner that can be readily eaten outside of the premises that it is sold. The second definition is that it is a specific operation and which "has its primary business sale to the public of fast food and does not meet certain conditions. He stated that it is difficult to make the judgment because there are different elements of the definition. He stated that there could be a large number of independent businesses that are selling a product different than McDonalds or Starbucks but does fall under the definition.
Councillor Cheung asked for suggestions on how to tweak the petition to make it better around the issues that affect this region and Cambridge. He noted that overall, the staff has been responsive in preserving ground floor retail. He inquired about special permits and the rationale behind a waiver by special permit of the Planning Board. Mr. Roberts stated that special permits was one of the points of issue of the original petition. In the current version, that language was not changed. This clarifies how overlay rules apply. He stated that the way it works is that base zoning requirement and overlay come in on top of that and except where explicitly stated, you have to adhere to all the requirements. The reason why the special permit is noted is that there are certain provisions that the Planning Board may waive. Mr. Dash stated that the Planning Board can only waive specific provisions.
Councillor Kelley questioned the parking issue and stated that it is clear that retail needs to be at sidewalk level but with residential parking the first four feet can be structured parking. Mr. Roberts stated that is the case with a residential development. He stated that looking at the North Massachusetts Avenue guidelines, the rationale is that residential development has a different form which allows a more residential character to the front entrances of those buildings. Councillor Kelley questioned why there could not be a section added that stating that residential uses must start at grade and parking cannot exceed the grade. Mr. Roberts stated that everything on the ground floor is non-residential. Councillor Kelley asked if there is a downside to making a subsection that parking would not go above grid. Mr. Roberts stated that CDD can look at that. He noted that one issue with allowing residential use is that if there is some historical character to the area then the desire would be to use a building form that was compatible with surrounding uses. Mr. Roberts stated that language could be considered to prevent where there would be visible parking that was right up against the sidewalk. He believes that if this is allowed by special permit, a developer will make a project work best for them. He commented that his experience with the Planning Board is that there are always good reasons to say yes. He stated that the language clearly says it cannot happen unless there is a good explanation as to why it is not.
Councillor Maher stated that the current plan is that this issue will come up at the July 30, 2012 City Council meeting.
Councillor Maher thanked all those present for their attendance.
The meeting adjourned at 5:19 p.m.
For the Committee,
Councillor David P. Maher, Chair