8 Points For Planning Board Reform

Here’s some of my notes towards planning board/ urban planning reform, based on public comment and other city conversations. In no particular order:


1. Accountability for developers: Communication, coordination, and visibility around developer fulfillment of obligations is needed. This could be achieved through an agreed upon timeline with milestones and more importantly, accountability *after* special permits are granted. 


2. Fundamental zoning overhaul:  A number of residents, developers, and other stakeholders mentioned specific ways in which our long-term planning can be improved and tweaked today. The final plan will reveal even more comprehensive changes for the future, but there are some simple ideas about what can be fixed right now .


3. Real planning requires real, consistent research: Expert research and consultation must be available to planning board so that they may "match wits" with developers.


4. Contextual, holistic planning: The planning board must take into account the wider context around a given development and must address the impact that the project will have on the neighborhood, area, and entire city. Community input must occur before projects are firmed up - as early as possible - rather than at the eleventh hour. This means conversations about traffic, community benefit/community needs, and quality of life must happen as early in the process as possible.    


5. Solutions for now: There must be an interim solution for areas in the city (and/or large projects) that have been poorly implemented. This includes Alewife and the Sullivan Courthouse.


6. Visionary, long term planning NOT formula approval: The Planning Board must operate with a vision for the city that is regularly articulated to (and negotiated with) residents and imposed upon developers meaningfully. Neighborhood groups, academic experts, CDD, and other stakeholders must provide regular guidance, feedback, and course corrections to the planning board. There must be a measure of the planning board’s success in longer-term, holistic planning. If we are serious about environmentalism, quality of life, traffic and transit, economic mobility, inclusionary units, and many other of Cambridge’s pet issues, we must have a proactive planning board rather than a formula-approval body.


7. Policy guidance from experts and democratically elected policy makers: The Planning Board must have policy discussions with and guidance from CDD and City Council.


8. A regular, formal process to review how the planning board works: Given that guidelines and criteria can be revised, this kind of major overhaul should be part of a regularly scheduled process every several years, so that we never reach this kind of planning crisis again.

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  • commented 2014-09-23 19:10:53 -0400
    Hey, that sounds like democracy!
  • commented 2014-09-23 16:38:59 -0400
    Thanks, Nadeem — for this very comprehensive look at the short-term and longer-term changes we need to make in how the Planning Board functions and how individual projects must be judged within the context of their surroundings and the city as a whole. Your emphasis on planning is key — how else will the PB members consider the larger context of an individual project before them? We also need to pay attention to the membership of the Board — currently there has been a vacancy since October, 2013 and 4 other expired terms. And while we think about membership, we should urge the City Manager to consider members who are not in the professions affiliated with development — the lawyers, architects and contractors who currently have the seats. Surely the testimonies of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge and the Cambridge Residents Alliance show that we non-professionals are fully capable of offering analysis of proposals and positive suggestions for changes that come from the ground up — or experiences of living here. I hope you’re circulating these ideas to your colleagues. Nancy Ryan

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