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September 2009

Porter Square Neighbors Association Meeting Minutes
September 17, 2009

Agenda

  • Beech Street Traffic Study
  • PSNA letter to Planning Board

Beech Street Traffic Study

Traffic Study Process

presenter: Sue Clippinger, Director, Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department (TPTD). Adam Shulman, TPTD and Gwen Noyes, Oaktree Development were also present to answer questions.

Sue Clippinger outlined the role TPTD has in large development projects like this one. The zoning ordinance passed in 1999 outlines a very specific process including a traffic study and certification by the traffic department for input to the Planning Board's review. More information can be found on the department's web site, http://www.cambridgema.gov/traffic/LargeProject.cfm .

It is the responsibility of the Planning Board to assess whether there would be substantial adverse impacts on city traffic if the project would be approved. To make this specific and measurable, TPTD has created traffic study guidelines (also on the web site) for development projects. Five criteria are used to assess the impact of a new development:

  • Project vehicle trips weekdays and weekends for 24 hr period and peak rush hours
  • Level of service (waiting times) at identified intersections
  • Number of trips on residential streets
  • Length of vehicle queues at identified signalized intersections
  • Pedestrian and bicycle facilities

Sue then discussed how this particular project matches up to these criteria according to traffic study that was done last June. The bottom line was that all five criteria were satisfied according to the traffic study.

TPTD also advised the developer last spring and told them to put the parking entrance on Beech Street. TPTD opposed using Massachusetts Avenue for safety reasons, in particular pedestrian safety and dangerous left turns into and out of the garage. The median doesn't help because there is a cut in it for the fire station; car wash traffic often used it. TPTD also estimated that half of the residential traffic would be coming from Elm Street and a quarter each from Mass Ave eastbound and westbound. This would mean that even with a Massachusetts Avenue entrance at least half of the trips would use Beech Street, and perhaps more if residents avoid left turns by using neighborhood streets (Russell, Orchard and back to Beech).

Finally, Sue acknowledged that Beech Street is congested but observed that the current traffic is lower than in the past, possibly due to the economic impact and the fact that more people are using public transportation and bikes.

St. James Neighbors Committee Response

presenter: John Armstrong, committee chair

The St. James Neighbors' committee, formed in June under the joint sponsorship of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee and the Porter Square Neighbors Association, consists of immediate abutters and residents of Beech, Orchard, and Blake Streets. It has been meeting since June, including five meetings with St. James’s members and Oaktree planners. Their three main concerns are the height and mass of the building, the fit for the neighborhood, and impact on Beech Street traffic.

With regard to traffic: 1) They had no input into the traffic study and feel that their direct knowledge of traffic on Beech Street were ignored. 2) They are concerned about the narrow scope of the study and the limited area considered. 3) They question the timing of the traffic study—in June after local universities' academic year had ended. 4) They question the impact criteria used and believe Beech Street is at the tipping point and can't take even a small increase in traffic. 5) They question the apparent lack of consideration of deliveries, moving trucks, and trash pickup. 6) They are also concerned about the driveway being right next to Kingdom Hall.

John wondered if we can really look to the city to protect us. If we cannot look to the city for help and protection, who do we turn to?

Questions/Comments

Q: We have four major development projects planned in the Porter Square area. If each project is looked at individually the criteria may not be triggered but the cumulative impact may be large. Is there any mechanism for taking a broader view?

A: Traffic studies are told to consider increases from previously approved, but incomplete, projects in their assumptions. (Follow up questions were not allowed due to lack of time, but audience was clearly not satisfied with this answer.)

Q: Why did you recommend the Beech Street entrance before the traffic study was even done?

A: To avoid unsafe left turns on Massachusetts Avenue, and because we knew we would need to accommodate traffic from two directions on Beech Street.

It is not easy to remove traffic entirely from a particular street, only to move it around. That is why the city encourages using transit, walking and bikes. TPTD do not directly approve new developments, just approves the traffic study which reports that this is the volume that will be added. Residents may go to the Planning Board meeting and express their opinions whether the impact of traffic on Beech Street is worth it vs. the value of the project.

Q: Have you considered that there are three churches and a school on Beech Street?

A: TPTD believes that the signal at Massachusetts Ave makes the driveway on Beech Street safer.

Q: How do you identify intersections to include in the study scope, and what community input is there?

A: Generally there is no community input. The scoping happens early on and includes analysis of all intersections with 40 or more trips. This project does not create 40 additional trips at rush hour.

Q: It is difficult to find parking in this area, can take 40 minutes. Won't this project put more pressure on street parking?

A: The underground parking provided for the project meets legal requirements and is probably more than is really needed so close to public transportation. It is city policy not to provide excess parking, as that only encourages more auto trips and congestion.

Q: How do neighbors learn early enough about a possible project so they can be involved in earlier input? The Planning Board is not set up for input from neighbors.

A: That’s a good question. Maybe a notice could be put on the web. We can work on that. We are always willing to hear residents concerns.

Q: Are deliveries and drop offs going to be at Beech or Massachusetts Avenue?

A: The plans call for six new short term spaces on Massachusetts Avenue to be used for deliveries and drop off places for school children and church members. There may be drop off spaces in the underground garage also.

Q: Could there be spaces for zip cars, perhaps satisfying resident parking requirements?

A: That's an interesting idea worth further consideration. Zip car spaces can't be underground because they need to be publicly accessible.

Q: Is fire equipment accessibility part of these studies?

A: (Gwen Noyes) The fire department reviews building permits against stringent provisions in the building codes.

Q: It is very difficult to turn left onto Beech from Orchard Street now. It is at a tipping point and has not been looked at. It is also difficult to take a left from Massachusetts Avenue and then a left into the church parking lot.

A: The plan is that children will be dropped off at school at times that are not peak traffic hours.

Q: Has a date been set for the Planning Board review?

A: No.

PSNA Letter to Planning Board

presenter: John Howard, PSNA president

John reviewed a long list of comments, issues, and suggestions gathered from the neighbors' committee (see above), PSNA members, and other interested residents, and asked the meeting for comments and suggestions. The purpose of this list was to provide material for a letter to be written from the PSNA to the Planning Board expressing a consensus opinion (where consensus exists) or at least an enumeration of issues that should be brought to the Planning Board's attention. Such a letter would not preempt other individuals or groups from writing their own letters; this one would be intended to represent PSNA's position.

The consensus was that the building is too tall, impacting both the residential neighborhood and Massachusetts Avenue. We would be much more comfortable if the fourth story were removed. However, all present agreed that there is no point in opposing it because it is being built as of right. There was general concern over congestion on Beech Street, but neither Oaktree nor the city is open to moving the residential parking entrance. The architectural impact on the Massachusetts Avenue streetscape also emerged as an important concern. We do recognize and appreciate the congregation's efforts to preserve and enhance the garden and to harmonize the building with the church building.

Discussion yielded some additional suggestions, for example the idea of somehow trading Zipcar spaces for residential parking spaces and using the availability of Zipcars as a marketing point. Several people were concerned over the emphasis being given to the Beech Street traffic issue as compared to other important concerns about scale and neighborhood impact. The need for construction mitigation was also mentioned.

Susan Hunziker and John Howard will draft a letter and send it to PSNA members and other concerned individuals for review. Specifics to be addressed in the letter include size, design issues and construction mitigation, Beech Street traffic, and concerns over the traffic study process in general.

The next regular meeting will be at 7PM October 22.