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Silver Maple Forest hearing
Cambridge City Council Health and Environment Committee

March 4th, 2003
Summary article by Ernie Kirwan, Save Our Forest Committee

City Council
Silver Maple Forest hearing March 4, 2002

Smart Growth for Alewife Area

On March 4, 2003, Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis and Councillor Brian Murphy conducted a hearing of the City Council Health and Environment Committee to review a request for hookups to Cambridge water and sewer systems for a controversial R & D/ Office building and parking garage at the Alewife site. The Pennsylvania-based developer, O’Neill Properties, has received preliminary approval from the Town of Belmont to construct a 245,000 sf – 98’ high building and parking for 698 cars, which will remove 7 acres of forest area and add 4.4 acres of asphalt and concrete paving according to the developer’s proposal.

The Friends of Alewife Reservation and the Save Our Forest Committee have objected strongly to this development as have the original Belmont Alewife Study Committee and the Coalition for Alewife, because it would likely reduce the natural flood retention of the forested area. FAR president, Ellen Mass and several technical specialists: architect John Walker, engineer Bruce Jacobs and attorney David Hobbie, documented the value of the unique silver maple forest - protection from flooding and highway noise, visual screening for residential areas, air quality improvement, preservation of critical habitat for many plant and animal species, and a great open space of exceptional natural beauty and educational value in an urban sprawl area. The SOF Committee and consultants noted the value and necessity of regional planning in order to address needs of three communities.

In response to the question of sewer and water capacity, City Engineer Owen O’Riordan stated there is or will be sufficient capacity in these utilities, and since the developer would pay a fee for this service, he could see no reason to deny the hookups. Several speakers questioned the capacity of the sewer system; Michael Nakagawa and Steven Kaiser cited proof of past sewage overflows as did Jennifer Griffith, an environmental engineer whose neighborhood in nearby Arlington has experienced overflows during flooding periods.

Belmont Planner Timothy Higgins reported that Belmont feels that it has a right to develop the site because of its extensive reviews of the project and approval of their citizens at Town Meeting; he said that they could a make a direct connection to Belmont sewers, if necessary, at a greater expense and neighborhood disruption. It appears, however, that the effluent would eventually come back into Cambridge, since it must flow through the same MWRA pipeline which is now experiencing blockages. These blockages will not be corrected until the planned North Cambridge CSO improvements are completed, several years hence.

Two members of the Cambridge Conservation Commission, Albe Simenas, Chair, and Cynthia Jensen reviewed the contents of a letter the entire Commission submitted to the Committee, stating that they have serious concerns regarding the impacts of the O’Neill development on areas under the Wetlands and Rivers Protection Acts which could cause impairment of water quality, wildlife habitat, endangered species habitat and flood control. They noted that since the proposed complex fronts on Little Pond and Little River, it could create downstream problems for Cambridge - including flooding and discharges of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and road salt directly into the water. Cynthia called for regional planning which would include the lower watershed of the Mystic River.

Peter Alden, an eminent naturalist and author, forwarded a letter stating that retention of upland forest is a critical decision in preserving this unique urban wild which could serve future generations as an model environmental and educational resource for our schools and colleges as well as a population of over 100,000 residents.

Harvard GSD professor Robert France, who consulted on the MDC master plan, spoke about the urgent need to retain the forest for stormwater retention and habitat preservation. Several speakers, including Stash Horowitz of the Associated Neighborhoods of Cambridge, made a plea for a truly regional approach to planning in the overall Alewife watershed area in order to avoid future damage to the quality of life in our local communities, noting that more housing should be constructed and less office/R & D which is in oversupply.

This approach was seconded by Nancy Hammett, Director of the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA), who offered to act as the host for a regional workshop which could bring together the several municipalities, real estate developers and state agencies to develop a win/win solution for the Alewife area – using Smart Growth principles which will benefit the economy, the environment and our local communities.

As a result of the Hearing, Councillors Davis and Murphy, prepared draft orders requesting; 1) that the city cooperate with the MyRWA in convening such a regional planning process; 2) that the city refrain from granting sewer and water connections, subject to discussion and support of the Cambridge Conservation Commission and 3) that further information be provided on the utilities capacity and flooding issues for current and future development at the Alewife area.

Report prepared by:
Ernest Kirwan, FAR member
Save Our Forest Committee
Cambridge, MA. 02138
(617) 491-0166