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Widespread Support for Alewife Floodplain Protections
Sierra Club article on Discovery Park developments, Forest and Floodplain Forum
Winter e-SIerra Club article highlights silver maple and general floodplain protection at Discovery Park in Cambridge.
by Ellen Mass, President, Friends of Alewife Reservation
December 21, 2011
Original at

Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge residents take note! At a Floodplain, Forest and Floodway Forum sponsored by twelve environmental groups, experts presented compelling evidence about hydrology, watershed requirements and weather that underscores the urgency to preserve the Alewife floodplain and one of its functions as the core forest of the Alewife Reservation.

The Alewife floodplain is situated at the confluence of the 3 municipalities, a dense urban area, both residentially and commercially. Growth of impervious surface in this area combined with its natural geographical features puts these communities at greater risk with more frequent flooding episodes.

The Reservation and the silver maple forest provide vital floodplain relief for the three surrounding communities. But maintaining these open spaces is a battle that shows no sign of abating. Even as global warming insures more heavy precipitation frequently flooding the entire area (March 2009), the multi-million dollar cost development plan for "Discovery Park" continues to move forward. That development along with others planned for the area occupy the FEMA floodway and 100-year flood zone, increasing the likelihood of more frequent flooding and threatening the Reservation's biodiversity and much displaced water run off. Tax dollars for the city, however, are taking precedence over sound environmental policy. To date, no cumulative water elevation study, required by FEMA in this area, has been performed.

The Alewife area has been particularly plagued by development plans and strategies that have reduced the area to tiny parcels. In 2000, the owner transferred the fifteen or so parcels to himself or his trustee firm, often for zero dollars. When Arthur D. Little was sold for $20 million in 1999, and soon bankrupted, Mass Bankruptcy Court was interpreted to say that the case was one of "fraudulent conveyance" as the assessment was actually $45 million.

The same property owner, who bought the 1999 ADL campus, continues to grow the value and floodplain development footprint at Discovery Park, all perfectly legal, one might say. Public trust in the permitting process, however, has been severely challenged as a result.

To date, two office buildings and a parking garage totaling 450,000 square feet have been built in Discovery Park, a floodway site adjacent to Route 2, just before the ramp comes into the Alewife T from the west. Two office buildings and a parking garage totaling over 500 thousand square feet are planned for Discovery Park. Tenants are presently being sought. This is the size of three Walmart [big box] stores. In addition to the development proposed for Discovery Park, two residential projects on adjacent parcels are ready to break ground in the floodway and 100-year flood zone. The Residences at Alewife is a 254,000 sf, 229-unit apartment building slated for the former "Faces" site in Cambridge, and the 300,000 sf, 299-unit Residences at Acorn Park development is sited for the Silver Maple Forest in Belmont.

At a well-attended regional flooding event, which described the property values accruement and the flooding dangers, each Forum sponsor addressed his or her organization's commitment to watershed land and protection for the Alewife area. EK Khalsa, Executive Director of the Mystic River Watershed Association and policy analyst said that the growth of impervious surfaces, such as has occurred at Alewife, increases pollution run-off into rivers and streams exponentially and that the watershed's health is determined by the amount of pervious surface for storm water run-off and ground water recharge.

Anthony Lichauco, who is appointed to the Belmont Conservation Commission and an attorney and engineer volunteering on this case, explained that even an eighth-inch of run-off causes a rise in water levels in Little Pond in Belmont, Little River in Cambridge and Alewife Brook in East Arlington.

Annie Thompson, East Arlington resident and former Geographic Information Systems instructor, reviewed development patterns at Alewife Reservation and along Route 2, noting their location in the FEMA floodplain and even more tightly regulated FEMA "floodway". Thompson showed slides of the large concentration of development in "Discovery Park". The properties were parceled before 1999. Building this area out obviously makes Cambridge money in the form of tax dollars at the expense of residents in the surrounding area that may have to deal with additional flooding. Further evidence of property value manipulation exists in records of sales made in 2000 from AP Cambridge Partners LLC II to AP Cambridge Partners LLC – which turns out to be the same property owner.

Thompson presented a FEMA map to demonstrate the expansion of the "floodway" from 1982-2010 with its implication for an increased 'no build' zone. FEMA prefers to base floodplain development decisions on a 'cumulative impact' standard that measures impervious surface water table elevation, and they highly recommend that it should be done -- especially for sprawling campuses such as Discovery Park. The city must then enforce the developer to carry out and provide this cumulative study.

Thomas B. Bracken, attorney for the plaintiffs, the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands and Friends of Alewife Reservation, said omissions in the 2009 DEP hearings' final decision were flagrantly in violation of adjudicatory law because the record was flawed by the Judge who eliminated plaintiff witness and written testimony and several professional wildlife and hydrology reports from her decision. Attorney Bracken stated that the court's loss of tapes after the Hearings prevented transcripts from being properly used, and these mistakes were a detriment to an objective judgment for a final rendering. On a positive note, Attorney Bracken emphasized the power of having impeccable professional witnesses who testified that the design of the developer and plans for the area did not meet basic environmental wetlands protection criteria. The case awaits a Superior Court decision.

Kathy Abbott, moderator of the Forum, Executive Vice President of Trustees of Reservation, noted the importance of public Land in the Commonwealth, the value of preserving wetlands and forests and, specifically, the value of Alewife Reservation and the Upper Basin of the Mystic River watershed.

Scott Horsley, Lecturer at Tufts and Horsley and Witten Environmental Firm spoke about the water elevation rise and its effect on downstream communities. Scott's hydrological studies formed the basis for the Belmont Conservation Commission's adjudicatory hearing presentations. Mr. Horsley is presently developing a compilation of the Hearing Reports to be presented before state officials at the beginning of the new year.

Belmont Citizen Forum spokesperson Ann Marie Lambert explained that the Uplands is of high importance in environmental protection policy in Belmont and that time is running out to influence the permitting process. She has written several articles in the Belmont Citizen Forum bi-monthly magazine.

Belmont Land Trust's Attorney Michael Baram said that there were serious legal mistakes in the silver maple forest adjudicatory hearings that must be rectified. He suggested that a coalition across municipal lines should be formed. Since then, the Forum that sponsors the group have been meeting and are planning educational and cultural activities and are making efforts to influence their town, and the city of Cambridge to prevent more Discovery Park build-out.

Cambridge Climate Emergency Group's John Pitkin said that as seas rise in Boston coastal areas, a slow process of rising rivers and tributaries is inevitable; he questioned whether state and municipal laws can bring greater protections for civilians here at Alewife.

Ann LeRoyer from Arlington Land Trust emphasized the flooding in Alewife Brook, which is a recipient of the floodplain and floodway. David Landskov of Sustainable Arlington, stated his support for the Forum's stand and its floodplain information

Idith Haber of the Coalition to Preserve Belmont Uplands spoke of their efforts to win the case in the courts, how the Uplands issue is a catalyst that has brought the neighborhood together over safety and health risks and exorbitant flood insurance costs around Little Pond if the development goes forward.

These same sponsoring groups are holding a regional concert of notable international musicians Jim Scott, Stan Strickland, Rev. Fred Small and Elke Jahns at the Arlington Unitarian Church 640 Mass Ave. in Arlington, on February 4 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at or call 617 388-3799.

Ellen Mass is the President of the Friends of Alewife Reservation, a multileveled stewarding and advocacy group that desires to protect the public Reservation land owned by the MDC and to preserve it for wildlife and for future generations, providing a highly accessible area in limited wilderness areas for passive recreationists.