Anyone living in the area around Kendall Square and Central Square could tell you that Cambridge is changing. The growth of biotechnology in the city – making Cambridge one of the world’s most important biotech research centers – has brought unparalleled development at its southern edge. In addition to the 12 different academic institutions dedicated to life sciences, technology and entrepreneurship that already call Cambridge home, a range of both well-established pharmaceutical companies and startups have set up office and lab space in this area. Many have praised the presence of these institutions for advancing the life sciences in Cambridge. In a 2012 video produced by the city of Cambridge, a variety of public figures, including the presidents of Harvard and M.I.T., acclaimed the limitless opportunity for economic growth and development that the city’s reputation as a haven for life science research will bring.
Unfortunately, this expansive growth has come at a cost. For too many low-income residents of American cities, development has become a code word for gentrification that pushes them out of their communities and brings wealthier residents in. Here in Cambridge, the residents at risk live in a swath of the city between Central Square and MIT known as Area 4.
Fearing for the future of the neighborhood’s affordability and socio-economic diversity, members of the Cambridge Residents Alliance (CRA) have long fought against the consequences of the sort of development extolled by the city. The group, which defines itself as “a network of individuals and households dedicated to preserving and improving the quality of life for all Cambridge residents,” has lately focused on MIT’s expansion. CRA’s organizational platform cites this expansion as one of the primary reasons that Cambridge residents are being priced out of the city.
CRA board member and longtime Cambridge resident Charles Teague is one of the group’s most vocal critics of MIT’s development plans. Most recently, he accused Cambridge mayor Henrietta Davis and two city councilors of violating Massachusetts state open meeting law to favor MIT during an April 8th council meeting.
In a morning meeting with me in Dennis Carlone’s city council campaign office, Teague described how an influx of graduate students and biotechnology workers has driven up rents and housing prices, such that neighborhoods that once offered secure, affordable housing for families are now too expensive for their residents. Graduate students live together and so can often afford to pay more for multi-room apartments which would otherwise house lower to middle-income families. Moreover, high-salary biotech employees can afford to live in newly-constructed luxury high-rises that do not serve the housing needs of local residents and further contribute to pricing them out. The effects of demographic changes these rising prices are hard to ignore. According to the 2011 Cambridge Statistical Profile, the number of families in the area has been in steady decline in recent decades – with the 2010 percentage of the Cambridge’s population that is comprised by children is only 42% of what it was in 1950.
Those that are able to stay in the area face declining conditions in their neighborhoods. With the Red Line at capacity, Teague argues that development will bring in thousands of new daily car trips, adding traffic to the already congested city streets. An increase in luxury high-rises and office buildings is already leading to decreased sunlight and open space. And if the loss of these simple pleasures were not enough to break the spirits of those who are left behind, then the potential for the loss of culturally affirming neighborhood establishments like the Middle East restaurant and nightclub to commercial development likely will be. With rising real estate prices, owners of institutions like the Middle East are increasingly tempted to sell their space to biotech companies and real estate developers. Thus, once vibrant neighborhoods become “bedroom communities” for the people moving in – reflecting only their need for a place to live and their investment in life science research.
CRA members see no likely end to recently observed trends in development; according to Teague, there are plans to build more in Cambridge in the coming decade than has been built in the last fifty years. However, they refuse to give up hope that the development can be done in a way that is inclusive to Cambridge residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds. They believe that the City Council is in need of a master plan for equitability in future development, and feel that one could be devised if only the Council and relevant city departments worked in conjunction with the Cambridge Housing Authority and local neighborhood and tenant organizations to do so. The CRA has long held an organized set of demands stemming from its positions on socially just housing and development plans. With the recent election of Dennis Carlone, the candidate they endorsed for city council, they hope to see some of their demands met.