Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Environmental issues at Alewife: Archon Group's proposed development

Water Quality, Habitat, Boston Harbor

The Archon Group, developers of three new buildings on CambridgePark Drive at Alewife, announced at the September 23, 2008 Planning Board hearing that holding tanks for 38,000 gallons of raw sewage will go under one of those buildings.

Archon's civil engineer explained that Cambridge is under court order to clean up Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) there. Cambridge Department of Public Works (DPW) has asked Archon to put storage tanks sufficient for 1.5-2 days of raw sewage during a flooding "event," as "mitigation."

The storage tank is not the stormwater retention pond Cambridge proposes to put in the Alewife Reservation, although it is related to it.

Steve Kaiser reminded the Planning Board that the retention pond is the subject of a court case to be heard Wednesday, October 1, in Suffolk Superior Court. And Elsie Fiori, Arlington resident and former Conservation Commission member, said even if Archon or other developers put sewage in the holding tanks, any overflow goes directly into Alewife Brook.

Following up with both, I have tried to understand the relation of the sewage tanks and the retention pond to see where the Archon project fits in all this. Given the pending court case, this is a preliminary report.


Only a very small portion of the Great Swamp between Fresh Pond and the Mystic River constitutes the Alewife Reservation--state parkland. The larger area has been and remains wetlands and flood plain. Cambridge, our "green" city, has declined to forgo any development of land there in private hands. (It could presumably use Community Preservation Act funds to acquire and protect this natural flood storage system.) Instead, ignoring the costs of its strategy, it has treated Alewife as a piggy bank that pays out with each new development.

Over the years, the city's investment in sanitary drainage from development of the great swamp has not kept pace with building there. CSOs, where raw sewage and stormwater runoff mix in sewer pipes, overflow onto the land in storms and back up into people's houses. Ultimately this pollution makes it to the Mystic River and Boston harbor, to the detriment of living beings in its course. A federal court has ordered the state to clean it up. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) was the agency created to do so.

Cambridge's Design

According to Ms. Fiore, Cambridge has now separated all but 4 of 11 combined sewers there but argues it doesn't have $1M to separate the final 4.

According to Mr. Kaiser, although the MWRA is the sponsoring agency for the CSO separation, Cambridge was designated for the design. Cambridge's design changed the project to include a retention pond for stormwater runoff from the Fresh Pond flood plain north of Concord Ave and around New Street. Cambridge puts the retention pond at Alewife Reservation, right next to Little River. The pond consumes much of the Reservation, a precious urban wild.

DPW's Owen O'Riordan is apparently the city's point man for the design and the sewage storage tanks. (I think leverage must be through the Conservation Commission and the Wetlands Protection Act. The ConCom allowed 310 residential units in the floodplain in the Oaktree building with a sewage storage tank under it.)

Given Archon's statements at the Planning Board, Cambridge's position may be that holding tanks for raw sewage under new buildings at Alewife are adequate "mitigation" for failure to separate the final 4 CSOs. Since I understand the case in Suffolk Superior Court deals only with the retention pond and not specifically CSOs, I am still not clear whether the court has allowed Cambridge to separate 7 and not 11 CSOs provided it requires sewage tanks and constructs the detention pond, or whether there are further legal issues.

Cambridge's Plan

So, as I understand the city's plan: in a big storm, stormwater from Fresh Pond properties is to flow into the retention pond in the Alewife Reservation, to be discharged into Little River and Alewife Brook in due course. At the same time, raw sewage from new buildings at Alewife is to be stored under them for 1-2 days, and then discharged into unseparated sewers.

As "Best Management Practices" (BMPs), as I think these are called, the retention pond and the storage tanks assume 1.) the storm goes away in 1-2 days; 2.) the floodplain drains; 3.) the detained stormwater and stored sewage then run into unseparated sewers to Alewife Brook, thence 4.) into the Mystic River, 5.) thence into the harbor.

Ms. Fiore points out that in a more serious storm that exceeds the storage capacity of the sewage tanks, raw sewage beyond the Archon tank's 38,000 gallons will go directly into the combined sewers, thence into the flooding Alewife Brook and plain, and sewage backs up into sanitary drains. She notes that releasing the stored sewage gradually after any storm may be more harmful to habitat than discharging it all at once; no data have been offered.

Cambridge's Strategy

The city will maintain development in Cambridge's Alewife flood plain (hence tax base and revenues, hence bond rating), shift the burden of complying with the court order to clean up Boston Harbor to Alewife developers, and spare the city an estimated $1M to separate the last 4 illegal, polluting, combined sewers there.

It will shift the burden of stormwater management from land around Fresh Pond zoned for development (hence tax base and revenues, hence bond rating) to Alewife's state parkland, sparing the city's coffers the loss of such development.

For many years the city's executive has pursued this strategy of preserving the development potential of every scrap of land, and shifting every possible municipal cost to others, whether they be homeowners in Cambridge or Arlington, developers at Alewife, or all who benefit from the urban wild on state parkland at Alewife.

Staff departments and boards work on operational details, and, supported up to now by the City Council, cultivate a public image of probity and prudence in the execution of this strategy.

Air Quality at Alewife

In addition to the CSO storage tanks, Cambridge apparently wants Archon to pull another chestnut from the fire.

Archon's project is supposed to be transit-oriented-development (TOD), but the congestion at Alewife is a mess. (Archon was previously the developer at North Point, another presumed TOD.)

The city says traffic at Alewife is a regional problem, not one of Archon's making. So the Assistant City Manager for Traffic and Parking, Susan Clippinger, thinks 1648 new autos from that development are ok, and 1827 are negotiable. (The people who wait 45 minutes to get out of Cpark Drive during the afternoon rush hour said at the hearing they don't agree.)

Ms. Clippinger said the city wants either the state or Archon to fund improvements to the Rte2/Rte 16 intersection to help unclog the massive traffic jams all along Alewife Brook Parkway and CambridgePark Drive.

Massachusetts, with a $20B backlog on existing maintenance of the transportation infrastructure and long lines for the transportation bond money, seems a poor candidate to pay for any such thing. In the current financial climate, and given previous problems at North Point, it's not clear whether Archon would be happy to pick up the slack.

The Planning Board continued the hearing to October 7, public comment remains open through that meeting.

Marilyn Wellons