Playing Monopoly here is not a game

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The Cambridge version of Monopoly was released in November by Top Trumps USA.

Home to plumbers and philosophers, geneticists and caretakers, descendants of longtime immigrants and new residents, Cambridge risks sacrificing diversity and history for profit-driven development. We face a polarizing challenge that pits out-of-town investors against long-term conservation and sustainability efforts. The classic Monopoly board game was patented in 1935, but the Cambridge version – yes, it does exist – has special meaning today.

“THINK EVERYTHING! Shouts the title on the Monopoly game box. Kendall Square, Longfellow House, even Town Hall and the Charles River are up for grabs. For those struggling with uncontrollable development, it feels like a nightmare with a pair of dice. For those who push to “build, baby, build”, this is a dream come true. This is often accompanied by a setback in long-standing efforts to preserve buildings, conservation districts, and environmental campaigns to protect mature trees and open spaces.

As one of the most densely populated cities in the United States, Cambridge doesn’t have a lot of open land to build on. Proposals such as the now shelved and misnamed “Missing Middle” zoning petition promised to open the floodgates to increasingly taller buildings where two and three story floors now stand. Current tenants would have a hard time making a deposit or paying rent in the new luxury accommodation.

Supporters of building a “greater Cambridge” want to go further, relaxing zoning rules so investors and developers can simply build more. All homes, single-family and multi-unit, could be taken over by the highest bidder, demolished and replaced with much larger, much more profitable buildings. Some additional units would be created, but would go to those who are able to afford the exorbitant market rates.

Most of us look back in horror to the days when the massive neighborhood bulldozer was admired. Even in Massachusetts, it was the government that condemned neighborhoods like Boston’s West End and the hundreds of Roxbury homes razed to the ground for the never-built Inner Belt Highway. Now it’s the private sector that is heading for homes in hot markets. Outside of passing sensible tenant protection laws, how can municipal governments help residents stay in their homes? How can we promote smart growth that adds homes without overwhelming neighborhoods? How can we stop this real Monopoly game in our cities?

Leaders of the Cambridge Citizens Coalition support the end of exclusive single-family zoning districts in our city. Cambridge has one of the lowest percentages of single-family homes among US cities at just 7.2 percent. Making it possible to create units within existing homes is a smart way forward. CCC also supports a region-wide approach to housing, transportation, parking and infrastructure for our largest employers. These questions are discussed in a Advancing Housing Affordability zoning petition recently taken up by city council.

Constructive zoning changes cannot do everything, but they will be especially useful when paired with other policy changes: adding more transparency and oversight of affordable housing, and more support for tenants; employing US Housing and Urban Development Promoting equitable housing in a positive way program; and a heat island and flood mitigation plan.

Cambridge Monopoly box text. (Photo: E. Houghteling)

Some developers and their friends say that demolishing our sustainable historic homes and chopping down our mature trees is good environmental policy. It’s not. It is greed that fuels this kind of contempt for green spaces in an already overcrowded city and shows a lack of concern for the well-being of all Cantabrians.

A problem to be solved in terms of the game of Monopoly is a petition before the ordinances commission wednesday severely restrict architectural preservation efforts at city-wide and neighborhood conservation districts. This petition, which clearly exceeds State Law and the city ordinance, is a reaction to preservation efforts in East Cambridge, one of the hottest development areas, and indeed global markets. If approved, this petition would make the creation of new NTMs more difficult and endanger current NTMs, removing professional requirements for committee members. In the end, who benefits from these proposed changes? Not the current residents – owners or tenants – but rather those looking to rush the process, such as investors and developers who have no reason to work with their neighbors on a compatible design. While the Cambridge Citizens Coalition strongly supports architectural change, the building of new structures and the repurposing of old ones, we believe that good design is essential in a dense and deeply historic city like ours.

The basic rule of Monopoly is to build as much as possible on as many properties as possible. Again, the box says it all: “Buy amazing sites, bid the highest on every property, build houses and hotels, and become Cambridge’s richest citizen!” For many, this is a threat, not a promise. It is time to put common sense back into our public policies and harness the forces that have transformed our city into a real board game that celebrates profit rather than community.


Katiti Kironde is from the Cambridge Citizens Coalition.

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