Pinocchio Ratings of Opponents of the Overlay

Several flyers have been sent around about the Proposed Affordable Housing Overlay, including intentionally misleading imagery, bogus facts, and more. This page calls out some of the blatantly false information that is being created and passed off as a reality to residents by various groups in Cambridge.

3 Pinnochios

The latest updates to the “Yes to Affordable Housing” flyer -- published on 2019-08-23, and updated on 2019-08-26, once again introduce new visuals that, like previous images published by CCC, do not accurately represent the heights of buildings that would be allowed under the Overlay. It also includes other inaccuracies and misleading language; and the v4 version of the flyer introduced on 2019-08-23, reincluded the most false claim that CCC has made to date. If you see anyone sharing this flyer, I recommend you link them to this page.

  • The two-and-a-half story house is used as a reference point. 2.5 story houses in Cambridge have a median height of ~35 feet. Extrapolating from that, the building immediately to the right, which has some kind of projected roof deck, is 63 feet tall, not 45 feet tall, as the flyer claims. The flyer claims that this building would be allowed citywide, in all residential areas, but that is not true. In neighborhoods where the base zoning allows heights of 40 feet or less, buildings can be no taller than 45 feet, unless the first floor is being used for non-residential purposes. In that case, the building can be 50 feet tall. On 80 percent of Cambridge’s non-institutional land, buildings of more than 50 feet will not be permitted. (Counter to the claim of the flyer, unlike mechanicals, enclosed features like this are counted in the building's height for the purposes of zoning, so they can not be added above existing height restrictions).
  • The building immediately to the right also appears to feature garden-level apartment space (ie, half-windows that would typically be used for apartments, not for storage). Apartments like this are not allowed under the currently amended version of the proposed ordinance.
  • The building on the far right is 90 feet tall, not 80 feet tall, as the flyer claims. It also claims that they would be allowed “on corridors.” That is, at best, misleading. Portions of Massachusetts Avenue would allow 80-foot buildings where base zoning does not allow that height. However, other stretches would not allow this. Along Massachusetts Avenue, from Harvard Square to the Arlington border, with the exception of the area immediately around Porter Square, heights cannot exceed 65 feet, and they must not be more than six stories. Those numbers also apply to Cambridge Street. A bullet point below the images makes the same erroneous claim that 80-foot buildings are allowed wherever the base zoning allows 45-foot buildings; this is not accurate in the current amended version of the proposed ordinance.
  • Below the image is an exclamation that “this could happen in every neighborhood!” At a glance, a passing observer might believe that not only the 63-foot building could be built in every neighborhood, but also the 90-foot building. This would not be the case: most neighborhoods do not have any area that would allow 90 foot tall buildings as visually depicted.

An intermediate form of this flyer ('v4', which was not reviewed for this site, as it contained no new false representations) removed the previously-mentioned claim of 350' tall buildings. However, in the flyer published on 2019-08-23, this bullet point was re-added to the flyer. This error was brought to CCC’s attention, and they removed it from a downloadable PDF, but they did not make the correction to the their blog post on the topic, which still claims this is true after being corrected on this point by this website. Given that CCC has made this false claim before, has been alerted, made the requested change, but did nothing to correct this misinformation in their published content and reincluded this point in a flyer they distributed via their website suggests, at best, carelessness. This was corrected only after once again publicly calling out the CCC for redistributing these false claims; at no point has the CCC corrected the ongoing misinformation included in their blog on this topic, on the basis of which they have attacked the credibility of this website.

I rate this latest flyer 3 Pinocchios on the basis of the prominent, newly introduced roof deck features which are in violation of allowed zoning; and believe that CCC's continued carelessness in sharing information continues to put their credibility of any newly introduced materials in serious question.

This third update to the "Yes to Affordable Housing" flyer, published on 2019-08-08 moves the visuals depicted in the flyer closer to being in line with the requirements of the overlay, but adds new misinformation which greatly exaggerates what is allowed under the overlay. If you see anyone sharing this flyer, I recommend you link them to this page, which is a specific link to share this analysis.

  • Unfortunately, the latest flyer introduces a new completely misleading claim which states that 350' buildings would be allowed in any district where 80' buildings are currently allowed. This is completely false. What is allowed is that buildings built under the AHO can be built up to the allowed height in each district in districts which have height limits above 80'.
    • This means that if a district is currently allowed 85' (such as the O-2 district), buildings could be up to 85'. In the BB-1 district, which is currently allowed 90', buildings could be up to 90' tall. The overlay does not change allowed heights in these zones at all.
    • There is no overall zone in the city which allows 350' tall buildings. Instead, there is one specific site -- part of the Volpe redevelopment project -- which will allow a building of this height.
    • The maximum height allowed outside planned unit developments like Volpe, which have specific planning that would rule out addition of new affordable housing development, is 120'. This means that the 350' "in any district which allows 80'" exaggerates by 3-4x the maximum which would actually be allowed. (Among the 2% of parcels affected: It's a 3.8x exaggeration for 1% of Cambridge parcels; and a 2.9x exaggration for another 1%.)
  • This 350' claim is repeated in the list of claims in the list below the image.

This brings us back to the same repeated claims that have been responded to before:

  • Flyer claims the proposal would allow tree removal. Tree removal is already allowed for affordable housing development, so the proposal doesn't change that.
  • The proposal does not create a new class of allowed tear-downs and displacement; these are already a reality in Cambridge.
  • The proposal does not allow "4-5 story buildings" in existing low-height districts, only 4 stories. The proposal does not allow "7+ story buildings" in 80' zones; only 7 story.

On the matter of the scale drawings, which was addressed for the previous flyer:

  • By scaling up the reference building in the image at the top of this handout, the creators have created a closer visual depiction to reality: rather than their buildings being 77' and 130' tall using the house for scale, they are now 56' and 90' tall, still 10% more than would be allowed by the overlay. (The scale misunderstanding likely stems from scaling the building using the entire reference image as a height; however, the bottom 10% of the image is actually not part of the height of the house, so this exaggerates the effect visually.) I appreciate the change, which significantly changes how these images present, but am disappointed that the depiction continues to fail to give an accurate sense of scale.

Were it not for the newly introduced false statement about 350' heights in zones allowing 80' of development, this handout would be down to a small number of mistakes. However, by introducing a new, completely misleading claim, which exaggerates the impact of the overlay by more 2.5x in an area that concerns many residents, this flyer is continuing in the trend of misleading information.

I rate this flyer 3 Pinocchios on the basis of the prominent, newly introduced misleading claim on allowed heights in existing tall zones.

This third update to the FAQ sheet, published on 2019-08-08, maintains the existing incorrect information, but adds new incorrect information similar to the v3 version of the "Yes" Flyer, indicating that 350' tall buildings would be allowed in districts where allowed height is greater than 80'.

As far as I can tell, the only significant update to this flyer is to add the new false claim that 350' buildings would be allowed in all districts where 80' buildings are allowed. This is This claim which 350' would be allowed "in any district which allows 80'" exaggerates by 3-4x the maximum which would actually be allowed. (Among the 2% of parcels affected: It's a 3.8x exaggeration for 1% of Cambridge parcels; and a 2.9x exaggration for another 1%.)

While this claim is egregious, it is significantly less prominent than in the "Yes" flyer, so while it is equally upsetting, it does not have as much impact. No mistakes called out in previous analysis of this FAQ sheet have been fixed, so it maintains its previous rating and adds one more Pinocchio for its new, entirely bogus claim.

This flyer has been updated; an analysis of the updated flyer is posted above.

This flyer, published 2019-08-07, corrected some of the most egregiously misleading elements of the first version of the same flyer, but uses a new image which exaggerates the allowed height of the overlay by more than 50%, even more so than the first flyer of the same name. If you see anyone sharing this flyer, I recommend you link them to this page, which is a specific link to share this analysis.

  • The image at the top shows what the AHO "could look like", but does so in an entirely inaccurate way, exaggerating allowed heights by more than 50%:
    • It uses a 2.5 story house as a reference image for a residential neighborhood. There are ~1800 2.5 story homes in Cambridge, and their median height is 35.2 feet.
    • It then places this house next to a "four story" building which is 2.2x taller than it.
    • This means that the "four story" building which is depicted is shown as 77 feet tall.
    • The "seven story" building which is depicted is shown as 130 feet tall.
    • This means the image, which is the primary visual takeaway from the flyer, is exaggerating what is possible by more than 50% in each case.
  • It then claims "This could happen in every neighborhood" -- which is a misleading scare tactic when combined with the image immediately above. Only a very small number of streets would be newly allowed these tall corridor buildings -- most neighborhoods don't have one.
  • The organization publishing this flyer continues to misunderstand how stories work. The AHO has explicit limits on numbers of stories (7 for corridors; 4 for residential.) Yet the first 'fact-based' text on this flyer suggests that AHO buildings would be "7+" stories tall -- which is false. (There's a desire from folks to suggest that 80 foot tall buildings are 8 stories tall. In reality, not a single 8 story tall building in Cambridge is less than 90 feet tall -- and most are over 100.) This same mistake is made later when it describes buildings as 4-5 stories tall; this is inaccurate.

From there, we can look at more of the points of disagreement that are less factual, or more minor mistakes.

  • There is a claim that the AHO plan is "highly risky"; but what the risks are is never called out.
  • The "Tall" building featured in this image is almost certainly not allowed under the overlay: buildings in business districts (which would have higher height limits) must have 25% glass; the image shown is only 20%, so this would be prohibited under the overlay design guidelines. (Also, the second floor has doors that open into space, which is a safety issue if nothing else.)
  • It claims that the overlay "allows for removal of trees and green space". The overlay does not change any zoning regulation with regard to trees.
  • It says the overlay "allows residential tear-downs and renter displacement". These things are common throughout the city already, so this isn't entirely false -- but it is not affected in any way by the overlay, so the use of this statement is misleading.
  • It claims the overlay "promotes tall, wide box-like" buildings. There is nothing in the overlay that promotes any particular style of building. They may mean "Developers of affordable housing would *choose* box-like buildings" -- but that is counter to most existing evidence, and the overlay explicitly has requirements to counter that.
  • It claims that increasing density will increase traffic; this is a claim without evidence, as in general, more dense construction in cities decreases traffic, as more residents can walk to their destinations.
  • Makes claims that this will "alter city livability"; this is a claim based on an unstated assumption that these projects will be common, which has been countered by all evidence from the City and from this organization, which claims that very few units will be created.

Many of the claims in this handout are not fact-based: no assumptions have been stated on which the claims are being made, so there is no way to confirm or deny many of them. Within the fact-based claims in the list -- for example, that it reduces risk of spurious citizen lawsuits against affordable housing developers -- there is some truth. (The claim that unit densities could be increased by up to 8x is also true, though projects at that density are unlikely for other reasons.)

If the handout were limited to the text below the image, I would likely rate it as One Pinocchio: the claims are clearly intended to inspire fear, but they are largely doing so based on emotions rather than facts, so fact-checking doesn't really apply. However, the image above is the primary takeaway of the flyer, and it exaggerates allowed heights by at least 50% relative to the included residential buildings. With this in mind, I can not in good conscience rate this flyer so low: the primary takeaway most people will have from it is simply completely wrong. That choice of images means that I must give this flyer 3 Pinocchios.

This flyer has been updated; an analysis of the updated flyer is posted above.

Despite the updates to this flyer, many of the claims in this sheet continue to include a number of factual errors.

  • The FAQ routinely still exaggerates number of stories allowed. The ordinance clearly states that buildings with an active first floor use would be limited to four stories, but the FAQ sheet claims five.
  • It claims that 80' tall buildings would be allowed on "all major transit corridors", and then includes Mt. Auburn Street. Mt. Auburn near Harvard Square already allows 80' tall buildings; Mt. Auburn outside Harvard Square would not allow 80' tall buildings. It also includes Concord Ave., which would not allow 80' tall buildings. (This was included in the last copy as well; I missed it then.) This exaggeration of "transit corridors" is a repeat offender in misleading information about the overlay, so much so that I made a blog post with a map of the affected streets, which I shared with the organization sharing this flyer more than 6 weeks ago.
  • It claims floor area could be up to 10x higher. I believe this is inaccurate; up to 8x is the maximum in any parcel I can find (and most are much lower increases in the 2x-4x range).
  • It claims that the Overlay "has no green space requirements"; unlike existing zoning, the proposal includes permeable open space requirements. Since this is a change towards more space which could be green requirement, this is misleading. ("Permeable" and "Green" are not interchangeable, but current zoning doesn't require green space.)
  • It still claims that the overlay may violate the Uniform Districts requirement under state law. Multiple lawyers and the City Solicitor have offered the opinion that it does not;
  • It continues to claim that these units will be "economically segregated", but units will likely cover a range of incomes (though all below 100% AMI). (See the recent article for more.) It claims that you would not be able to make more money, but it allows income up to 120% of AMI for one year before needing to move.

In general, this FAQ sheet provides largely accurate information, but even after reading through the previous criticisms, chose not to correct several false statements. I still rate it 1 Pinocchio based on the continued choice to exaggerate allowed heights of buildings, which continues to be the most actively misleading part of this flyer, though the description of Concord Ave and Mt. Auburn St. as newly allowing 80' buildings is equally frustrating.

This flyer was later removed from the website where it was published. This analysis is kept for historical record.

This supposed example of upzoning is another completely misleading flyer. It contains many completely false claims.

  • It claims the overlay "Allows 5 stories Citywide." This is not true. Buildings can be up to 45' tall (50' with active retail first floor), up to 4 stories tall.
  • It claims that "lots can be combined up to 250 feet along the sidewalk" -- this claim is a misunderstanding of both the reality of purchasing property and the ordinance. The overlay does have design guidelines for 250' stretches that guide how buildings should be designed, but nothing like a rule about how lots "can be combined".
  • It claims that "Commercial corridors" are a new concept introduced by this ordinance change. In fact, the words "commercial corridors" do not even exist in the zoning regulation; instead, it is based on existing zone height allowances.
  • It claims that "The City can name any street a corridor". This is completely false. These corridors are defined by existing zoning ordinance, and can only be changed by a supermajority vote of the City Council, like any other zoning change.
  • Names a large number of streets which are not covered under the proposed higher density corridors.
  • Describes the city as "changing the setbacks". This is again inaccurate: the setback requirements in the proposed ordinance have not been changed.
  • Uses misleading images not in the style of any development that is likely to be built under the overlay, imagining them replacing a whole street full of properties owned by different owners, which is prohibitively expensive and would not happen under the proposal.

In short, everything about this handout is clearly designed to scare, rather than inform. There is almost no accurate information in the entire flyer; it is simply a series of false or exaggerated statements. I rate this flyer 4 Pinnochios.

This flyer was later removed from the website where it was published. This analysis is kept for historical record.

This handout with supposed "examples of upzoning" is blatantly misleading. It beings with a residential district -- then shows buildings that would not in any way be allowed under the overlay.

  • Residential buildings would only be allowed four story buildings up to 45 feet tall. The five story building pictured here is both taller than 45' and more than 5 stories.
  • The "7 story building" pictured would not be allowed in a district like this: it would be limited to commercial districts like Massachusetts Ave. and Cambridge Street.
  • The retail pictured here would not be allowed in this district.
  • The setbacks pictured here would not be allowed in this district: both front and side setbacks would be required.

In short, this entire set of images is completely misleading, and does not in any way represent what the Overlay would create. This is purely scaremongering with no basis in reality. I rate it 4 Pinnochios.

This flyer was later removed from the website where it was published. This analysis is kept for historical record.

This flyer is intentional scaremongering through and through. Almost nothing of fact about the proposed Zoning Ordinance is contained in this information sheet.

  • The image it presents as a header -- taken initially from a Jamaica Plain photo included in the Wikipedia page on triple deckers -- is a completely impossible building. First, it's 5 stories plus a roof deck in a type of district that would only allow 4 stories; second, the gap it has been inserted into between those buildings is only 9 feet wide.
  • The proposal has provisions which actively reward maintaining existing buildings, counter to the claim it "encourages tear-downs".
  • Falsely states that 5 story buildings would be allowed, which they would not.
  • Falsely states that it encourages removal of local business; instead, it requires maintaining retail space where it exists.
  • Falsely claims it removes green space requirements and tree protection requirements, which it does not: the proposal does not change any rules around tree removal for affordable housing developments, and open space requirements match district standards in almost all districts.
  • Falsely claims that removing parking spaces adds traffic congestion, which is unlikely to be the case: removing parking availability reduces car usage, it doesn't increase it.
  • Falsely claims that the proposal would "radically alter property values", which has no basis in fact.
  • Falsely claims that the proposal will drastically change the character of neighborhoods: due to limits on funding, only a small number of properties will be redeveloped at all.

From the bogus use of triple deckers as a "scary" form of housing to the false claims on exaggerated impact, this information sheet is clearly designed to misinform. I rate it 4 Pinnochios.

This flyer has been updated; an analysis of the updated flyer is posted above.

Overall, many of the claims in this sheet are accurate descriptions of the proposed zoning ordinance. However, there are still a number of factual errors.

  • The FAQ routinely exaggerates number of stories allowed based on height. For example, it claims a 4-story building could become an 8 story building -- but the zoning ordinance does not allow this. It also claims a 60' building would be "6.5 stories tall" -- this is not accurate, as the typical story height in Cambridge is 12' per story.
  • It claims that the Overlay lowers open space requirements; in most districts, the overlay matches existing open space requirements. It does accurately state that those open space requirements no longer have minimum dimensional size.
  • It claims that the overlay may violate the Uniform Districts requirement under state law. Multiple lawyers and the City Solicitor have offered the opinion that it does not.
  • It claims that these units will be "economically segregated", but the Overlay would allow developments that allow a wide range of incomes -- from no income up to median income -- in individual projects, as has happened with the most recent affordable housing development in Cambridge on Concord Ave.
  • It claims that the Overlay does not provide a path towards home ownership, but the proposal includes a set of requirements around how affordable home ownership units could be built.

In general, this FAQ sheet provides largely accurate information, with a couple of points where it disagrees from the reality of the proposed ordinance. While many of the statements are clearly phrased to be incendiary, mostly they do reflect reality. I rate it 1 Pinnochio for the seemingly intentional inaccurate description of the number of stories buildings will be allowed and other minor aspects of the proposal which are not accurate.