CAMBRIDGE-Gregory Lenz stepped outside the Canvasback restaurant where he works as a chef to marvel at the revitalization of Cambridge’s pleasant historical district.
“Ten years ago, this was a ghost town,” he said, peering both ways at the charming mix of modern buildings and refurbished brick structures that increasingly define this gentrifying area. “We’re on our way back.”
Lenz was among many in Cambridge who were hoping that a $1 billion proposed development near the Little Blackwater River on the outer edge of town would be a catalyst for further economic revival in this once down-at-the-heels city of about 11,000. Bringing more people to the city, he says, would help pack people into the restaurants and stores that have replaced some of the shoddy structures he says once made Race Street a haven for drug dealers.
But Lenz will have to put those hopes aside, at least for now. On Thursday, a state land-use commission voted unanimously to block Cambridge’s attempts to permit development on nearly a third of the 1,072-acre parcel.
The Critical Area Commission said that the development plan contravened laws aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive lands within 1,000 feet of tidal wetlands and waters.
Blackwater Resort Communities proposed 2,700 housing units, all of which would have been built outside areas prohibited from development. But many of the project’s most attractive features, including a golf course and commercial center, were planned for forbidden territory.
Developer Duane Zentgraf’s attorney, William “Sandy” McAllister, said Mr. Zentgraf is still weighing his options.
He said there are many alternatives under consideration, ranging from building the homes without the golf course and commercial center to taking advantage of a Critical Area Commission policy he says allows for the development of golf courses in the areas in question. The golf course policy was not mentioned in a report by a Critical Area Commission panel that recommended blocking the development.
McAllister said the project in its entirety would have prevented the city from meeting its growth needs bit by bit. “The city lost a chance to expand its middle class and its tax base,” he said.
Local politicians and members of the business community were some of the most steadfast backers of the proposal. Supporters were outraged over the decision, which invalidated approvals already obtained from the Cambridge City Council and the Dorchester County Council.
“Both the city and the county came to the same conclusion that it was okay to have growth in this area,” said David F. Pritchett, who is Cambridge’s director of public works but is currently on leave.
“For us to make the decision locally, almost unanimously and with the support of both parties, it’s a shame that Annapolis stepped in,” he said. “It leaves you wondering, what do we have control of here in our local areas?”
Opponents maintain the development is not consistent with the state’s Smart Growth philosophy for developing lands near other developments and away from environmentally vulnerable areas.
“I don’t oppose development, but it’s got to be controlled,” said Cambridge resident Don Hill. “It just seems totally out of scale for such an environmentally sensitive area.”
The development sits on an idyllic swath of farmland recently annexed by the city. Parts of it border the Little Blackwater River, which is home to a wealth of wildlife.
But to many of the project’s supporters, the commission’s ruling represents a harsh barrier to letting Cambridge reap the benefits of the Eastern Shore’s boom over the past decade. Pritchett says the decision is particularly rough given Cambridge’s unenviable economic track record.
During the 40s and 50s, he explained, Cambridge thrived on the wings of a robust food processing industry. But by the 60s, industry began to clear out and race riots sullied the city’s reputation.
Residents say they began to notice an improvement over the past ten years.
Pritchett cites increasing home development and a new Hyatt resort for propelling Cambridge’s revitalization. It also doesn’t hurt, he points out, that the city is located on a river and near an airport and highway.
Still, many say more must be done.
“People who have lived here and seen the economic depredation know they need a shot in the arm,” said former Cambridge resident Carleen Heinrich, pointing at a withering brick building abutting a newer edifice.
Heinrich, who said she has mixed feelings about the Blackwater development, said the town cannot survive without development. “The question is how you build up the coffers to repair it,” she said.
John H. Nussear, executive director at the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, said the city may have missed out on a golden opportunity.
“We’re talking about the infusion of millions of dollars worth of construction money, expansion of jobs for people that would take pay checks and spend them in the community, [and] long term use of things such as the golf course and hotel all providing a positive economic impact in the community,” he said.
Proponents also note a $2 million offer from Zentgraf as an upfront payment for a new public safety building.
Catherine McCulley of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth said this type of development won’t necessarily make life any easier for the average Cambridge citizen. She says the rising cost of living from increased development weighs heavily on the city’s poor.
Playing down the benefits, other citizens accused county and city officials of being derelict in their environmental stewardship. In August, the City Council approved the growth measure four votes to one.
“Since the riots, Cambridge has always been considered the poor stepsister of Talbot County,” said Cambridge resident Barbara Bose, referring to the wealthier county bordering Dorchester. “Our politicians are shortsighted and desperate for development and economic influx,” she said. “They don’t appreciate the [environmental] value of this place. The trend is to give away the best part of the county to developers.”