Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 10, 2016

Opening of the First Section of the Grand Junction Path – June 9, 2016

It’s only between Main Street and Broadway so far, but it’s a start!

Cambridge City Councillor and State Representative Tim Toomey

Cambridge City Councillor and State Representative Tim Toomey

Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi

Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi

Sarah Gallup, MIT Government and Community Relations

Sarah Gallup, MIT Government and Community Relations

John Sanzone, Friends of the Grand Junction Path

John Sanzone, Friends of the Grand Junction Path

City Councillors Marc McGovern, Jan Devereux, and Tim Toomey and City Manager Rich Rossi

City Councillors Marc McGovern, Jan Devereux, and Tim Toomey and City Manager Rich Rossi

Cutting the Ribbon: Margaret Drury (CRA), Conrad Crawford (CRA), Jan Devereux, Rich Rossi, Tim Toomey, Marc McGovern, Kathy Born (CRA), Tom Evans (CRA Exec. Dir.), Sarah Gallup, Barry Zevin (CRA), Jason Zogg (CRA Program Manager)

Cutting the Ribbon: Margaret Drury (CRA), Conrad Crawford (CRA), Jan Devereux, Rich Rossi, Tim Toomey, Marc McGovern, Kathy Born (CRA), Tom Evans (CRA Exec. Dir.), Sarah Gallup, Barry Zevin (CRA), Jason Zogg (CRA Program Manager)

You can't cut the ribbon without these

You can’t cut the ribbon without these

Michael Owu (MITIMCO) and Anya Bear (MIT Government and Community Relations)

Michael Owu (MITIMCO) and Anya Bear (MIT Government and Community Relations)

The Grand Junction Path after the Grand Opening

The Grand Junction Path after the Grand Opening

The Trains Keep Rollin'

The Trains Keep Rollin’

August 29, 2014

A Vehicular Revamping

Filed under: Cambridge,cycling,MIT,schools,transportation — Sharanya Srinivasan @ 5:22 pm

Anyone who has traversed up the bulbous convexity of a steep hill has made the sweaty decision that bicycles should come equipped with an alternative power source that does not involve leg muscles. Luckily the recent development of the e-bike, an electric bicycle that comes with a rechargeable battery-powered motor, has addressed this serious transportation concern. According to a 2014 report in The New York Times, e-bike sales are “surging” in Europe, with “250,000 e-bikes on the road in Switzerland and bike sales rising by over 9 percent in Netherlands”. Numerous start-ups in the Cambridge and Boston areas are looking to emulate the success of e-bike sales abroad, by engineering products that significantly reduce the physical exertion of riders while enabling an easy crossover from standard bikes to electric.

Superpedestrian, a Cambridge-based enterprise, creates a novel design for the e-bike called the Copenhagen Wheel. This technology involves no necessary hardware to install other than the wheel itself, and therefore fits on most standard bicycles. The wheel’s motor is operated by a lithium battery which manipulates the torque on the bike’s back wheel to propel the vehicle 20 mph via power assist. And the best part? The speed settings for the Copenhagen Wheel can be controlled by a smartphone app. Superpedestrian, born from a collaboration between MIT’s SENSEable City Lab and the City of Copenhagen, plans to release its first consumer models by the end of the year.

Evelo, another Cambridge-based company, was established a few years ago and advertises the “electrifying power” of its bicycles. Evelo bikes are equipped with Intelligent Pedal Assistance, which provides 3 options of riding with a mid-drive motor system. Further e-bike expansion is around the corner – Craigslist posts shared by the Boston Cyclists Union have hinted that another electric bike venue will be coming soon to Boston.

Undoubtedly, these e-bike businesses are looking to capitalize on the relatively strong biker culture that already exists in Cambridge, a demographic that spans college students maniacally racing to class, leisurely weekend cyclists, and daily commuters pedaling to offices. Thus far, e-bikes have garnered attention in the US as a transportation option for the elderly and people with limited mobility. However, The New York Times states that e-bikes still represent a “niche” in the US. For e-bikes to experience commercial success in Cambridge and elsewhere in the US, these start-ups need to reach a broad target market and encourage standard bike users to transition to the electric version.

The state of Massachusetts also has specific restrictions on motorized bicycles, that limit the speed of e-bikes to 25 mph and prohibit their usage on major highways or roadways where standard bicycles are not allowed. Another “speedbump” to e-bike sales might be price; the Copenhagen Wheel is priced at 799 dollars, and various Evelo models land at 2000 dollars. Certainly, there is fairness behind the upmarket price tag on e-bikes (remember the smartphone app?), but it is up to electric bike companies to market this rationale appealingly to consumers.

Regardless, for those cyclists who find pedaling to be tiresome and an exercise in redundancy…you now have your solution!

December 16, 2013

Update on the Copenhagen Wheel

In a post in this blog from 2011, I reported on a product under development at the MIT Senseable Cities Laboratory, the Copenhagen Wheel. It provides an electrical power assist to a bicyclist.

The motor and batteries are contained entirely in the rear wheel. The Wheel can be controlled through a Bluetooth connection from a smartphone on the handlebar, so there is no need for wiring. Various smartphone apps can report on speed, distance, state of battery charge, exposure to air pollution etc.

Copenhagen Wwheel promotional video shows bicyclists riding in the door zone

Clip from Copenhagen Wheel promotional video shows bicyclists riding in the door zone

I had a serious concern  in 2011, that the Wheel was designed to switch from motor mode to generator mode at 12 mph. In other words, if you tried to go faster, you couldn’t: it would feel as if you were pulling a huge trailer. 12 mph is slower than many bicyclists would usually ride and could be hazardous if there is a need to sprint across an intersection before the traffic signal changes, to outrun a chasing dog, etc.

Development of the Wheel has continued, and readers deserve an update. The Wheel is now going into a production, licensed to a company called Superpedestrian. Maximum power is now 250 watts, top speed 15 mph in Europe; power 350 watts, top speed 20 mph in the USA — reflecting legal limits. (15 mph, though, is still much lower than a desirable sprinting speed, and many bicyclists can easily sprint at more than 25 mph.) Pedal power is proportional to torque (whether cadence-sensing, I don’t know — torque sensing alone would favor slow cadence and hard pushing. There is a derailleur option which alters the relationship between pedaling torque and torque at the wheel, so this becomes a more serious issue.) Some technical specs are online on the manufacturer’ site.

Placing the entire power unit in the wheel makes retrofitting to an existing bicycle easy, but my friend Osman Isvan, who studies electrically assisted bicycle technology, questions the Wheel concept, or any electric motor in the wheel. He says that a mid-drive system with a small, high-speed motor powering through a reduction drive to the crankset is better, because then the motor can be lighter and more efficient. In case you would like to get technical, Osman has an article, “Power Optimization for the Propulsion of Lightweight Vehicles,” where he addresses this issue, among others. The Wheel’s motor may in fact use a gear reduction drive, unlike most in-wheel motors, though it almost certainly doesn’t benefit from the ability to maintain nearly constant motor speed with the motor (like the cyclist’s feet) ahead of derailleur gearing or an internal-gear rear hub.

One thing that really caught my eye was the disconnect from safe bicycling practice in the company’s promotional video.

The first photo (above) in this article is from the video and shows bicyclists riding in the door zone of parked cars, at speed. That occurs in the video at 0:45 and 1:45.

At at 0:21 and again at 1:39, the Wheel is demonstrated by a bicyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way street, and where a parked car could pull out, but the next parked vehicle hides the bicyclist from the driver, who is on the curb side.

Bicyclist riding wrong way in copenhagen Wheel promotional video

Bicyclist riding wrong way in Copenhagen Wheel promotional video

There’s this shot of unsecured baggage including a (virtual?) electric guitar which hangs way out past the end of the handlebar — a large virtual amplifier is on the rear rack.

Unsecured baggage..

Unsecured baggage..

And then there’s this shot of a man illegally carrying a (fortunately virtual) small child on his shoulders, and another child sitting facing backwards sitting crosslegged on some kind of platform. The law more or less everywhere in the USA says that children are to be carried only in seats designed for the purpose. Massachusetts law says that the children must wear helmets. Anyone familiar with Our Fair City will know that this clip, like many in the video, was shot on our own Paul Dudley White Bicycle Path.

Illegal if the kids weren't virtual...

Illegal if the kids weren’t virtual…

This carelessness in promotion sets me to musing about what we have ahead of us as the increased speed potential (even if only 20 mph) of electrically-assisted bicycles collides with the kind of underdesigned bicycle facilities — essentially sidewalks — which Cambridge is building — a trend now spreading to Somerville and Boston. We’re not talking superpedestrians here, we’re talking bionically enhanced — but not skills-enhanced — bicyclists on bikeways which could only be safe at pedestrian speeds.

Allow me to predict that over the next decade, the products of bikeway visionaries and bicycle technology visionaries are going to come together in some rather interesting but also disturbing ways!


June 8, 2013

Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project: Six Pivotal Episodes

Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project: Six Pivotal Episodes

By Thad Tercyak, Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, Associate Director, 1968-1990

In 2012, the Cambridge Civic Journal published "Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project: Initial Years, 1963 to 1982". The following commentary focuses on six pivotal episodes during the 1963-1982 time period which provided the impetus for major development in the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project. Successful development of the Kendall Square Project was a major factor in helping to attract high-tech companies to locate in the eastern sector of the City of Cambridge. Today there are over 163 institutional research companies within a 1-mile radius of the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project area (Source: Boston Consulting Group, Capital IQ DB, U.S. Census Bureau, National Science Foundation.)

The episodes are described in chronological order.

1. Conceptualization and initiation of the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project

In 1963, Mr. Robert F. Rowland, a city planner with extensive urban redevelopment experience, commuted to his job with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), parking his car in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Kendall Square rapid transit station parking lot. He noticed the area north of the rapid transit station was severely underdeveloped and an urban blight with underutilized, largely vacant and obsolete industrial and warehouse buildings. Because of the extent of urban blight, there did not appear to be any prospects for private development there. As a city planner, he visualized the land as an ideal site for urban redevelopment because of its unique locational advantages, including the rapid transit station, proximity to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), direct subway connections to Harvard and downtown Boston, and easy connection to Logan Airport.

Rowland was aware President John F. Kennedy had assigned the task of sending an American astronaut safely to and from the Moon before the end of the decade to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which was searching for a site in the Boston area for development of its Electronic Research Center.

On their own time, Rowland and two associates sketched out a redevelopment plan for the Kendall Square area which would accommodate NASA and provide land for NASA-related private development. He presented his concept plan to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) which asked him to work with the CRA to move the plan through the redevelopment process. Rowland agreed, left his job with the BRA, was hired by the CRA and in 1964 was appointed CRA Executive Director.

In 1964, the CRA presented the concept plan to the Cambridge City Council. The Council voted to have the CRA prepare a redevelopment plan for the Kendall Square area with two objectives: (1) to provide land for both NASA and private development which would generate needed tax revenues for the City of Cambridge and employment opportunities; and (2) to secure maximum federal funds to help alleviate concerns about Cambridge’s ability to finance its share of the cost to carry out the project.

With respect to the first objective, the City of Cambridge, with support from local and congressional representatives, convinced NASA officials of the advantages of a Kendall Square location. After discussions and consultations among the CRA, NASA, Cambridge representatives and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it was determined that development could be expedited by using the urban renewal process.

2. Financing Cambridge’s $6.5-million share of the project cost

With respect to the second objective, the CRA advised Cambridge officials to take advantage of a complex urban renewal financing formula which could be used to "secure maximum federal funds" to finance Cambridge’s share of the cost to carry out the project.. The formula, based on Section 112 of the Housing Act of 1949, provided that expenditures by educational institutions and hospitals on facilities located within a mile of an urban renewal project that contributed to the objectives of the urban renewal project can be used as credits ("Section 112 credits") to cover the local share of the project cost.

The CRA took the lead in coordinating the efforts of Cambridge, MIT officials and congressional representatives to work out the details required to secure federal approval of the Section 112 credits financing plan. The City and MIT entered into an agreement which provided that MIT prepare a Development Plan which included MIT property located within a mile of the redevelopment area to be used for educational purposes. After the City’s review and approval of the plan, the expenditures incurred by MIT to acquire land and construct buildings in accordance with the plan could be used as Section 112 credits. Subsequently, when the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project was approved, MIT provided $6.5-million dollars in Section 112 credits to cover the City of Cambridge’s entire share of the project cost.

3. NASA Quits. CRA amends Kendall Square redevelopment plan and objectives

The original Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan covered 43 acres of land and designated 29 acres for use by NASA and 14 acres for NASA-related private development. The initial four years of the project were executed expeditiously. The CRA transferred 19 acres of vacant land to NASA for construction of a 14-story office tower and five low-rise buildings, and prepared an additional 10 acres of vacant land for future development by NASA. In 1970, without warning, NASA decided to abandon its operations in the project. It indicated it did not need the 10-acre site of vacant land designated for its development, and was transferring its interests in the project to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). DOT established the National Transportation System Center on the site formerly occupied by NASA and named it after John A. Volpe, Secretary of DOT and former governor of Massachusetts

Cognizant that the 10-acre site originally designated for NASA’s use under the terms of the original Kendall square Urban Renewal Plan was still undeveloped and in CRA possession, the CRA recognized an opportunity to expand the area of land which could be developed for private uses which would benefit Cambridge more than if the land was developed by the federal government. The CRA decided to amend the Kendall Square Plan to designate new reuses for the undeveloped land even though that meant starting again the complicated and time consuming process of preparing a second Kendall Square Plan.

The CRA commenced negotiations with DOT Secretary Volpe, making the case that DOT should relinquish its rights to Parcel 2 because NASA’s withdrawal from the project was a breach of its contractual obligation with the CRA; a flagrant disregard of its commitment to the community; and had undermined the City’s program to market the project area for private development. After 2 years of prolonged negotiations among the CRA, DOT, U.S. General Services Administration, and HUD, Secretary Volpe released DOT’s rights to Parcel 2 to the CRA.

When NASA decided to withdraw from the Kendall Square area, the feeling in the City of Cambridge was that the project had been delivered a tremendous setback because it had lost its major developer. As it turned out, despite the years of development delays caused by NASA’s the withdrawal, it was a blessing in disguise because the additional 10-acres of land plus the 14 acres already designated for private development became a 24-acre site large enough to create a critical mass for high-tech development in the Kendall Square Project which eventually helped to attract additional high-tech development in the eastern sector of Cambridge.

4. Urban Land Institute Advisory Services engaged to help break planning deadlock.

Cambridge was unprepared for carrying out the difficult and complicated tasks involved in overhauling the original plan and replacing it with an entirely new plan. Cambridge City Council created a task force comprised of representatives from a cross-section of Cambridge organizations and the Cambridge Planning Department to work with the CRA in the re-planning effort. A number of plans were developed, including proposals with contradictory project objectives, including "quick-fix" land uses, such as a beer distribution warehouse, a soccer field, open space, even restoring the Broad Canal, but the City could not arrive at a consensus.

Over time, a cloud descended over the project’s development potential and grumbles concerning the apparent lack of progress in redeveloping the site began to be heard, even mockery about changing the name of Kendall Square to "Nowhere Square".

To help break the planning deadlock, the CRA retained the advisory panel services of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to review the Kendall Square Project and propose ways to move the project in the right direction. In carrying out the assignment for the CRA, panel members first spent two days reviewing comprehensive briefing materials prepared by the CRA staff and touring the project and surrounding area. Then individual panelists and teams conferred with nearly 100 community spokespersons, citizens, business persons, government officials, members of the local real estate community, and others interested and concerned with the future revitalization of the Kendall Square area.

The ULI panel concluded that only a few properties in the country had a broader array of locational advantages as the Kendall Square area and the opportunities associated with the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project: "Cambridge Center is a unique opportunity area, one that should be reserved to maximize its locational advantages". The ULI panel presented a point of view that the Kendall Square Project was a valuable asset that has the potential to produce great benefits to the City of Cambridge; and that the CRA and Cambridge City Council should resist the impulse to dispose of the land to take advantage of its short term marketability in response to concerns being expressed about development delays. The panel urged the CRA and City to be patient and adopt an optimal type of development that reflected the highest and best use for the land which would bring the greatest long range benefit to the Cambridge community. The panel proposed a long-term, sophisticated, large-scale, mixed-use optimal type of development.

The ULI panel’s professionalism and diligence in carrying out its mission impressed and gained the confidence of the CRA and Cambridge City Council which endorsed the panel’s recommendations and approved a Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan for a mixed-use development, with the general objectives of generating tax revenues and jobs.

The ULI panel also warned that attracting developers would not be easy: "Citizen concerns, political pressures, economic uncertainty, and the absence of a united and strong development process have combined to create a credibility problem with the real estate development community". The Panel advised the CRA could overcome developer skepticism about the development climate in Cambridge by establishing a record for getting things done.

The CRA responded by removing all legal and technical impediments to development; completing an Environmental Impact Statement; securing plan and zoning amendments; and carrying out a $7-million public improvements program, including construction of infrastructure and execution of traffic circulation plans.

5. Boston Properties selected to develop Cambridge Center

For marketing purposes the name Cambridge Center was adopted to refer to the 24 acres in the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project outside of the land occupied by DOT. In 1978, the CRA invited proposals to develop Cambridge Center. Four well qualified developers were selected as finalists, including Boston Properties which was not as well known in the Boston area as the other developers. After exhaustive interviews with each developer and analysis of each development proposal, the CRA designated Boston Properties as developer for Cambridge Center because it had two significant advantages over its competition:

1. Boston Properties’ two principals had worked as a team for many years producing a number of successful well-designed real estate developments nationwide. In contrast, the other finalists had undergone changes or formed new teams, making evaluations of future performance difficult.

2. Boston Properties’ financial capabilities were impressive. It was well capitalized and had a net worth adequate to sustain a large and complex development such as Cambridge Center. It had current assets sufficient to fund first-rate design and site planning; a cash flow arising from a broad, geographically diverse base of real estate investments that could support substantial start-up costs and sustain development during difficult economic times; and a proven ability to manage investment property effectively and efficiently.

Boston Properties turned out to be the right choice because it had the background, experience, resources and patience to attract the type of users that met the standards proposed in the ULI recommendations, that of promoting land development to its highest and best uses. Subsequently, the development of Cambridge Center benefitted the City of Cambridge by achieving goals for the amended Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan set by the Cambridge City Council: generating $15-million in annual property tax revenues and 7,500 jobs.

6. High-tech development

The combination of (a) the presence of MIT, an international leader in high-tech research and innovation; (b) Polaroid’s decision to locate in Technology Square, a real estate development started in the 1960’s by Cabot, Cabot and Forbes in partnership with MIT that also included Rogers Block, a CRA urban renewal project adjacent to the Kendall Square Project; (c) the presence of Draper Laboratories in the immediate neighborhood; and (d) decisions by the Whitehead Institute and Biogen in 1982 to locate in the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project area were key elements leading to the emergence of high-tech development in the Kendall Square Project, and helping to attract major technology and biotechnology development in the eastern sector of Cambridge. Today there are over 163 institutional research companies within a 1-mile radius of the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project area.

P.S. Robert F. Rowland was CRA Executive Director during all the episodes from 1963 to 1982.

As CRA Associate Director, Thad Tercyak participated directly in the episodes from 1968 to 1990.

April 9, 2013

MIT/Kendall Night at City Hall – Apr 8, 2013 City Council meeting (updated)

Filed under: City Council,Kendall Square,MIT — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 9:40 am

MIT/Kendall Night at City Hall – Apr 8, 2013 City Council meeting

Though there are a few other items on the agenda, this meeting is clearly centered on the potential ordination of the MIT/Kendall zoning petition that was introduced in December 2012, but which has actually been around, debated, and refined since its original introduction over two years ago. There have been many meetings of the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board on the substance of this petition plus volumes of input from the public.

The central agenda item is this:

Unfinished Business #15. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public meeting held on Mar 7, 2013 to continue discussions on the petition by MIT to create a new Section 13.80 Planned Unit Development 5 (PUD-5) District; specifically to discuss Uses, Incentive Zoning, Community Fund, Housing and Sustainability. A presentation will be made by the Executive Director of Historical Commission on historic building. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Apr 1, 2013. Planning Board hearing held Jan 15, 2013. Petition expires Apr 15, 2013.

A related Order from Councillor Decker highlights one feature that is now part of the revised language of the petition:

Order #1. That the text of the MIT Zoning Petition be amended to increase the inclusionary housing from 15% to 18%.   Councillor Decker

The last Ordinance Committee report on this matter is this:

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public meeting held on Apr 2, 2013 to continue discussion on the petition by MIT to create a new Section 13.80 Planned Unit Development 5 (PUD-5) District; said report contains text of zoning language with changes since the Planning Board referral and a draft letter of commitment.

Though there may be other efforts to amend the proposed zoning amendment on the floor, the latest version as submitted is here:

Communications & Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Councillor David Maher transmitting additional information received from Steven C. Marsh, Managing Director, Real Estate MITIMCo., regarding the MIT revised draft zoning amendment, a revised commitment letter and a table providing an overview of the public benefits contained in the revised commitment letter and the revised draft zoning ordinance amendments. [HTML Version of Revised Petition & Letter of Commitment]

There is much that could be said at this point about the MIT/Kendall Petition. In spite of questionable claims of MIT faculty opposition to the proposal, most of the letters from the MIT faculty and administration have shown clear support. Many of the suggestions of the East Cambridge Planning Team have been incorporated into the proposal. There are legitimate arguments that can be made in favor of MIT providing additional housing for graduate students and post-docs, but there is no reason why that housing should be located in Kendall Square. There is also an ongoing analysis within MIT to determine the best ways to address these housing needs, and there is every reason to believe that MIT will act in good faith to ultimately do what’s in the best interest of its students. This may well mean that new housing will be constructed at the opposite end of the MIT campus.

The arguments of naysayers as this matter heads into its final stage have focused on two red herrings – graduate student housing and claims that the plan does not mandate sufficient "sustainability" requirements. When you consider the fact that none of the new buildings in this PUD-5 zone have actually yet been designed, it makes you wonder what blueprints these naysayers have been consulting. The misinformation has all the earmarks of political organizing during a municipal election year.

On balance, the MIT/Kendall Petition, as amended, is a good plan and it should be ordained. MIT has responded well to most of the requests of City staff and the elected officials. If two-thirds of the City Council see fit to pass the zoning amendment, they should be congratulated for keeping their eye on the many positive benefits of the plan and for navigating wisely through a sea of misinformation spread by reactionaries and political wannabes. There’s more to being a good elected official than just being able to say NO to everything. – Robert Winters

Apr 8 update on the MIT/Kendall Petition

The MIT/Kendall zoning petition was ordained as amended on a 7-1-1 vote with Councillor vanBeuzekom voting NO (as expected) and Vice Mayor Simmons voting PRESENT. The revised Letter of Commitment from MIT was approved unanimously.

Prior to final ordination a series of amendments were proposed by several councillors. Councillor Kelley objected strenuously to the late arrival of the proposed amendments and, in doing so, he came across as the smartest guy in the room. There were so many opportunities to propose amendments during the months, weeks, and days leading to this vote, that there was no excuse for trying to rush these amendments through. Nothing good came of it.

The late parade of amendments began with Councillor Cheung proposing some modifications of the percentages in section 13.83.2(d). This squeaked by on a 5-4 vote with Councillors Cheung, Decker, Reeves, Simmons, and vanBeuzekom voting in favor. Next came Councillor Cheung’s amendment to increase the maximum height of the proposed residential tower from 300 ft. to 350 ft. That failed on a 4-5 vote with Councillors Cheung, Reeves, Simmons, and vanBeuzekom voting in favor.

Then Councillor vanBeuzekom proposed a reduction in the maximum permissible nighttime noise levels from 65db to 55db. Councillor Kelley opined that this was a matter that should be viewed in a citywide context. The amendment failed 4-5 with Councillors Cheung, Simmons, vanBeuzekom, and Mayor Davis voting in favor. The next amendment by Councillor vanBeuzekom to require "net zero" energy standards enjoyed a temporary victory on a 5-3-1 vote with Councillors Cheung, Decker, Simmons, vanBeuzekom, and Mayor Davis voting YES; Councillors Kelley, Maher, and Toomey voting NO; and Councillor Reeves voting PRESENT. Later in the meeting, when informed that this burden could threaten MIT’s other commitments, Mayor Davis reluctantly asked to change her vote from YES to PRESENT which defeated the amendment 4-3-2. This was a vote change that Mayor Davis clearly did not relish, but she did it for the greater goal of passing the entire package.

The last amendment was from Councillor Decker and will likely be the one that brings some repercussions. She proposed that the $10 million that was to be dedicated to a Community Fund be transferred to a general mitigation fund not tied in any way to the K2C2 principles. It is my understanding that this has the effect of cutting out the role of people from the adjacent neighborhood organizations in the mitigation fund. The amendment passed on a 5-4 vote with Councillors Cheung, Decker, Reeves, Simmons, and vanBeuzekom voting in favor.

It was also revealed that Councillor Decker’s Order #1 to increase the Inclusionary Zoning percentage from 15% to 18% was meant to be a citywide proposal. She withdrew her Order and will resubmit it as a citywide proposal at a later date. – RW

March 31, 2013

Early look at the April 1 Cambridge City Council agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,Kendall Square,MIT — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 9:14 pm

Early look at the April 1 Cambridge City Council agenda

Here’s a sneak peek at what’s coming up at Monday’s City Council meeting:

City Manager’s Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 13-29, regarding a report on the feasibility of not allowing residents of new buildings to obtain on-street resident parking stickers.

The City Solicitor reports that this question was already fully answered 11 years ago when the question arose whether resident parking stickers could be withheld from Harvard students residing in Harvard dormitories. The advice then as now was that a resident of Cambridge whose motor vehicle is registered in Massachusetts and principally garaged in Cambridge is entitled to receive a resident parking sticker. End of story.

Another zoning petition arrives:

Applications & Petitions #2. A zoning petition has been received from Michael Phillips, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance to the Special District 2 (SD-2) zoning district in North Cambridge.

Heather Hoffman insists that the East Cambridge Planning Team has expressed no opinion on the MIT/Kendall Zoning Petition in:

Communications #2. A communication was received from Heather Hoffman regarding the MIT petition and East Cambridge Planning Team.

Councillor Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee responds with:

Order #7. That Committee Report #6 of Mar 18, 2013 be amended on page two in the second paragraph by striking out the sentence that reads: "The MIT proposal has received support from the East Cambridge Planning Team."   Councillor Maher

So what DOES the East Cambridge Planning Team really have to say about this? Inquiring minds want to know.

Contrary to the fanciful claims of the Wizard of Essex Street that the MIT faculty doesn’t like the MIT/Kendall Petition, there are these:

Communications #6. A communication was received from Marc Kastner, Dean, School of Science, Donner Professor of Science, MIT School of Science transmitting strong support for the Institute’s proposed rezoning of Kendall Square.

Communications #7. A communication was received from Adele Naude Santos, Dean, Professor of Architecture and Planning, School of Architecture + Planning transmitting enthusiasm and support for the Institute’s Kendall Square proposal.

Communications #9. A communication was received from David Schmittlein, John C Head III Dean, MIT Sloan School of Management, Professor of Marketing transmitting support for the Institute’s proposed rezoning of Kendall Square.

Could it be that the "MIT Faculty Newsletter" is not actually the newsletter of the MIT faculty? It sure seems like it.

We should all be entertained by Councillors Decker and Cheung when this comes up:

Order #1. That all public meetings and hearings be conducted within the city limits and have a Cambridge address, and in the event that a public meeting or hearing is held outside of the city limits, that a vote be required of the City Council to approve said meeting or hearing being held outside the city limits.   Councillor Decker

Vice Mayor raises a valid question with:

Order #3. That the Government Operation and Rules Committee is requested to provide an update to the City Council on any progress that has been made in drafting a Community Benefits & Mitigation Plan, and that an expected timeframe in which a formal recommendation on policy might be made to the City Council is also provided.   Vice Mayor Simmons

Councillor vanBeuzekom declares war in:

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to urge the Cambridge Retirement Board of Trustees to cease investments in fossil fuel companies, review Cambridge’s investment portfolio, contact fund managers for any fossil fuel company investments, prepare a report which explains options for investing in the pension fund in a way that maximizes positive impact of the fund, establish investment policies which support local projects and jobs, create a timeline for implementation of findings and release annual updates.   Councillor vanBeuzekom

Will Cambridge ban gasoline after they ban plastic bags, styrofoam, and soda pop? Will they declare Cambridge a pepperoni-free zone? – Robert Winters

February 10, 2013

Housing and the Kendall Square/MIT Petition

Filed under: Cambridge,Kendall Square,MIT,planning — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 6:19 pm

Housing and the Kendall Square/MIT Petition

There was a forum at MIT on Wed, Feb 6 hosted by the MIT Graduate Student Council that addressed some of the issues associated with the current MIT/Kendall Sq. zoning petition now before the Cambridge Planning Board and the Cambridge City Council. This forum was intended for an MIT audience, and only MIT affiliates were invited. It was an honor to have been asked to be a panelist at this forum. The forum was very well attended and required an overflow room to accommodate all the graduate students, undergraduates, post-docs, faculty, staff and administration who came to hear the plans and ask questions.

The good folks of the MIT GSC know how to run a very good meeting that showcases multiple viewpoints while refraining from advocacy. Special acknowledgement goes to GSC President Brian Spatocco who deserves to one day be the mayor or governor of somewhere, somehow, based on his ability to be so informative, fair, and objective.

After the introductions, the forum opened with Israel Ruiz (MIT Executive Vice-President & Treasurer) and Steve Marsh (Managing Director of Real Estate, MIT Investment Management Corporation – MITIMCo) explaining the elements of the zoning petition and its purpose. The panelists were Martin Schmidt (Associate Provost & Prof. of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Linda Patton (Asst. Director of Off-Campus Housing), Bob Simha (Director of Campus Planning, 1960-2001 and DUSP Lecturer), Jonathan King (Prof. of Biology), Robert Winters (mathematics lecturer, editor of Cambridge Civic Journal), Ruth Perry (Prof. of Literature), and Thomas Kochan (2030 Faculty Task Force & Professor of Management).

Though the organizers were aware of which panelists might speak favorably or unfavorably about the zoning petition (so that they could provide balance), there were no conditions on what specific topics each panelist could address. I chose to focus on the context of housing for graduate students and on the affordability of housing in general. I tried to look at things from my point of view as someone who was an MIT graduate student starting in 1978 and who bought a three-family house in 1985 where I continue to live today. Though I may have skipped a point or two, here are the points I tried to make during my presentation:

The situation as it used to be (circa 1978):

1) There was a significant supply of multi-family housing stock in Cambridge.

2) Rent control was the law for much of the housing stock.

3) The great majority of graduate students preferred to live off-campus rather than in MIT dormitories.

4) Most graduate students were content to live in housemate situations, often with 3 or 4 or more to an apartment. Luxury accommodations were not in demand.

5) There were relatively few post-docs.

6) Kendall Square as a job generator did not really exist.

What happened? (the perfect storm)

1) Rent control ended as a result of a 1994 statewide initiative petition.

2) Much of the multi-family housing stock was converted to (high-end) condominiums.

3) Kendall Square and elsewhere was developed without concurrent housing – greatly increasing the pressure on existing local housing stock for both rental and ownership opportunities.

4) There was a significant increase in post-doc opportunities (in lieu of tenure-track faculty opportunities) – significantly increasing the grad/post-doc pool of people competing for housing.

5) Changing expectations – grad students/post-docs are demanding much higher quality housing, often shunning housemate situations.

6) Among some grads/post-docs, there is a greater need to be close to their labs.

7) There has been a national shift toward people preferring to live in urban environments, reversing the earlier pro-suburban movement among faculty, professional people, and seniors.

8) Any new housing built in and around Kendall Square will also be occupied by people who work in Boston and elsewhere.

The Net Effect:

All of these factors (and more) affect the availability and affordability of housing in and around Cambridge – not just for graduate students but for everyone. The problem is pervasive and is compounded by the resistance by many existing residents toward the construction of new housing in Cambridge and elsewhere. The isolated construction of a limited amount of housing anywhere in Cambridge will have a negligible effect on the overall housing problem. Indeed, it can even paradoxically have the opposite effect by attracting people toward this limited supply of new units who will then bid up the price to create a local "bubble" in the price of housing.

Indeed, the only way to reverse this "perfect storm" is to advocate for significant amounts of new housing in Cambridge, in Somerville, in Allston, in Charlestown, and elsewhere in the greater Boston area. Only when there is a range of housing choices at various rents and locations will any kind of rental housing market be restored in which people can make rational economic choices such as living a little further away or in less luxury in exchange for paying less rent. Trying to create a smattering of "affordable housing" units via inclusionary zoning or government subsidy will never have more than a limited effect on the essential problem. There are just too many factors conspiring to make housing unaffordable. If graduate students really want affordable housing, they should be clamoring for many thousands of housing units to be built everywhere in the area – and not just in Kendall Square and Cambridge.

Locally, it may well be that condominium conversion has had the greatest impact on this loss of affordability. Where once there were streets lined with two-family houses and triple-deckers that provided affordable housing for a resident owner AND for the other tenants in a building (including many graduate students), there are now luxury condominiums where the prices have been bid up to the point of unaffordability except for those in the upper income echelons. The only "working class" residents remaining are those who bought their housing long ago, inherited it, married well, or those with some expertise in benefiting from government-subsidized housing and related programs.

There are also people like me who bought their homes and continued to rent apartments to graduate students, post-docs, and others and who managed to pay off their mortgages without ever excessively raising rents. My affordable housing continues to provide the affordable housing for two other families who were graduate students when they first arrived. Cambridge would be a better place today if more of its two- and three-family homes had never been turned into luxury condominiums. Failure to put some limits on that condominium conversion may be the single greatest reason why MIT graduate students can no longer find affordable housing opportunities in Cambridge. This is also one of the greatest public policy failures by Cambridge elected officials who put all their faith in rent control. Building "affordable housing" today really is like closing the stable doors long after the horses have run away.

The MIT/Kendall Petition

This petition basically redefines the upper limits (heights, density) of what might be constructed in the area east of Ames Street, south of Main Street (plus the area around One Broadway to Broad Canal), and down to Memorial Drive. This petition is both timely and appropriate. This area has always had a mix of uses, including industrial uses. It’s also located at a major Red Line T station, and virtually all planning professionals agree that it’s best to concentrate density close to public transportation. The petition would only define the envelope of what could be built and not precisely what will be built.

Any debate regarding the appropriateness of commercial buildings vs. academic buildings vs. residential buildings in the petition area should really not be taking place before the Cambridge Planning Board or the Cambridge City Council (though this may affect how the petition is received by these respective bodies). This debate is properly one that must occur within the MIT community – administration, real estate investment people, faculty, staff, and students – and preferably also among those who live and work in the surrounding area.

MIT/Kendall plan - courtesy of Israel Ruiz
photo from MIT’s The Tech

Text of MIT/Kendall Petition

Jan 11, 2013 Memo from Community Development Dept. (CDD)

Regarding the graduate student housing issue

MIT can provide a good "Plan B" option for graduate students and post-docs by having ample on-campus and near-campus MIT-owned residential properties (especially for those who need to be close to labs, etc.), but this will barely make a dent in the larger problem. Many, perhaps most, graduate students and post-docs will continue to seek housing options off-campus – preferably within walking or bicycling distance. The focus has to be on increasing housing options within a reasonable distance of the MIT campus and not just on building housing within the MIT campus. Unfortunately, this is not something that MIT can unilaterally accomplish. It also requires action by local and state government AND by the developers who will ultimately build sufficient housing to restore some kind of viable housing market. Building "affordable housing" is fundamentally just politically expedient window-dressing.

A note on transportation

People really are choosing to be less reliant on automobiles, so public transportation infrastructure has to grow and to provide more frequent service and more reliable connections, and the entire system has to evolve from a hub-and-spokes model to more of a regional network. Otherwise we will be forever limited by the capacity of the hub in Boston. In the coming decades it will be very advantageous if a variety of new transit lines can be developed that do not require passing through the hub of Boston.


Whatever comes of the MIT/Kendall petition and of future plans for the petition area, it is essential that the results should not be boring. There really is a place for food trucks, diners, bumper cars, miniature golf, and other things that will have great appeal to many people – especially to MIT affiliates who have always had a love for things eclectic, entertaining, and affordable. There’s a reason why those food trucks are so popular. Those whose memories go back several decades understand that those food trucks are modern versions of the old F&T Diner. There has to be a place in the future East Campus where modern-day memories will be created – the 21st Century incarnations of the F&T, Pritchett Lounge, and the Muddy Charles Pub. People can reasonably debate the relative merits of housing vs. academic buildings vs. commercial buildings that will help finance long-overdue renovations of existing MIT buildings. However, if the future is boring and pathetically predictable, that will be unforgivable. – Robert Winters


F&T 1

F&T 2

F&T 3

July 27, 2012

City Council to discuss last December’s fatal bicycle crash

On Monday, July 30, 2012, the Cambridge City Council is to discuss a City Manager’s report on the December, 2011 fatal truck/bicycle crash at Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue. (I commented on that crash in an earlier post in this Forum).

The city has posted the agenda of the meeting. The City Manager’s report on the crash is on that agenda.

I’ve posted that report here — indented, with my comments unindented:

July 30, 2012

To the [City Council]:

In response to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-63 relative to a report on safety issues at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Vasser [sic] Street, Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation Susan E. Clippinger reports the following:

In response to the fatal bicycle crash on December 27, 2011, the Traffic, Parking + Transportation Department conducted a review of the intersection that included the operation of the traffic signal, signs and pavement markings of the intersection, and a review of the crash history of the location.

Using both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Cambridge Police Department crash information, TP+T reviewed 19 incidents involving bicycles which occurred in the 5 years between 2007 and 2011 (excluding the fatality which was under investigation). The purpose of the review was to determine if a common type of crash was frequently occurring and if engineering measures could be implemented to prevent future crashes.

A Policy Order Resolution from the May 14 City Council meeting (third page here) describes Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue as the second-worst intersection for crashes in the city, and reports 55 crashes, with 24 involving “cars” (which I take to mean all motor vehicles). Clippinger reported on 19 bicycle-motor vehicle crashes over a 5-year period — however, single-bicycle, bicycle-bicycle and bicycle-pedestrian crashes are just as real. Perhaps Clippinger did not report on 5 of the bicycle-motor vehicle crashes because evidence was too sparse, but on the other hand, what about the remaining 31? All 55 crashes were serious enough that police reports were filed. Also, bicycle crashes of all kinds, especially those not involving motor vehicles, are greatly under-reported to police.

A couple years ago in a national Webinar, the City’s bicycle coordinator, Cara Seiderman, said that there had been no crashes on the Vassar Street sidepaths. Evidently, she excluded intersections, and even so, her statement was incorrect. There had been at least two bicycle-pedestrian crashes on the sidepaths in which someone was taken away in an ambulance. Following each of these crashes, one of the parties e-mailed me, having read my online comments about the sidepaths. There have almost certainly been additional crashes.

Clippinger’s report continues:

We found that in 17 of the 19 crashes, the bicycle was proceeding through the intersection and was not turning left or right. In eight of the 19 crashes, the vehicle was turning right. A common cause of this type of crash is that either the driver fails to yield upon turning or the bicycle is traveling too fast to stop in time for a vehicle that is in the process of turning.

Clippinger places the responsibility on the motorist to look to the right rear to yield to bicyclists who are foolishly overtaking on the right. Bike lanes to the right of right-turning traffic at intersections, as here, encourage bicyclists to make this mistake.

It also appears that most of these crashes were minor; only two crashes resulted in the cyclist’s being transported to the hospital.

17 of the 19 cyclists described in the report evidently were lucky. Such “coffin corner” crashes are often fatal when the right-turning vehicle is a large truck or bus. However, Clippinger doesn’t report how serious any of the injuries were, whether or not the cyclists were transported to the hospital. To be fair, she may not have had access to this information. It’s hard to get.

Based on the limited information we have on the location and direction of the cyclist involved in the December 27 crash, TP+T determined that this crash is not consistent with the crashes experienced previously at this location. Further, we determined that the traffic signal operation, signs, pavement markings, and layout of the intersection did not contribute to this crash.

I agree that this was a different type of crash. However, features of the intersection almost certainly contributed to the crash. As I noted in my review of the Tech article — and as reported by eyewitnesses — the right turn was difficult for the trucker because of a bulbout and street furniture on the corner. It is likely that the driver was looking into his right side-view mirror to make sure that the truck cleared the street furniture, and so failed to see the bcyclist. To clear the street furniture, the truck crossed the centerline on Vassar Street, placing it in head-on conflict with traffic in the oncoming left-turn lane, one of the possible locations of the cyclist. The layout of the intersection had nothing to do with this?

However, I think that the cyclist most likely was crossing in front of the truck from right to left. In that case, he had been riding wrong-way on the Vassar Street sidepath, and then turned to his right across the street. The sidepath and connecting bike lane enable this conduct. He could have been looking to the right for traffic, and failed to notice the truck on his left. Also, his brakes may have functioned poorly in the wet.

Clippinger concludes:

TP+T remains fully committed to improving the safety of our roads for all users, particularly for pedestrians and bicycles. We continue to research causes of crashes citywide, and each year we use that information to make engineering improvements we feel will reduce the number and severity of crashes.

“We feel”. I’d prefer a stronger report, examining all types of crashes, and a bicycle program guided by careful research rather than feelings.

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