Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

April 30, 2010

Concord Avenue: City’s position, and comments

On April 27, Kelly Dunn, Community Relations Manager of the Cambridge Department of Public Works, sent the e-mail below to a number of people. One was Jessica Eckhardt, who lives near the project area. The sections below in quotes are Ms. Dunn’s e-mail and the other sections are Ms. Eckhardt’s and my response.

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for your input and suggestions regarding the cycle tracks on Concord Ave.  I hope I can address some of your concerns.

A few years ago a comprehensive planning study of the area was completed.  The Concord-Alewife Study examined the current support system for pedestrians and cyclists in the area, and looked at how we might enhance access through additional connections in the Alewife Quadrangle.  I encourage you to take a look at the study:  http://www.cambridgema.gov/cdd/cp/zng/concalew/concale_plan_all.pdf

We like what that study says, but on the other hand, your statement changes the subject. That study contains no mention of “raised bike lanes”.

As projects move forward, we hope to be able to implement some of the connections noted in the study. Regarding the overall design of Concord Avenue, there are a few things to note. The reconstruction that will happen is a complete right-of-way reconstruction, with reconstruction of sidewalks, curbs and drainage systems; this would happen in any case and is not being done specifically to create the raised bike lane.

So, the “raised bike lane” just sorta happened?  No, the City is consciously taking advantage of the need to reconstruct the street and sewers to create the so-called “raised bike lanes”.

Why the quotes? By definition, both technical and vernacular, there is no such thing as a “raised bike lane”. Any lane is part of the roadway, at roadway level. A bike path is separate from the roadway, and standards for safe design apply to it too.  Under the proposed design, neither the street nor the paths meet design standards that apply in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The raised bike lane is just that: bicyclists will be in the exact same location as they are now.

That statement turns attention away from the issues by discussing location instead of behavior. The statement makes a host of assumptions, first of which is that cyclists only need to ride in the bike lane. Yes, you can be in the exact same place, but your options are very different if you are behind a curb.

Consider access to and from the eastbound “raised bike lane.”  To reach it from most entrances on the north side, cyclists will have to cross most of the way, dismount, lift their bicycles over a curb and remount. Eastbound cyclists on the south side will have to hop down a curb at most places to turn left. The difficulty and danger of crossing the street will strongly encourage wrong-way riding, a practice which Cambridge has correctly disparaged in the past and is ignoring with this project.

Also, cyclists may now merge out of the bike lane to allow motorists to turn right without conflict. This option is denied with the “raised bike lanes”.

This is not a sidewalk path and bicyclists and pedestrians are separated by a street furniture zone, where street trees and street lights are located.

We do anticipate pedestrians spilling over or choosing to use the “raised bike lane” for travel – also cyclists using the pedestrian strip. In some places, the available width for both is only 10 feet. Still, the most disturbing issue with riding on a sidewalk-level facility is not so much the conflicts with pedestrians. It is the conflicts with motor vehicles — when riding the right way and much more so when riding the wrong way.

No matter what the design, the north side of Concord Avenue cannot be a safe location for the novice and child cyclists the City wants to attract. There is heavy turning and crossing traffic, at way too many locations. We have suggested extending the multi-use path on the south side — which has its benefits and drawbacks — the most notable benefit is safety for the inexperienced and child cyclists, with only one driveway crossing in the same distance.

At intersections and driveways, the facility is a regular in-street bike lane.

This is inaccurate and reveals a serious misunderstanding. The design drawings show the facility coming down to street level within a few feet of each street or driveway. To operate as a bike lane, it would have to come down at least 100 feet farther away, so that cyclists and motorists could negotiate lane position before and after the intersection. The City is not unfamiliar with this concept, which it used in its Vassar Street project. With, on average, one driveway or street every 100 feet, allowing merging distance around intersections and driveways would leave the westbound facility a bike lane just as it is now, for almost the entire length of the project.

There will be added signage reminding motorists to yield to cyclists.

Right-turning motorists will have to stop and wait, rather than merging into the bike lane before turning. Expect congestion, and mistakes. Signs or no signs, left-turning motorists will be unable to see past vehicles in the westbound lane. The best a left-turner can do is to creep forward until his or her vehicle’s hood provides a warning to cyclists that they need to yield.

There is nothing about the design that changes where cyclists travel over a standard bicycle lane.

This statement ignores the need to cross the street, among others, as already discussed.

Turning movements are always a concern, on all roads, whether there are bicycle facilities or not. There is no evidence that a raised bike lane with this design would make the situation worse; to the contrary, it increases the visibility of the cyclist, as well as decreases the likelihood of other dangerous behaviors such as motor vehicles parking in the bike lane.

That is an astonishing statement. Such evidence has existed for decades. It follows from human factors analysis (e.g, that drivers do not have x-ray vision, as already discussed), and from safety studies on both sides of the Atlantic. See for example this review of research results. And, a recent, extensive study in Copenhagen confirmed substantially-increased crash rates for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians alike.

If everything about positioning is the same, how can a height difference of 6 inches — or less, when the facility slants down before a street or driveway — make the cyclists more visible, especially to left-turning traffic? Will the child cyclists be more visible? Will any cyclists be visible when to the right of vans, trucks and buses?

As to your concern about motor vehicles parking in the bike lane, there is ample parking in the adjacent industrial area, and besides, the bike lane is too narrow to park in. Parking there is rare, illegal and subject to fines and towing. If there is no bike lane, any illegal parking will be in the travel lane instead or with one wheel up over the curb in the “raised bike lane”.

It’s important for cyclists to feel safe; especially riders with children and others who would not choose to ride on major streets with high volumes and high speeds of traffic.

We find it very distressing that the City proposes to attract unsuspecting cyclists including children onto a facility that crosses 24 driveways and 7 streets in 3000 feet, with known and serious crash risks, by making them feel safe — when the option exists for a path with only one, signalized intersection on the other side of the same street. Is it acceptable to make people feel safe when actually creating hazards for them? There is a vernacular term for this action: “Pied Piper” and also a legal term.”attractive nuisance.” We vote to re-examine the project on the basis of true safety, rather than an illusion of safety.

The City is committed to supporting and promoting sustainable transportation, and making it available and accessible to all. Raised bicycle lanes have been proven to be safe, effective facilities, which enable more people to choose to bicycle.

We support sustainable transportation too. We ride our bicycles almost every day, and we desire real safety improvements. Please cite your sources and clarify whether you are stating that a “raised bike lane” with so many intersections and immediately behind a high curb has been shown safe.

The project will also have important benefits to other users, especially pedestrians, who will have a greater buffer from motor vehicle traffic and improved street crossings. It is also expected that narrowing the curb-to-curb width of the street will help to reduce speeds, which are currently excessive.

Then we would be trying to use the cyclists and the car-bike conflicts as a shield, sacrificing one group for the benefit of the other. See especially the table on page 3 of the Copenhagen study, which was limited to the most carefully-designed street-corridor separated bicycle facilities. It found streets with these facilities more hazardous than other streets — for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians alike. Many features of the Concord Avenue design increase the hazard far beyond that of the Copenhagen facilities. Please, Ms. Dunn, show us your evidence to the contrary. We can’t just take your word for what you say, when public safety is at stake.

Yes, speeds are sure to decrease when the motorists are brought to a complete halt to wait to turn right across the “raised bike lane” and to a crawl to try to avoid collisions when turning left.  Speeds could easily be controlled with traffic enforcement or with other measures, for example, raised pedestrian crossings.

One of the primary goals of the project is to improve conditions for people walking and biking on Concord Avenue, while maintaining vehicular capacity.  The number of travel lanes will remain the same as today.

A “raised bike lane” is not a bike lane. The number of lanes will be reduced by two. A cyclist, who has the right to use the roadway under the laws of the Commonwealth, will no longer have eastbound and westbound bike lanes on the road. Also, capacity for motor vehicles will be reduced because motorists will have to stop before turning right, and will have to creep forward (we hope) while turning left, to yield to cyclists they can not see.

The conditions for cyclists and pedestrians will deteriorate with the snow in winter and no place to put it.  Even if the “raised bike lane” is cleared, it will remain partly coated with slush and ice.

A community meeting was held last spring and the project has been reviewed by community groups, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian committees, the disabilities commission, and the committee on public planting.

The Cambridge bicycle program likes push the envelope by imitating European practice. People who are not familiar with the research literature can easily be convinced that the grass is always greener in Copenhagen, and that all such innovation is positive. This project also plays into the widespread public misperception that bicycling on sidewalks is safe. Some European designs are faulty, and this project in addition reflects a poor imitation of European practice. It will create a situation far worse than possible alternatives, and a perception of safety without really increasing safety. That is not positive innovation.

I (Jessica) am requesting meeting minutes and a copy of the flyer that was supposedly distributed around my neighborhood. I also ask why Massbike was not informed of the construction project.

If you would like, I can add your email to my public notification list; you can also check the progress of upcoming work at our website as well: http://www.cambridgema.gov/TheWorks/

Thank you again for your comments.  I will be sending out periodic construction updates at the work progresses.  If at any time you run into issues, feel free to contact me or Dan Vallee, project manager.

Sincerely,

Kelly

Kelly Dunn

Community Relations Manager

Cambridge Department of Public Works
147 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
T:  617.349.4870
F:  617.349.4814

kdunn *at* cambridgema *dot* gov

www.cambridgema.gov/theworks

[All contact information here is already available on the Internet; e-mail address has been altered to avoid contributing to harvesting by spam robots.]

April 27, 2010

New author, topic: bicycling; Concord Avenue

Hello, I’m John Allen, and I thank Bob Winters for welcoming me as an author on this blog.

My topic is bicycling. I am an active bicyclist; I ride both for transportation and for recreation. I lived in Cambridge from 1971 through 1979, and I have lived in the Boston area ever since. I have been active in bicycling advocacy since the founding of the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition in the late 1970s. I was a founding member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee in the early 1990s. Over the years, I have paid a lot of attention to bicycling developments in Cambridge.

My opinions about the Cambridge bicycle program may confound your expectations, unless you have been reading my writings on other Web sites. While there are many good things that Cambridge has done, there are others which I find to have serious flaws. My work takes me to cities all around the USA and abroad, so I have had many opportunities to compare bicycle accommodations. There are cities I could hold up as examples — San Francisco, Albuquerque, Madison. In my opinion, Cambridge is not one of the more shining examples.

I will be posting later about developments over the years, but my present concern is with a construction project which has now started on Concord Avenue between Alewife Brook Parkway and Blanchard Road. Details of my concerns are explained on my own blog.

The City's before-and-after cross-section diagram of the Concord Avenue project

I have several general areas of concern:

  • The plan is to narrow the roadway, replacing the present bike lanes — whose installation I applauded — with sidewalk-level bikeways. The north-side (westbound) bikeway, like the present bike lane, will cross 7 streets and 24 driveways into an industrial area — so there will be very many turning and crossing movements. Most car-bike collisions involve turning and crossing movements. I only consider the westbound bike lane suitable for bicyclists who know how to avoid the conflicts. The raised bikeway will not resolve these conflicts, but it will create a false expectation of safety for child and novice bicyclists.
  • The bikeway is to slant down to street level at each of the streets and driveways, but only where it reaches one — not before, so there is no way for either bicyclists or motorists to negotiate lane position.  The presumption is that westbound motorists will always look back to the right and yield to bicyclists overtaking on their right, and that left-turning eastbound motorists will yield to bicyclists — who can be entirely hidden behind westbound vehicles. The so-called “right hook” and “left cross” collisions are already the two most common types of fatal car-bike collisions in the Boston area. The proposed design offers a wealth of opportunities for these collisions to occur.
  • Bikeways behind 6-inch-high curbs at sidewalk level make it inconvenient and unsafe for bicyclists to cross Concord Avenue — and in particular, to reach the eastbound bikeway from most of the streets and driveways on the north side. In this way, the design encourages wrong-way bicycling — which is much more hazardous than right-way bicycling, because the wrong-way bicyclists are where motorists do not expect them and where they are in conflict with right-way bicyclists.
  • The high curbs also pose the risk of bicyclists’ toppling into the street.
  • The present bike lanes drain and are plowed along with the rest of the street. The proposed bikeways, just behind the curbs, are where gutter splash will target bicyclists and where snow will be plowed from the street. The City claims that it will plow the bikeways, but I don’t expect that they will be cleared anywhere near as soon or as well as the roadway.
  • Creating a separate, narrow bikeway can not account for changes in the traffic mix, some of which are already underway.  Cargo tricycles, bicycle trailers and pedicabs will block the bikeway; mopeds aren’t allowed; electrically-assisted bicycles are faster than others and more likely to get into trouble on the bikeways, but slower than motor vehicles. Who knows what else the future will bring?
  • The turning and crossing conflicts between motorists and bicyclists will increase congestion of motor traffic on Concord Avenue, and particularly in the single westbound travel lane.
  • The south side of Concord Avenue is adjacent to Fresh Pond Reservation and has only a single driveway crossing in the project area — at a signalized intersection.  There is already a path extending part of the way along the south side of Concord Avenue; there is a sidewalk the entire way, and many bicyclists already use these westbound to avoid crossing all the streets and driveways. A  bikeway on the south side properly designed for two-way travel would accommodate child and novice cyclists safely and comfortably, and avoid creating congestion.
  • The project does not conform to the specifications in the award-winning Massachusetts Project Development And Design Guide, widely regarded as the best in the nation. I understand that the project is funded by the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, the project somehow slipped through the review process. Though City officials claim otherwise, neither does the project correspond to good European practice.  It is a weak imitation of European practice.

The City makes the indirect claim of “safety in numbers” for this project. That is, when there are more bicyclists, motorists become more attentive and better at avoiding collisions. I agree that this happens, but I don’t agree with it as the justification for an all-around poor design. When bicyclists are placed where motorists can’t see them, safety is only achieved when everyone slows way down — same way as when pulling out of a blind driveway. This type of situation leads to frustration and animosity, because transportation is about people wanting to go places — both bicyclists and motorists. And the planned westbound bikeway is so inherently hazardous that I don’t expect either safety or numbers!

My recommendations? Leave the bike lanes as they are. Install a two-way bikeway on the south side, if that is practical. Provide a couple more signalized crossings, with signals timed so traffic flows smoothly and/or median refuge islands. Also look to other east-west through routes. One is already rideable, and funded for improvement, the Fitchburg Cutoff path between Alewife Station and Blanchard Road, north of the commuter rail tracks.  The City’s Concord-Alewife Plan describes another route to be developed south of the tracks.

Bicycling advocates learned of the Concord Avenue project rather late. Construction has already begun, and I’m not very hopeful that the project can be changed. But whether or not it is changed, I consider public discussion and awareness important. I welcome comments. Thank you for your attention!

April 26, 2010

April 26, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights – The FY2011 Budget Arrives

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 12:21 pm

April 26, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Tonight’s the night when the voluminous annual Budget Book arrives on the desks of each city councillor. This marks the official start of “Budget Season” at City Hall where councillors often use the opportunity of the Budget Hearings to grill City department heads on operational details of their departments whether or not they are related to their budgets. The bottom line (literally) is that this year’s total recommended FY2011 operating budget is $443,288,905 plus $16,416,120 for the Water Fund plus the capital budget of $9,935,015. The previous FY2010 recommended operating budget was $426,226,960 plus $17,985,890 for the Water Fund plus the capital budget of $29,360,780.

The comparison by general categories from last year to this year is as follows:

Category FY2010 Budget FY2011 Budget 1 yr % Change 5 yr % change
General Government $45,627,180 $47,778,775 4.7 23.4
Public Safety $97,169,260 $101,163,395 4.1 24.1
Community Maintenance & Development $79,033,800 $82,475,075 4.4 40.3
Human Resource/Development $28,232,600 $30,102,300 4.6 30.2
Education $133,563,880 $137,492,275 2.9 10.8
Intergovernmental $42,600,240 $44,277,085 3.9 15.9
Grand Total $426,226,960 $443,288,905 4.0 22.1
Water Fund $17,985,890 $16,416,120 -8.7 -4.0
Capital Budget $29,360,780 $9,935,015 -66.2 10.2

There are some notable differences in specific departments and assessments as well.

Department FY2010 Budget FY2011 Budget 1 yr % Change 5 yr % change
Executive $1,841,390 $1,980,195 7.5 34.7
City Council $1,461,370 $1,518,725 3.9 49.2
Election $799,490 $897,050 12.2 22.4
License $830,755 $902,730 8.7 22.0
Emergency Management $156,230 $0 -100.0 -100.0
Peace Commission $111,745 $116,580 4.3 46.7
Library $7,450,945 $8,135,070 9.2 43.7
Human Rights Commission $210,355 $190,005 -9.7 14.3
MWRA Assessment $21,333,055 $21,617,305 1.3 35.2
Cherry Sheet Assessments $15,267,185 $16,659,780 9.1 4.4

Note, in particular, that the single biggest jump in department budget over a five year span was for the City Council itself. You can download the 5-year summary spreadsheet here: http://rwinters.com/docs/bottomlineFY2011.xls.

Elsewhere on the Agenda, there are these items worthy of comment:

Resolution #28. Congratulations to a special person.   Councillor Toomey, Councillor Decker, Vice Mayor Davis, Mayor Maher, Councillor Seidel

Resolution #50. Resolution honoring a great supporter of the Portuguese community.   Councillor Toomey

The whole idea of a public meeting seems to suggest that the identity of this “special person” and this “great supporter” should be made known. The City Council is a publicly elected body, not a private social club.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to confer with appropriate departments to determine whether the city can submit a proposal for use on the Sullivan Courthouse and to report back to the City Council.   Councillor Toomey

It’s a long stretch to imagine the City making use of a building of this size, especially in light of the considerable abatement costs that would likely be associated with any renovation and reuse of the building. It also seems doubtful that Councillor Toomey would be advocating packing another major “affordable housing” development into East Cambridge in light of his recent Order.

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to restore funding for School Department clerical positions until a proper and negotiated process can be achieved with the Cambridge School Department and Unions representing the employees, and to report back to the City Council on the progress.   Councillor Toomey

There was a day when the School Committee concerned itself with matters such as this. Is it really proper for the Cambridge City Council to direct the City Manager to restore funding for positions under the jurisdiction of the Superintendent of Schools who is hired by the duly-elected Cambridge School Committee? Question this matter during the School Department Budget hearing if you must, but doesn’t this just stink of micromanagement – and not even by the proper elected body? — Robert Winters

April 14, 2010

State Senate Unofficial Election Results (Middlesex, Suffolk, & Essex) – April 2010

Filed under: 2010 State Senate election — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:08 am

CandidateEverettCambridgeCharlestownSomervilleAllston-
Brighton
ChelseaSaugusRevereTotalPercent
Total350029271614442474145934660911365100.0
DiDomenico, Sal259917347521241254228248423037.2
Flaherty, Tim68113478597129345471320409636.0
Simmons, Denise4290435266161109114810.1
Benzan, Dennis743715526333652299558.4
Albano, Michael919291983631313207546.6
Hill, Dan1327965812231661.5
Write-In/Other13342220.2

If you have additions or corrections, please provide them as a comment and the table will updated shortly. Numbers for write-ins and any information about turnout are also appreciated. You can also send them to me directly at Robert@rwinters.com.
These are unofficial vote totals compiled in April.

The results of the September 2010 Primary are here:
http://cambridgecivic.com/?p=925

– Robert Winters

April 12, 2010

April 12, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: City Council — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 11:51 am

April 12, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The agenda is relatively light but the tension should be palpable on the eve of the Special State Senate Primary. As a courtesy, if there is still such a thing in the Cambridge political world, this meeting should open and shut in a half hour so that candidate Denise Simmons can attend to her campaign. Therefore I expect we’ll see Councillor Reeves, Craig Kelley, and former and future Senate candidate Marjorie Decker engage in extensive questions and comments just to extend the meeting for hours. Councillor Simmons should just check in and check out or exercise her Charter Right liberally at the first hint of nonsense.
[Postscript (8:25pm) – The predictions turned out all wrong – it was Simmons supporter Councillor Davis who spoke and lengthened the meeting the most. Marjorie Decker was concise and to the point. So much for fanciful predictions.]

On the agenda, we have the following items of interest:

City Manager’s Agenda #4. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-52, regarding a report on the possibility of structuring the parking ticket system in a way that would increase parking tickets as people stay longer at expired meters or general no-parking spots.

Short answer – this is prohibited under state law: “all such fines shall be uniform for the same offense committed in the same zone or district“. One wonders how this applies to Somerville’s posted practice of permitting residents to park for free for several hours at parking meters in some areas at the edge of commercial zones. It’s a good idea, but is it legal under state law?

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to make City staff available to the Economic Development Committee to look at current real and personal property taxation issues which affect entrepreneurial businesses within the city.   Councillor Cheung

Councillor Cheung is diving right in as the new Chair of the Council’s Economic Development Committee. The key phrase in the Order is: “That staff review and report back to the Economic Development Committee of the City Council on state taxation guidelines and statutes that could potentially be adopted or changed to impact new business development, including but not limited to the taxation of R&D related personal property, economic distress regulations, and real estate related tax increment financing, for the purpose of encourage new business growth and job creation.” Councillor Cheung may soon discover how restricted City officials are in matters such as real estate taxation. Good ideas surfaced several years ago when multi-family residential property taxes were escalating with condominium real estate taxes relatively flat, but it went nowhere without changes in state law.

Order #2. That the City Council reappoint D. Margaret Drury as City Clerk for a term beginning June 1, 2010 and ending May 31, 2013.   Mayor Maher

Order #3. That the City Council reappoint James Monagle as City Auditor for a term beginning June 1, 2010 and ending May 31, 2013.   Mayor Maher

The City Council has authority under the Plan E Charter to appoint only the City Manager, the City Clerk, and the City Auditor. Tonight they’ll extend the appointments of two of these. Though not specified in the Charter, the City Council also formally appoints the Deputy City Clerk and, whether official or not, they now get to “appoint” their own patronage personal assistants, almost all of whom are City-funded campaign workers. On a brighter note, both City Clerk Margaret Drury and Auditor Jim Monagle are well deserving of reappointment.

Order #4. That the City Council place a temporary moratorium on designating any location under its control as “in memoriam” until such time as naming criteria are developed by the Government Operations Committee and adopted by the City Council.   Mayor Maher

If passed, this represents a victory of sorts for Councillor Kelley who has played like a broken record on this issue. Annoyance aside, the substance of his argument is correct. This practice has been too long abused.

Order #5. That the City Council go on record urging Cambridge’s Delegation to the Great and General Court to support Section 25, the Municipal Early Retirement Incentive Program, contained in the HB4526.   Mayor Maher

The key phrase in the Order is: “This program would allow a limited number of long term employees to receive early retirement benefits, while restricting the City’s ability to refill those same positions to no more than 30%, 45% and 60% of the former total salaries over the next three years, respectively.” Seems like a good option in tight financial times. – Robert Winters

April 5, 2010

April 5, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 1:04 pm

April 5, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Council returns tonight with a very full agenda. For starters, the City Manager provides 15 responses out of 25 pending City Council requests for information – a nice spring cleaning. These reports cover such topics as traffic, Google, the census, airplane noise, Lechmere, a proposed zoning amendment, Central Square, affordable housing, web video on the City website, bedbugs, telephone books as free speech, and weatherization. The Manager also reports that the new Election Commission Executive Director will be Tanya Ford who comes to us from Bethpage, Long Island. There’s still no word on the pending appointment for one of the Democrat seats on the Election Commission, but Alexandra Detjens has been appointed to the Police Review & Advisory Board. Recommendations from the Green Building/Zoning Task Force round out a very full agenda from the Manager.

Regarding the Council’s Agenda, there are these two related items:

Reconsideration #1. Councillor Kelley filed reconsideration on the adoption of Order Number Eight of Mar 22, 2010 as amended to place on the table and refer to the Government Operations and Rules Committee the proposal to amend the City Council rules to replace the Health and Environment Committee with two committees, the Community Health Committee and the Sustainable Environment Committee.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chairs of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a meeting held on Mar 25, 2010 for the purpose of discussing dividing the Health and Environment Committee into two committees, one to focus on health issues and the other on environmental and sustainability issues.

Though really just a formality, the discussion of this modification to the City Council committees degenerated into accusations of political shenanigans at the previous meeting. The apparent cause of this kerfuffle seems to be that Mr. Reeves is peeved at not being appointed Chair of the Economic Development Committee (Councillor Cheung got that honor) and this led to some “acting out” over this apparently unrelated modification. In truth, the split into the Community Health Committee and the Environment Committee makes sense and all of the councillors seem to acknowledge this. Councillor Kelley still seems to think that all the committee need to be “rejiggered”, but this point of view does not extend beyond him.

The previous City Council meeting on March 22 ended with 8 Orders made subject to the Charter Right and carried over to the April 5 meeting. These include:

Charter Right #1. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Twelve of Mar 22, 2010 requesting the City Manager to direct the new Executive Director of the Police Review Advisory Board to submit a report to the City Council detailing what are perceived to be the issues of greatest importance that the Police Review Advisory Board must focus on, and that this report should be submitted to the City Council no later than 90 days from the adoption of this order.

This was an Order from Councillor Simmons that seems directed at the relevance and purpose of the PRAB in the wake of its relative irrelevance in last summer’s “Great Gatescapade”. Together with this week’s Order #6 calling for an Executive Session on the still-unresolved Monteiro case, the appointment of a 5th member to the PRAB, and some dissatisfaction with the Gatescapade-inspired Review Committee, there seems to be more than enough kindling to start a political fire.

Charter Right #5. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Seventeen of Mar 22, 2010 requesting the City Manager to report back to the City Council on the feasibility of adopting a Pay-As-You-Throw program in Cambridge.

See comments from the last meeting. Basically, this is a good idea for promoting recycling and waste reduction in many communities, but any additional benefits may be limited in a city like Cambridge which is already doing reasonably well in these areas compared to many other cities and which may do better if the next contract includes single-stream collection and processing of recyclable materials.

Charter Right #6. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Eighteen of Mar 22, 2010 requesting the City Manager to direct the City Solicitor to report back to the City Council with options for amending the city ordinance to allow for the Manager to permit civic organizations to use public space after hours.

This was introduced in advance of a planned sleep-out on the Cambridge Common a week ago. They came, they slept, and they marched the following day without incident. It seems unnecessary to change an ordinance when a little discretion in enforcement seems more than adequate.

Applications & Petitions #7. A zoning petition has been received from Boston Properties, requesting that City Council amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map relating to the Mixed Use Development District Section 14.32.1 and 14.32.2 located between Main Street and Broadway.

It’s unclear what this zoning amendment is really about except that it emphasizes the definition of a “Smart Growth/Underutilized Area” in the heart of Kendall Square. One can’t help but think this means that Boston Properties wants to more intensely develop within this area. Let’s hope the councillors do their homework and ask the appropriate questions when this goes to the Ordinance Committee.

The City Council Orders include a few potentially controversial or otherwise interesting items. For example:

Order #5. That this City Council go on record requesting that Harvard and MIT cease further layoffs and any cuts in hours, salary or benefits and engage in an open and transparent dialogue with all stakeholders including staff and the community.   Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung

The impact of such an City Council Order is likely zero. It would be nice if the sponsors would provide tangible evidence that these personnel decisions of the universities are being made for any reason other than economic necessity.

Order #6. That the Mayor be and hereby is requested to convene the City Council in Executive Session with relevant City and support staff at the earliest opportunity to discuss ongoing litigation, to include the Monteiro and Idenix cases.   Councillor Kelley

It’s certainly good for the City Council to get periodic updates regarding ongoing litigation, but it’s never clear whether Councillor Kelley’s motivation is illumination or just acting out. In any case, I’m always interested in whether Ms. Monteiro will ultimately prevail in “milking Mother Cambridge” or whether the taxpayers will be relieved of this burden. Too bad the Executive Session is closed to the public.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the possibility of structuring the City’s parking ticket system in a way that would increase parking tickets as people stayed longer at expired meters or general no-parking spots.   Councillor Kelley

Order #10. That the City Council’s committee on Transportation, Traffic and Parking be and hereby is requested to hold the appropriate hearings to determine if the price for a residential sticker in Cambridge is appropriately set and if visitor passes are appropriately priced and available.   Councillor Kelley

Order #11. That the City Council’s committee on Transportation, Traffic and Parking be and hereby is requested to hold the appropriate hearings to determine if the amount of parking required for multi-unit residential units is appropriate.   Councillor Kelley

It’s hard to say whether Councillor Kelley is morphing into chief fundraiser for the Traffic Department or just committing political suicide by leading the charge toward higher prices for residential parking permits. Few would argue that the $8 annual charge is excessive and most would be happy to pay somewhat more, yet it seems unwise for an elected official to agitate for an increase rather than merely accede to such a proposal from the City Manager. That said, if the Cambridge Climate Congress had its way, I suppose we’d all be in ZipCars or paying $1000 per year for resident stickers for a vanishing-by-design supply of on-street parking spaces.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the City’s policy towards on-street public spaces being used by workers of large construction projects and what impact the workers’ “feeding” relevant meters has on the City’s ticketing efforts.   Councillor Kelley

Here’s another radical proposal that I hope a councillor considers for introduction: Let’s have the Traffic Department review areas with metered parking in mixed residential/commercial zones to determine when it would be appropriate to – a) allow resident parking without a fee at metered spots during morning hours; and b) eliminating the fee during hours when there is little or no demand. For example, on Broadway (near my house), the greatest demand for metered spots is by people going to the City Hall Annex. That building is closed after noon on Fridays and on Saturdays, so why are all the meters in effect when there is essentially no demand other than among area residents?

Order #14. That the City Council is requested to discuss additional use of the Sullivan Chamber by the School Committee in the immediate future and come to a formal decision on whether to support this additional use or not at the next City Council meeting.   Councillor Kelley

This is apparently related to an effort by School Committee member Patty Nolan and others to ensure continued School Committee access to the Sullivan Chamber during construction at the high school. The issue seems to be potential conflict with City Council committee meetings, yet the evidence shows there to be little or no conflict.

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update to the City Council on the status of Vail Court and any activities related to the property.   Councillor Seidel

This is noteworthy only as evidence of an era now passed. It was not so long ago that hordes of Eviction Free Zone protesters would descend on City Hall over real or perceived violations against tenants at Vail Court on Bishop Allen Drive. That parcel now consists primarily of boarded-up buildings and may as well have sagebrush blowing through it. Where have all the activists gone – long time passing?

Order #16. That the Council supports adoption of a regulation by the License Commission to prohibit licensed hotels from subcontracting housekeeping services such as guestroom service.   Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung, Mayor Maher, Councillor Toomey and Councillor Reeves

There are more than a few questions of obstruction of commerce in this Order. The fact that a license is required to run a hotel does not give license to elected officials or City administration to micromanage these businesses. What’s next? Should the fact that a driver’s license is required to operate a motor vehicle allow the government to dictate where someone can drive for shopping or recreation?

Order #19. That the City Manager is requested to confer with appropriate departments and community agencies and report back to the City Council detailing the processes and procedures by which the City plans for, selects, and enacts its affordable housing commitment.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor Toomey

This Order is potentially the most controversial item on the entire evening’s agenda in that it questions the “logic and process of site selection for affordable housing.” The Order requests a report on how these projects are distributed throughout the city, suggests that there be more balance in how and where projects are sited, and asks what future plans the City and its related agencies may have for “affordable housing” in Cambridge. Good questions all. — Robert Winters

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