Feb 28, 2011 City Council Agenda – National & Foreign Affairs Night
This week brings a bonanza of Council Orders wishfully intended to direct the course of national and foreign affairs. There are five Orders relating to labor issues in the State of Wisconsin that read like photocopies of Talking Points memos from the National Democratic Party. Perhaps there should be a separate category for Parrot Orders like these. There’s also an Order about Libya and the soon-to-be-deceased Colonel Qaddafi from Councillor Simmons, and an Order from Councillor Decker objecting to the fact that some City officials and others had the audacity to learn a thing or two from Israeli security experts. The horrors! Meanwhile, back home, Councillor Reeves apparently wants to institute an affirmative action policy for liquor licenses. You can’t make this stuff up!
Here are the agenda items that warrant comment:
City Manager’s Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-138, regarding a report on the feasibility of adding historical sub-signs to street signs and the possibility of commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 with street sub-signs.
As the Manager reports, "Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department staff have met with the Historic Commission and over the next few weeks will be meeting again to work out a small scale historic signage program that will focus on the streets related to important historic places and dates in the War of 1812." This is one of the great things about living in Cambridge. There’s a historical component to nearly everything in the city – either because it was itself historical or, in the case of the Cambridgeport street names, it commemorates an historical event. There’s also something endearing about the fact that we can commemorate the site of the Washington Elm where the United States Army began and retain street names commemorating the War of 1812 while being one of the few cities in the USA to have a "Peace Commission".
City Manager’s Agenda #18. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-130, regarding a report on the status of installing community gardens at Riverside Press Park.
The Manager reports that "A recommendation for $60,000 for this purpose will be included in the submitted FY12 Capital Budget for City Council consideration." We’re also waiting to hear of any progress on the possibility of the Whittemore Avenue and Magoun Street community garden coming into City ownership – the subject of a Feb 7 Order and a recent Executive Session. Let’s hope that works out.
City Manager’s Agenda #22. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 11-09, regarding North Massachusetts Avenue development.
According to the Manager’s report, "In response to neighborhood interest, CDD is developing a revision to the current zoning which would require commercial uses on the ground floor of most new projects, and provide a strong incentive to include ground floor retail. This proposed revision is expected to be the subject of a public discussion at the Planning Board in early spring, and followed by submission to the City Council."
This is good news, but there’s more to be done. Cambridge has been in a transitional state for more than a decade during which small-scale neighborhood retail has been transforming into condominium housing (because that’s where the money is). This has also been the case with old industrial and institutional buildings – sometimes with undesirable results as evidenced by the current dual zoning petitions to revise Section 5.28 of the Zoning Ordinance. It may be time for a more comprehensive look at the various mixed-use zones throughout the city.
Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Zevart M. Hollisian, Trustee of Garabed B. Hollisian Trust and L-Z Realty Trust and Seth D. Alexander, President, MIT Investment Management Company, requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by extending the Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District from Green Street out to Massachusetts Avenue in the area adjacent to Blanche Street; said parcel to be developed by Forest City.
This University Park extension has been anticipated for the last several months and follows on the heels of the proposed Novartis expansion and its own zoning petition for an area just a block away from the MIT proposal. This kind of piece-by-piece reactive zoning is not the way to plan the future of a city. Taken together, these two proposals have the potential to transform that section of Massachusetts Avenue significantly. Some of this is welcome and long overdue, but the proposed scale of these combined developments will completely change that area, especially in regard to building heights. It’s curious that we have a City Council subcommittee called the "Neighborhood and Long-term Planning Committee" that appears to do little relating to the apparent purpose of the committee other than to react to zoning petitions. Ultimately, if recent history is any indication, the likely outcome will be that the developers will get everything they want, and the elected officials will be content to extract questionable "community benefits packages" to be used as political currency.
Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to communicate with the Assessing Department and with the owners of the buildings in Central Square to notify them of Red Ribbon Commission future meetings. Councillor Reeves and Councillor Cheung
This Order requires comment. By most accounts, the current "Red Ribbon Commission" has been a failure. The initial invitees were primarily business and property owners, though some neighborhood residents chose to crash the party. Nonetheless, this Order calls for contacting the property owners. The minutes of a recent Central Square Business Association meeting contain the following statement about the Red Ribbon Commission: "Board members reported on general dissatisfaction with progress and focus of monthly commission meetings and subcommittees. The Property Owners subcommittee has not even met yet, and there have been complaints that the Infrastructure subcommittee was closed to new members. It was agreed that board members will push for more focus through their sub-committee assignments. George (Metzger) will consider making a more direct outreach to Councilor Reeves."
Meanwhile, at last week’s East Cambridge Planning Team forum on Kendall/Central Squares, Mr. Reeves told of all the "exciting" things that were coming out of his commission. Really? In truth, the only interesting developments now occurring in Central Square are those that have been happening independent of Reeves’ commission – largely the result of a gradually recovering economy. The Reeves commission has basically consisted of Councillor Reeves repeatedly (and annoyingly) telling everyone about how personally offended he was to have been out of the loop as MIT and Forest City hatched their plans for their upcoming University Park expansion out to Mass. Ave. That’s the whole dynamic – Reeves floats an unformed idea or an expression of dissatisfaction and the participants react. It will be interesting to see what, if any, "exciting" things come out of this commission – just in time for this fall’s municipal election.
Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to work with the City’s Economic Development staff and License Commission to identify potential minority candidates for future liquor licenses. Councillor Reeves
The intent of Reeves’ Order seems to be to somehow bring about either the transfer of liquor licenses or the addition of new liquor licenses specifically for business owners meeting specific racial or ethnic criteria. I hope I’m not the only one offended by this. If the City Council passes rubbish like this, then they should all be sent packing. This Order warrants a Roll Call vote. Who will support affirmative action for liquor licenses?
Order #3. That the City Manager is hereby requested to confer with the Budget Department and direct the appropriate department heads to create a program in Cambridge similar to the Boston’s Department of Urban Mechanics which will develop and implement new ideas that improve City service delivery and report back to the City Council with a funding and human resource plan to implement such a program. Councillor Cheung
Order #19. That as part of the upcoming budget process, the City Manager is requested to create a capital budget for the development of internet and mobile-based tools and set aside funds for the personnel necessary to enact such development. Councillor Cheung, Councillor Decker
These two Orders cover essentially the same topic – creating more technologically innovative ways for the City to conduct its affairs. This includes things as simple as expanding the list of bills payable online to more complex tools for engaging residents to be active participants in civic affairs (including reporting and response mechanisms for everything from potholes and unshoveled sidewalks to license and zoning violations).
Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with details of the purchase agreement for Northpoint. Councillor Toomey and Councillor Cheung
This is news to this observer. As the economy slowly recovers, Northpoint development is bound to follow. Moving the Lechmere station and expansion of the Green Line to West Medford are intertwined with this development. Significant alterations to the road network around Lechmere and the nature of the Monsignor O’Brien Highway (formerly Bridge Street) all hinge on what happens at Northpoint.
Order #8. Amendment to Cambridge Municipal Code regarding City Manager’s contract being posted 96 hours before it is to be voted on by the City Council. Councillor Cheung
It’s curious that this is being proposed now. Unless there’s some kind of late breaking news, the next discussion of this contract is a year away. Perhaps this is a case of blog-driven legislation. It’s a good idea in any case to have more of this out in the open and this is a very reasonable proposal, though anyone who has been paying attention would have read the 2002 contract, the 2006 contract, and the current 2009 contract right here at the Cambridge Civic Journal – no need to assign the task to some Northeastern students to "research" this. My recollection is that at the time each of these contracts was signed, there was minimal public comment and the source of the commentary was entirely predictable. I was there for all of the contract signings going back to the early 1990s and I gladly exchanged a handshake with Bob Healy each time.
Order #11. That the City Council calls on various international stakeholders, including the United States, to advocate for the immediate resignation of Colonel Qaddafi. Councillor Simmons
Orders like this are why people make jokes about Cambridge. "That the City Council calls on various international stakeholders, including the United States, to advocate for the immediate resignation of Colonel Qaddafi." Yeah, I’m sure that will tip the balance.
Order #13. That the City of Cambridge go on record thanking Governor Deval Patrick for standing in solidarity with the workers from Wisconsin and all across the country who are being attacked. Councillor Reeves, Vice Mayor Davis and Councillor Cheung
Order #14. That the City of Cambridge go on record thanking Congressman Capuano for standing in solidarity with the workers from Wisconsin and all across the country. Councillor Reeves, Vice Mayor Davis and Councillor Cheung
Order #15. That the City of Cambridge go on record as standing in solidarity with the Massachusetts AFL-CIO in support of all union workers who are being attacked. Councillor Reeves, Vice Mayor Davis and Councillor Cheung
Order #16. That the City of Cambridge go on record as standing in solidarity with the workers from Wisconsin and all across the country. Councillor Reeves, Vice Mayor Davis and Councillor Cheung
Order #22. That the City of Cambridge go on record as standing in solidarity with AFSCME and all public employee union workers. Councillor Reeves, Vice Mayor Davis and Councillor Cheung
These are five nearly identical Orders laced with phrases like "attempt to bust the union", "unions have been the backbone of this country", "Wall Street recklessness and CEO greed", "Governor Walker is in bed with the billionaire Koch brothers", and "standing in solidarity with the workers from Wisconsin". I understand the appeal of these sentiments, but it would be so much more productive if Cambridge City officials and elected officials across the country would directly address the underlying issues even as they raise their fists and prepare "to get a little bloody." There are distinctions between unions in the private sector and public employee unions, including the right to strike. Also, anyone who does not work for the government expects to pay more than a token percentage of their health care insurance costs (my share is 25%, for example) and most would argue that government employees should pay a percentage comparable to other employees. There are legitimate issues here and we would all benefit from a real discussion. Unfortunately, what we get instead is "solidarity" and an unwillingness to acknowledge some of the major structural problems in municipal, state, and federal budgets across the country. It’s great for political organizing and generating campaign contributions, but it’s also evasive – not unlike the shallow rhetoric of some of the Tea Party activists. By the way, city councillors, would you care to disclose all the details of your pension plans and health care contributions?
Order #20. That the City Council go on record seeking information about the nature of a delegation to Israel. Councillor Decker
It’s difficult to understand why Councillor Decker gets so worked up about Israel as evidenced by her statement that "This trip was designed to observe Israel’s ‘counter-terrorism strategies and tactics’, tactics which are associated with indefinite detention, illegal occupation, torture, lacking any constitutional guidance." There are neighboring countries where any "infidel" is not even permitted to set foot in the country and where women are, for all intents and purposes, enslaved and subject to "honor killings" and other unspeakable horrors. Mysteriously, no City Council Orders are drafted highlighting that reality.
Order #21. That the City Manager is requested to hire a consultant nationally recognized as an expert to assess the strengths and weaknesses of how Cambridge does economic development and propose actions for improvements. Councillor Cheung, Councillor Simmons and Councillor Decker
The main thrust of this Order is that "as part of the upcoming budget process, the City Manager be and hereby is requested to create a budget for an increased scale of economic development activity, including programs for the recruitment of job-creating companies to the city, support services for growing companies, and any other recommendations the aforementioned consultant may offer." The Order seems to suggest that Cambridge is somehow economically disadvantaged and that the situation is dire and in need of emergency intervention. Is this really the case? Most indications would seem to suggest otherwise.
Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair of the Economic Development, Training and Employment Committee for a public meeting held on Jan 25, 2011 to discuss reviewing ordinances detrimental to community goals.
The call of this meeting was a bit puzzling. The original phrasing was "to discuss current city ordinances that are hurting business growth," but this was changed to the more benign "to discuss reviewing ordinances detrimental to community goals". Nonetheless, virtually all of the suggestions presented at the meeting were about easing restrictions that might hinder business growth. Some of the ideas presented are quite good, but many of us have come to the realization that "streamlining" a process can just as easily lead to limiting the ability of neighbors to ensure peaceful coexistence with their commercial neighbors. For many of us, including those of us who live in a Business A-1 zone, this can have very personal consequences. – Robert Winters