Attack of the Killer Zoning Petitions – Highlights of the Aug 1, 2011 City Council agenda
There seems to be some kind of campaign afoot to flood the Cambridge City Council with zoning petitions. On the agenda for this coming Monday’s (Aug 1) Midsummer City Council meeting, there is one zoning petition facing a final vote and 7 new zoning petitions. In addition to a resubmittal by Chestnut Hill Realty of its "Workforce Housing" petition to mine their existing properties for additional rent, there are 6 other petitions coming primarily out of North Cambridge with many of the same signers on each of the petitions. They are the Runkel Petition, the Bagedonow Petition, the Bishop Petition, the Teague Petition, the Andrews Petition, and the de Rham Petition. We are definitely going to need scorecards for this.
Since this is the only meeting of the summer (the Council next meets on Sept 12), the agenda features 32 items from the City Manager, 88 Resolutions, 33 City Council Orders, and 8 Committee Reports. Perhaps the most entertaining of the City Council Orders is one from Councillor Cheung calling for a ban on bamboo. Pity the poor pandas. Alas, all this talk about eradicating Black Swallow-wort has now erupted into an all-out campaign against immigrant plants. What kind of Sanctuary City are we?!
Here are the items that drew my attention:
Manager’s Agenda #8. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Numbers 10-173, 10-176, 10-180, 10-181 and 10-183, regarding zoning mitigation.
This responds to a string of City Council Orders dealing with the matter of "community benefits", i.e. cash payments contributed by petitioners as part of a deal to get a zoning amendment or a special permit. This is, of course, a very slippery slope that could well ensure that significant increases in density will be permitted as long as the cash payment is sufficiently high. City staff have now drafted guidelines for this practice – necessary perhaps, but still highly questionable.
Manager’s Agenda #31. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the Planning Board recommendation on the zoning petition regarding the definition and regulation of a Public Bicycle-Sharing Service and Public Bicycle-Sharing Stations. [The Planning Board recommends the adoption of the proposed amendments to the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, in accordance with the language presented to the Board on July 26, 2011.]
Still unresolved in the discussions at the Planning Board and at the Ordinance Committee is if there will be any limitation on advertising on these bike stations. Also unresolved is whether nearby property owners will have any say in the placement of these stations on public sidewalks. Speaking personally, I don’t find this service particularly attractive. Owning your own bike is cheaper and you don’t have to worry about the "exponentially increasing" rate that users will have to pay if they keep the shared bike longer than a half-hour. Also, old bikes are cheap and not attractive to thieves. This service will undoubtedly be useful for visitors and for commuters who have insufficient room for a bike or who don’t want to deal with maintenance issues. It’s an overall positive program.
Manager’s Agenda #32. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the City entering into a ten year Cable Television Renewal License with Comcast, from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2021.
No comment here – just a bowing of the head as we passively accept another decade of The Evil Empire.
Unfinished Business #7. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel, Chair of the Ordinance Committee for a public hearing on May 5, 2011 for the purpose of considering proposed amendments submitted in response to City Council Order No.11 of Jan 24, 2011, in which the Council requested that Community Development Department (CDD) staff engage in a comprehensive review of Section 5.28.2, including the history of the use of the section for special permit applications for conversion of commercial and institutional uses to residential building, and the recent public conversations on this section of the Zoning Ordinance. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after June 20, 2011. Planning Board hearing held May 10, 2011. Petition expires Aug 3, 2011.
Committee Report #7. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel, Chair of the Ordinance Committee for a public meeting held on July 18, 2011 to continue to consider proposed amendments to Section 5.28.2 Conversion of Nonresidential Structures to Residential Use and Section 4.29 clarifying the allowance of additional uses as permissible under Section 5.28.2.
Marc Levy has a good writeup about this. The conflicting rhetoric surrounding this zoning proposal has run thick over the last several months. The bottom line is that unless this or some comparable amendment is made, the existing zoning will allow developers to significantly increase density as they repurpose old schools, churches, and other buildings into residential use. Then again, I suppose this City Council might gladly say Yes to density as long as the "community benefits package" is sufficiently large.
Then there are the 6 new zoning petitions – probably an all-time high for a single meeting. Click on the links and read the petitions. They are offered here without additional comment.
Appl. & Pet. #3. A zoning petition has been received from Laura Runkel, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Map by rezoning an area on the southern border to North Cambridge from its C1-A designation to residential C.
Appl. & Pet. #4. A zoning petition has been received from Chestnut Hill Realty, requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by creating a new section that would allow for the creation of rental apartment units in the basement levels of existing multifamily residential buildings in Residence C Districts within two tenths of a mile from Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge Street or a Red Line station and must be within 1200 feet of a shared car or rental car location.
Appl. & Pet. #5. A zoning petition has been received from Matthew Bagedonow, et al., requesting the City Council to amend section 5.24 Yards for Zoning District C-1 by adding 5.24.(4).
Appl. & Pet. #7. A zoning petition has been received from Julia Bishop, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by rezoning Special District 2 in North Cambridge to more closely reflect its Residence B base zoning.
Appl. & Pet. #10. A zoning petition has been received from Charles D. Teague, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by enabling enforcement of the already existing lighting restrictions.
Appl. & Pet. #11. A zoning petition has been received from Linda G. Andrews, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by restating the Inclusionary Housing Provisions.
Appl. & Pet. #12. A zoning petition has been received from Elizabeth M. de Rham, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by adjusting the existing ability of the Superintendent of Buildings to issue fines for violations of the Zoning Ordinance.
Also embedded among the Applications & Petitions is a relatively small item of personal interest:
Appl. & Pet. #6. An application was received from Dwelltime, requesting permission for a sign at the premises numbered 364 Broadway. Approval has been received from Inspectional Services, Department of Public Works, Community Development and abutters.
Communications #5. A communication was received from Robert Winters, 366 Broadway, regarding proposed signage for 364 Broadway over the public way. (Applications and Petitions #6)
I rarely submit communications or make comments at City Council meetings. This item, however, concerns the new café set to open soon next door to my home of the past 33 years. I believe they’ll be a great neighbor and the manager is a very likeable fellow, but they are asking for a sign that would project 4 feet out over the sidewalk on a small mixed residential/commercial block on Broadway that has no such signage. The abutters who gave their approval are the new condo owners behind this property who were given private parking on the lot. Most of my neighbors feel that a standard sign mounted flat on the storefront will serve just as well without the unnecessary visual clutter or other unintended consequences. I invite you to read my communication linked above. The Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association has expressed a similar point of view regarding the proposed signage.
Resolution #40. Congratulations to Brian Corr on his appointment as Executive Secretary of the Police Review and Advisory Board. Councillor Simmons
Brian Corr is a good man and an excellent person to head this or any number of other City departments. That said, a review of the many City boards & commissions (with an eye toward consolidation) is overdue. A little leadership from the City Council would help in this regard.
There’s also this triplet of technology-related orders from Councillor Decker, plus an additional one from Councillor Kelley:
Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council and the Finance Committee on a Technology Plan for the city. Councillor Decker
Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on what would be the advantage of creating a research and development office for technology and to provide a timeline for creation of this office, similar to the Urban Mechanics Department in Boston. Councillor Decker
Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to review Seeclickfix or any other innovative technology that would connect the city to social media and interactive technology that would engage the public in government. Councillor Decker
Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the relevant City agencies and report back to the City Council on the feasibility of the City being able to create a system where all official documents such as building permits, variance applications, License Commission inspection results and other similar information could be tied to a unique property identifier, such as an address, and be available to the general public when searched by that unique identifier. Councillor Kelley
I personally like to do most transactions online and I definitely appreciate any efforts to make simpler any research needs, especially regarding permits, proposals, and the history of specific properties. Cambridge organizes some things very well on its website (most notable access to documents on the Community Development Department site), but comes up very short in many other ways. I’ve recently learned how easy it can be for a property owner to slip a project almost invisibly through the City’s regulatory and review processes before neighbors even know what’s happening. None of this has to be confrontational. Easy access to clear information can help to prevent conflict and increase cooperation of all parties.
Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to direct the appropriate department heads to look into the need for a bamboo ordinance that either bans the planting of bamboo outright or somehow holds the owner of the bamboo accountable if a bamboo infestation were to occur. Councillor Cheung
Maybe bamboo is an evil menace, but I doubt it. I have a neighbor with bamboo growing in front of her house. It has never crept up on me nor affected my dreams. It never mocks me. It does not threaten me as I pass by. It occasionally waves to me in a kind gesture. We enjoy our immigrant neighbor. Please, councillor, let our bamboo neighbors live in peace.
Speaking of international relations, Councillor Cheung wants Cambridge to join the UN Global Compact Cities program.
Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to direct the appropriate department heads to look into the feasibility and possible benefits of Cambridge participating in the UN Global Compact Cities program and report back to the City Council with a course of action. Councillor Cheung
I was a bit curious about this, so I looked it up. This program is founded on "10 principles" – not unlike those of the Green Party. I’m sure we Cantabrigians will be able to adhere to these guiding principles, though I hardly understand the need to take such a catechismal approach to City governance. Here are the 10 Principles to which we must adhere:
- Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and
- make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.
- Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
- the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour;
- the effective abolition of child labour; and
- the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
- Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges;
- undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility;
- encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.
- Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery.
Order #10. That the City Council go on record opposing the selling of naming rights for MBTA Stations. Councillor Toomey
Who would possibly object to renaming Harvard Square Station as Abercrombie & Fitch Station?
Order #11. That the City Council go on record opposing the MassDOT plans to use the Grand Junction for Commuter Rail traffic. Councillor Toomey
There seems to be a bit of a split developing between those councillors who clearly oppose the Tim Murray Express and those who choose to take a "wait and see" approach as the train comes barrelling down the tracks. I just can’t wait to hear the nuanced statements at the East Cambridge Candidates Night this fall.
Order #13. That the City Council go on record as urging the Governor, the Cambridge Legislative Delegation and the Registrar of Motor Vehicles to establish appropriate administrative procedures to back up police officers who write tickets to bicyclists committing moving violations. Vice Mayor Davis
I can’t argue with the logic of this Order, but let’s not forget all those motor vehicles blowing through crosswalks, drivers parking their cars 2-3 feet from the curb (which is NEVER ticketed), drivers flinging their doors open into cyclists, and other magnificent practices that endanger those not enclosed in steel cages.
Order #19. That the City Council go on record in opposition to closing the Inman Square Post Office or any other Post Office in the City of Cambridge. Councillor Toomey
It goes without saying that usage of postal branches has decreased dramatically in recent years along with the rise in e-mail and online transactions. It is inevitable that some branches will have to close. I will not agree with Councillor Toomey until someone can quantitatively show that these branches are really necessary. Contracting with a few local businesses for a postal counter, if necessary, could provide all the convenience people really need. It might even be good for business.
Order #23. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate departments to investigate the lack of a bike lane and the unsafe car traffic on Blanchard Road. Councillor Cheung
For the thousandth time – a bike lane does not necessarily ensure the safety of cyclists. It may enhance the perception of safety, but it will not in and of itself make for safer cycling.
Order #26. That the City Manager is requested to ask the relevant City departments to examine all street poles on the section of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter Squares and clean and remove flyers, notices, graffiti and other debris from these poles. Councillor Seidel
Having recently spent several days personally doing this work in the Central Square area, I would suggest that we not focus just on Mass. Ave. between Harvard and Porter Squares. One idea that I would support would be to require abutting property owners to keep their stretch of the street free of graffiti, flyers, and other debris on poles, parking meters, etc. It’s very easy to do if you’re only responsible for your short stretch of the street. We require property owners to shovel their sidewalks. Is it too much to ask that they clear this debris? I already do it and I can testify that it’s not all that hard to do. Perhaps property owners could start by doing this voluntarily.
Order #27. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department and other relevant City staff to examine the relationship between job creation in the City and available housing stock in Cambridge over the past two decades. Councillor Seidel
If you read this Order, you might see that it’s related to the City Manager’s response concerning mitigation and "community benefits". This seems like a precursor to an effort to require developers to contribute money toward City housing programs.
Order #28. That the City Council requests an update by its relevant members as to the status of a committee hearing on security cameras. Councillor Kelley
Quick! Call Nancy Murray and the ACLU! As Councillor Toomey has repeatedly pointed out, most people are caught on video cameras multiple times every day. This should be a non-issue and these cameras definitely can enhance the personal safety of residents.
Order #32. That the City Manager is requested to report on the rationale behind why there are so many "No Turn on Red" signs in the city at intersections where residents would otherwise feel safe to turn right on red. Councillor Cheung
Ask Traffic & Parking Czar Sue Clippinger. If you disagree with all the unnecessary restrictions, you can always file an appeal with the appointed Traffic Board mandated under state law. The Traffic Board could overrule the Czar. Oh, yeah, the Traffic Board has not been appointed for a couple of decades now. If you disagree with the regulations, tough luck!
Order #33. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate departments to investigate Styrofoam recycling options and report back to the City Council with recommendations. Councillor Cheung
If you can find a cost-effective way to transport this substance (which is mostly air) to a reprocessing facility, I’m all ears. Until then, the environmental cost of transporting Styrofoam will exceed any environmental benefits. That’s the issue.
Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor E. Denise Simmons, Chair of the Civic Unity Committee for a public meeting held on May 3, 2011 for the purpose of continuing discussion with the Civic Unity Advisory Committee of the recommendations of the Cambridge Review Committee report.
I attended this meeting, but I will refrain from any detailed comments because of the inevitable repercussions of doing so. I will say, however, that rarely does one encounter such a group of meeting participants whose minds are as made up in advance as those I saw at this meeting. Start with the conclusions you want, and then discuss the justification for those conclusions.
The annual Midsummer meeting is always a long one. This one could be especially long if they have to spend a long time hashing out changes to the Section 5.28.2 zoning amendment. It’s also a municipal election year and the incumbents often like to use the City Council meetings to practice their stump speeches. – Robert Winters