Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 21, 2012

Passing the Budget and the Shape of Things to Come – May 21, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

Passing the Budget and the Shape of Things to Come – May 21, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

The FY2013 General Fund Budget [$454,384,460], the Water Fund Budget [$14,144,080], and the Public Investment Fund [$21,277,065] will be approved this week along with final votes on 5 loan authorization orders totaling $17,442,670 to cover various public works projects. That’s the Big Stuff. In addition, there are a few other items sure to attract some interest from the councillors and the public.

Manager’s Agenda #4. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-61, regarding a report on implementing a Buy Local policy.

To the Honorable, the City Council:

In response to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-61, regarding a report on implementing a Buy Local policy, please be advised that the procurement of goods and services is controlled by State Law, MGL Chapter 30B. This statute does not permit the granting of preferential treatment for businesses in local cities or towns.

I am extremely skeptical that the Legislature would enact an amendment authorizing such a preference due to the potential "balkanization" impact.

Very truly yours, Robert W. Healy, City Manager

There has been a fair amount of agitation from several councillors to adopt some sort of local preference for City purchasing. They’re not going to like this response and will likely quote statutes from other states to justify the worthiness of the concept of giving local preference. This, however, is Massachusetts and Chapter 30B is fairly restrictive in what cities and towns can and cannot do when it comes to purchasing and awarding contracts for goods and services. The Manager’s statement about "balkanization" could just as easily be applied to periodic efforts to require residency for City jobs. The taxicab industry, on the other hand, is solidly located in the Balkans. A Boston cab picking up a fare in Cambridge (or vice-versa) could spark all-out war.

Charter Right #2. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the Acting City Solicitor to prepare draft language to the Municipal Code that will increase the fines for violations to the dog ordinance and refer said language to the Ordinance Committee. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Kelley on Order Number Thirteen of May 14, 2012.]

This was Councillor vanBeuzekom’s late Order from last week that was appropriately delayed by Councillor Kelley. The Dog Lobby can both bark and bite and there’s a good chance that some of them will come barking in opposition at this meeting. Seriously, proposing changes in fees via a late Order with no public notice is very bad move.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Law Department and report back to the City Council on the current status of the Inlet Bridge and steps the City can take to ensure that agreements with the Commonwealth are upheld.   Councillor Toomey

I have a place on my shelf at home for City reports and plans for projects that never materialized. There’s the well known stuff like the Inner Belt, but there’s also the rapidly disappearing "Urban Ring" plan for public transportation, the pedestrian walkway that was supposed to be suspended from the back of the Museum of Science garage to reconnect the fabulous walkway behind the Museum that looks out over the Charles, and perhaps now the less consequential "Inlet Bridge" designed to create another means of access to the new NorthPoint Park and the brand-new bridge over the RR tracks to Charlestown. Maybe it’s time we pulled some of these plans off the shelf and put them back on the table for a fresh look.

Elsewhere in town, the newly reconstituted Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) will have their first meeting Monday evening at the same time as the City Council meeting. Up at Harvard, if you haven’t yet heard of the plans for the space between Harvard Yard and the Science Center above the tunnel, you may want to check it out. Major rejuvenation of the tunnel structure will commence after Commencement. The redesigned plaza will lose most of its greenery but promises to become a significant new civic space – not just for Harvard.

Meanwhile, we are getting close to the day when the Kendall and Central Square Goody/Clancy advisory committees communicate their thoughts on their respective Squares. It appears that the Harvest Market in Central Square will soon disappear or have to relocate into another (smaller) space. Mega-profit plans for the Naggar property, well-wrapped in red ribbons from political friends, are moving forward hungrily awaiting zoning changes to allow significantly greater density. Densification is the latest craze – quite the contrast from the wave of downzoning proposals that were common a decade or so ago. Further down the street, proposed plans for a 165 foot residential tower next to the Lafayette Square fire station and another 145 foot tall proposed building in the 300 block of Mass. Ave. are receiving their first taste of pushback from a wary public. – Robert Winters

May 18, 2012

Reports on December, 2011 fatal truck/bicycle collision

(Note: this post has been updated since first placed online, because readers have asked for images to clarify the location and details of the incident. Also see comments following this post. Review of the reports, images and comments has led to some changes in the post, as well.)


The MIT student newspaper, The Tech, has obtained and posted copies of some of the police reports on the truck-bicycle crash on Dec. 27, 2011 which resulted in the death of an MIT graduate, Phyo Kyaw, ’10. I comment here on the Tech story about the crash, and the police reports it links to.

I study bicycle crashes — it’s part of what I do in my profession, but I offer the following comments for free as, I hope, some small service to the MIT community and to the public at large. [Disclaimer, if needed: I am an MIT alumnus. That is, to some extent, why I take the trouble to write this.]

To sum up what I’m about to say, there’s enough blame to go around. Also, the crash investigation failed to look into a number of significant issues or to frame the legal issues accurately. It shows considerable bias toward the truck driver. The Tech‘s reporting missed on a few points. Specifics follow.

The Google satellite view below shows the intersection. The truck was turning the same corner as the tourist “trolley” bus with the green roof shown in the satellite view. This view is from the west, and so north is at the left in the image.

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Note that north is to the left in this image.

(Cambridge Civic Forum’s blog software won’t let me embed the actual Google view, in which you could scroll around, look from other angles, zoom in and out etc. but you can link to the Google view here.

Now we add Kyaw on his bicycle. He may have been traveling toward Massachusetts Avenue on Vassar Street and stuck the truck head-on, as shown by the arrow coming down diagonally from the upper left in the image below — or traveling toward MIT on the sidewalk of Massachusetts Avenue, as indicated by the arrow at the lower left — or crossing the street from MIT, but not in the crosswalk, as indicated by the arrow pointing straight down from the top. The semitrailer truck crossed the centerline of Vassar Street as it turned. The crash occurred at night, in the rain.

Update: surveillance video excludes Kyaw’s approaching on the sidewalk of Massachusetts Avenue. Damage to the bicycle confirms that it was struck on its left side. Kyaw most probably then was traveling westbound in the eastbound bike lane on Vassar Street and cut across the street in front of the truck.

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, indicating possible direction of travel of bicycle

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, indicating possible direction of travel of bicycle

Here is the intersection seen in a Google Street View from the direction of the approaching truck. The three arrows, again, show directions from which Kyaw on his bicycle may have been approaching the intersection. (Update: but not the leftmost arrow in the photo.)

Intersection seen from direction of truck, with arrows indicaing possible approaches of Kyaw on bicycle.

Intersection seen from direction of truck, with arrows indicaing possible approaches of Kyaw on bicycle.

You may also view this Street View in Google Maps.

Here is the Massachusetts State Police diagram showing the final location of the truck, and of Kyaw (to the left of the trailer, on Vassar Street).

Massachusetts State Police diagram

Massachusetts State Police diagram

As also described in the Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction report, the bicycle contacted the truck’s front bumper and came to rest under the dual tandem left rear wheels of the cab. It evidently was dragged quite a distance farther than Kyaw. The report indicates that Kyaw was not riding in the bicycle lane on Vassar Street (also assuming that he was traveling head-on toward the truck) — but does not indicate that the truck had crossed the centerline of that street. There is similar bias later in the report. As described in The Tech:

“The possible cause of this collision was the encroachment of the bicycle into the path of the turning tractor trailer unit,” the [Massachusetts State Police vehicle accident examination] report [page 6] said.

Encroachment of the bicyclist into the path of the truck when the bicyclist was described as on the right side of the street and the truck partially on the left side? Encroachment means that a vehicle is where it isn’t supposed to be. The bicyclist was encroaching, then?

Different considerations apply if Kyaw was not approaching the truck head-on; I’ll discuss them later.

The reconstruction report goes on to say that

…roadway design and engineering did not precipitate or contribute to this collision.

Nonsense. Though they are not mentioned in any of the reports, a bulbout and street furniture on the corner made the turn difficult for the truck, forcing it across the centerline of Vassar street. The truck driver may have been looking in his right rear side-view mirror to make sure that the rear of the trailer cleared the obstacles.

The Tech goes on to say:

Kyaw’s bicycle’s final position was not in a bicycle lane, the report said. Local laws do not require bicycles to travel in the bicycle lane, and it is common for left-turning bicycles to travel in Vassar’s left lane.

The observation about the law is correct other than that it’s state law, but the last part of the quote is incorrect and misleading. Assuming that Kyaw was traveling along Vassar Street toward the truck, he was in the left-turn lane. Bicyclists must merge out of the bike lane to go straight or turn left without conflict with through and right-turning traffic, or with traffic stopped at the curb. I happen to have a Web page with photos of this very intersection illustrating that point.

Again, however, Kyaw may not have been traveling head-on toward the truck. Then the bike lane is irrelevant, because he then would have been crossing the street, and it is impossible to cross the street while remaining in a bike lane.

The Tech also stated that

The reconstruction report cited contributing factors of “moderate to heavy rainfall,” Kyaw’s nonreflective clothing, Kyaw’s presumed high speed, and the lack of a front light on the bicycle.

A headlight is required by law. The lack of a headlight makes sense as a contributing factor, assuming that the truck driver was looking in Kyaw’s direction, placing some of the responsibility for the crash on Kyaw. Reflective clothing is not required by law. A reflector or reflective material only works if headlights are aimed at it. Rain also may have affected Kyaw’s ability to see. Eyeglasses were found at the scene, and when beaded with rain, they spread glare. Kyaw, like the truck driver, may not have been looking ahead. To merge toward the center of the street, Kyaw should have looked back over his shoulder for overtaking traffic.

The Tech continues:

Kyaw was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, Cambridge Police report #5 said. The bicycle was “not equipped with a front-facing light,” and its front white reflector was partially obstructed by brake and shifter cables, the report said. Massachusetts law requires bicycles to have a front light at night.

Cables obstructing a reflector don’t seem a likely explanation. They’re too narrow unless the reflector is very small. How the position of the cables could be determined from a bicycle that had gone under a truck also isn’t at all clear. The reflector may, however, have been obstructed by Kyaw’s hand, or its reflective properties compromised by dirt or beads of rainwater. The truck’s headlights were in any case not aimed at Kyaw to light up the reflector as the truck rounded the corner. A large truck’s cab is so high above the headlights that a bicycle’s reflectors barely work if the bicycle is close, see explanation here. A vehicle ahead of Kyaw, or car headlight glare behind him, made worse by a wet or fogged windshield on the truck, may have concealed him.

And, again, if Kyaw was not headed toward the truck head-on, the front reflector is irrelevant.

Kyaw’s 21-speed bicycle appeared to be set at the gear combination that was as hard to pedal in as possible, indicating travel “at a fairly fast pace,” police report #5 said. On the other hand, if Kyaw was intending to turn left and was approaching a red light, it is also possible he was slowing down, or had even come to a stop.

The fifth Cambridge police report includes this statement but also indicates that the shifter for the rear derailleur was in the second-highest position, not the highest.

The discussion of Kyaw’s speed would have benefited from interviews with people who knew his riding style, if they could be found. There are many bicyclists who ride in high gear at a low cadence. On the other hand, he might have been strong and fast, yet still foolish enough to ride at night without a headlight. In this case, he would have been heading into an intersection with a major street against a red light at high speed. I consider that unlikely.

Still, all this brings up the issue of educating bicyclists. I’ve advocated for decades that institutions of higher education provide bicycling instruction to incoming students. Avoiding death or brain injury to even one student every couple of years would more than pay for this. Think of the wasted educational investment, and the loss of future alumni contributions. But I digress.

According to Cambridge Police Report #1, the truck driver “stated that he was traveling westbound on Mass. Ave. when he attempted to take a right turn onto Vassar St. [The driver] said that the light was green and his right directional light was on. Moments later, [he] said he felt the impact of something hitting his truck. He stopped and got out of his truck to investigate and observed that he had been in a collision with a bicycle.

This doesn’t indicate which way the driver was looking — not a very informative statement from him. Did the police ask?

According to the reconstruction report, MIT provided video that showed the truck did activate its right directional signal.

(As indicated in a comment with the article, the video did not show Vassar Street, so it didn’t show Kyaw’s approach).

The police reports say little about the condition of the truck other than that its brakes worked. Was its windshield clean? Were all the mirrors in good working order? Were the headlights aligned? Was the driver’s view ahead obstructed? Etc.

The Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction report says almost nothing about the bicycle, but page 2 of the fifth Cambridge report describes the locations of scrapes and other damage to the bicycle. These are consistent with the truck’s striking the left side of the bicycle and dragging it on its right side. The front fork was bent to the right, suggesting that the bicycle was struck from the left — except that the front fork and wheel were crushed under the wheels at the rear of the truck’s cab. as shown in the still below from a television news report. I have labeled the locations of the bicycle — the saddle is facing the camera; of a shoe; and of where Kyaw lay following the crash. He had been removed by the time the video was shot.

Locations of bicycle, shoe and Kyaw following crash

Locations of bicycle, shoe and Kyaw following crash

The reports are incomplete in describing the bicycle. Of most importance, what was the condition of the bicycle’s brakes? Even when a bicycle has been damaged by going under a truck, it is possible to examine brake shoe and rim wear, and to determine whether a brake cable had frayed and parted. It is often possible to operate the brakes and determine whether they were in good adjustment.

The bicycle was an under $200 model sold through big-box stores, which are notorious for poor assembly of bicycles — here is the best description of it I could find online. It does have aluminum rims, which brake much better than steel rims in the wet, but how well was the bicycle maintained, and were the brakes working properly at the time of the crash? The police reports say nothing about this.

Though the Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction report and vehicle inspection report really ought to be definitive on the topics they are supposed to cover, police reports which have not yet been released may possibly fill in some of the missing information.

I hope that my comments have been informative and helpful. — John S. Allen

(Update: please click on the link below to read Paul Schimek’s comments and my replies to them. Paul has suggested that Kyaw was approaching on the Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk. Based on further review of damage to the bicycle, I think that Kyaw may have been cutting the corner from right to left across the path of the truck.)

May 14, 2012

Some observations for consideration regarding the Forest City proposal

Filed under: Central Square,planning — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 1:35 pm

Some observations for consideration regarding the Forest City proposal
to extend the Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District

written by Bob Simha, May 14, 2012

The rezoning proposed by Forest City for property owned by MIT and Zevart M. Hollisian, trustee of the Garabed Hollisiian Trust raises a number of issues:

The Forest City proposal would build on a little over one half of the "All Asia" block (50,000 sq. ft.). A 221,000 square foot laboratory building of which 13,000 square feet on the ground floor would be for 3-5 retail stores. The building would be 165 feet in height, almost twice the height of the adjacent Novartis (former Necco Building). It would leave undeveloped the remaining half of the block which is occupied by an MIT dormitory, a gas station, a small luncheonette, a one story fabrication shop and a small apartment house. Forest City has stated that it could not secure agreements from the remaining landowners in order to propose the redevelopment of the entire block.

The development of only a portion of the all Asia Block at a new density and height would result in establishing new and higher values for the remaining diverse properties, lowering the possibility that the remainder of the block would be developed in the near future and would run the risk of requests for even higher densities in the future when some developer, most likely MITIMCO, succeeds in assembling the remaining parcels that it does not own in the block.

The proposal also suggests that the construction of a 145 foot high, 14 story, 130 unit rental housing tower would respond to community demands for more housing in Central Square and is in some way a quid pro quo for the ability to build additional commercial space on Mass. Avenue. This proposal eliminates one of three open spaces in the University Park project and claims that the introduction of a smaller landscaped entry way at Mass. Ave. would suffice to balance the loss of existing open space.

There were no community benefits presented by Forest City/MIT in their proposal. All of the developments proposed are revenue generators for Forest City and their development partners. The community is entitled to demand compensation for this additional private development.

Some thoughts for consideration:

The project exceeds the height of all the adjacent buildings most prominently the Novartis/Necco building and even with set backs will create and overwhelming presence on Mass. Avenue when combined with the new Novartis Building being built on land leased from MIT on the east side of Mass. Ave. The character of Mass. Ave. will become quite overbearing. The height of the building should not exceed the Necco Building and should adhere to the current restriction of 80 feet. The current design shows a lobby/corridor through the building connecting Mass. Ave. and Green Street. The developer should be encouraged to develop a ground floor plan that allows for a gallery/arcade of shops that line a passage between these streets thereby offering more smaller retail opportunities to smaller merchants and at the same time encourage more people to use this path to get to the food market and the existing garage. This may generate more revenue for the developer and reduce the amount of dead common area in the evening.

The treatment of Blanche Street as the site for loading docks for this new development will mean that both sides of Blanche will be dominated by large loading docks and be relatively inhospitable to pedestrians…as it is now.

The construction of both the Novartis and the proposed Forest City project would add almost 3/4 of a million square feet to an area whose transportation infrastructure capacity is already overtaxed.

The height of the proposed residential building was not placed in the context of Central Square. We were not told how the height of this building (14 stories) compares to the Cambridge housing authority building between Green and Franklin Street. No shadow studies were presented. The proposal did not point out the important visual impact that this tower building would have on creating an identifying image for Central Square. Visible from both the Mass. Avenue and the Main Street entrances to the city, the quality of the architecture for this building, if it goes forward, should require a much higher standard of design and the developer should be encouraged to retain design services of the same level of quality that Novartis used in the design of its nearby building.

The housing is presented as a response to the community expression of housing needs and as a pseudo gift. One of the goals for more housing in both the Red Ribbon and Goody/Clancy Central Square report was to provide housing that would be accessible to people who work in the Central Square area and any new housing should offer more affordable ownership opportunities. This proposal appears to be aimed at the high rent market that Forest City serves at their developments at Sidney and Landsdowne Street.

The community may prefer to have more ownership rather than rental housing to help introduce more people with a longer term interest in the square. Coop or condo housing on leased land is a very common practice in many American cities and we have such a project on Pleasant Street in Cambridge developed by Harvard University and occupied by both University and non university people. This type of development does not carry land cost in the unit sales and results in lower prices for housing units.

In addition, there are some outstanding needs in the adjacent neighborhoods that could be satisfied in exchange for any additional development potential that is awarded. For example ,the additional FAR they have requested might be dependent on Forest City and MIT completing the assembly of land on Pacific Street Park between Brookline and Sidney in order to complete the Pacific Street park . If the petitioners assemble and donate that land to complete the park the city could permit them to transfer the development rights to a new building ..This is how the existing park was developed…MIT contributed the land to the park in exchange for the transfer of development rights which were used in the development of the Grad Housing on Pacific and Sidney Streets…The same principal could be applied to the Forest City proposal.

Another point that should be raised concerns the displacement of people now using the park space that is proposed for the new housing project. Where will they go? What will be the impact on other parts of Lafayette and Central Square? More people, more need for active and passive open space. – Bob Simha

See also:
Comments on current Forest City zoning petition – by Bob Simha (June 11, 2012)

May 13, 2012

Ducks in a Row – May 14, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,cycling — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 11:43 pm

Ducks in a Row – May 14, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

This week’s meeting is in many ways the set-up meeting preceding next week’s meeting at which the FY2013 Budget will be approved. There are 5 loan authorization orders On the Table totaling $17,442,670 to cover various public works projects that will be voted this week to get all the ducks in a row. Beyond this, it’s all miscellany.

Order #3. That the Mayor is requested to confer with relevant City staff and City Councillors and report back to the City Council on the status of the process for filling the City Manager and City Clerk positions.   Councillor Kelley

Orders like this one make me laugh. Councillor Kelley is the house obstructionist who always votes in the most contrary way in all matters relating to the City Manager. This has earned him the privilege of playing no role whatsoever in the eventual selection of the next city manager (he may have company). If any other councillor offers a substitute order, it will likely eclipse Kelley’s order – even if the substitution is just a punctuation change. In matters of consequence, especially in matters such as this, I would expect the process to be begin with an Order from any of 6 councillors – a list that does not include Councillor Kelley.

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Conservation Commission to provide an explanation of how the waiting lists for community garden plots work.   Councillor Cheung

This reminds me of the thoroughly unenlightened mandate laid down several years ago by the Community Development Department regarding the assignment of plots in community gardens. Rather than maintaining an organic mix of new gardeners and long-time gardeners, they proposed evicting any gardener who had tilled their plot for more than three years. It was disappointing to have the Community Development Department ripping the community out of community gardening. In contrast, the Conservation Commission staff generally kept a more balanced approach and I hope this is still the case. The best community gardens in Cambridge are generally the ones in which the gardeners manage their own affairs with adequate City support and minimal intrusion. They have always encouraged sufficient turnover for new gardeners.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested work with the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department and report back on a proposed plan of action to improve safety in area of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street.   Councillor Cheung

I pass by this intersection often and the white bicycle marking where Phyo Kyaw was killed in late December is a chilling reminder of how suddenly a life can end. There are rumors circulating about the circumstances of that death, but the matter is now with the District Attorney and details are hard to come by. The intersection is rated as one of the city’s most dangerous, but this is as much a function of the volume of traffic – motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian – as it is about any design flaw. Indeed, it’s just an ordinary intersection of two roads. It would be interesting to see a comparison between the frequency of accidents before and after the City "improved" Vassar Street with its absurd "cycle track" design and narrowing of the roadway. For those of us who bicycle in the road rather than on the sidewalk, that was no improvement. The City is planning to "improve" Western Avenue in a similar manner beginning later this year. – Robert Winters

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