Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 30, 2014

Another Pause Button for the Plastic Bag Bill

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,elections,planning — Sharanya Srinivasan @ 3:39 pm

It seems that the fate of plastic bags in the City of Cambridge is suspended in limbo. Multiple iterations of a Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance have been ferried in and out of City Council hearings since 2007, but without a resounding “Aye!” After successive rounds of discussion and drafting, then-councilor Marjorie Decker introduced her “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance” in July 2013. This required retail establishments to distribute either recyclable paper bags or reusable checkout bags to customers. The law was never called to vote because of Decker’s departure to the state legislature, and the arrival of four newly elected councilors. So Decker’s ordinance went back on the revision merry-go-round, resulting in an amended version of the 2013 bill titled the “Checkout Bag Ordinance of the City of Cambridge”. The revised amendment package, proposed on October 27, was placed before the council in December 2014. However, a scattered consensus and interpolation of additional amendments has resulted in the postponement of a vote to February 2015.

In its conception, the plastic bag bill functions to counteract the “single use, throwaway” culture of city life, which contributes to global climate change, and degradation of the natural environment through littering and waste production. Both versions of the ordinance promote the distribution of recyclable or reusable bags by retail establishments in Cambridge. So, why does the plastic bag issue keep getting recycled in hearings? One reason is the discordant opinions on the severity of the bill. Decker’s original version was undoubtedly more stringent in its enforcement. It defined “recyclable paper bag” as a 100% recyclable bag that contains at least 40% post-consumer recycled content; the amended version simply defined it as a 100% recyclable bag, and also permitted the usage of compostable plastic bags. The revised Checkout Bag Ordinance also permits the city’s Public Works Commissioner exemption powers under circumstances of “undue hardship” to retailers, for up to 2 years. In contrast, Decker’s 2013 ordinance only granted 6 month exemptions. Given that the plastic bag restrictions are broadly imposed upon retail establishments, including restaurants, pharmacies and grocery stores, thus extending the regulatory reach of the bill, dissent on the bill’s severity is unsurprising. Additionally, new amendments continue to facilitate debate, and by extension, indecision! New addenda proposed in the December 2014 hearing include an amendment to exempt church events from the regulations and to establish an oversight committee for businesses to directly appeal restrictions.

The newer Checkout Bag Ordinance is more balanced, and more likely to appeal to the greater Cambridge community. More importantly, tweaks and revisions can be identified in a more targeted and effective manner once the ordinance has been passed by the council. The plastic bag ordinance has been tethered in legislative limbo for long enough. Hopefully, it will be brought to reality in 2015.

December 15, 2014

Closing Out the Year – Dec 15, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 2:09 pm

Closing Out the Year – Dec 15, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

New Year Ahead!This will be the last City Council meeting for the year. Here are a few items that piqued my interest:

Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following persons as members of the Board of Zoning Appeal, effective Dec 15, 2014:
Reappointments: Thomas Scott, Douglas Myers, Slater W. Anderson, Andrea A. Hickey
New Appointments: George Best, Jim Monteverde, Alison Hammer

The rejuvenation of the City’s boards and commissions continues. The application deadlines for several other boards expired recently and we should see additional appointments with the new year. It’s worth noting that there are other current opportunities for citizen involvement, including the new Participatory Budget Pilot Program. Next year will also bring out lots of participants in the Citywide Comprehensive Planning process. Next year will also be a municipal election year, so if you have ever considered candidacy, this is probably the time to start thinking more seriously about it.

Manager’s Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the Teague, et al Zoning Petition.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan and Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Nov 12, 2014 to discuss the zoning petition filed by Charles D. Teague, et al. to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance to clarify the existing ordinance so that said ordinance can be enforced: to (1) align the zoning amendment expiration date in the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance to be the same as state law; (2) align the Special Permit criteria with adjudicated state law; and (3) require that the master plan be followed whereas following the master plan is optional under state law.

There were three parts to this petition. The first part called for a technical correction in the expiration dates for zoning petitions and was noncontroversial – a simple correction that the City Council should have addressed more than a year ago when they were first alerted to the discrepancy by the City Solicitor. The Planning Board endorsed this correction. The second and third parts of the petition were soundly rejected by the Planning Board for a variety of reasons and presumably the City Council will see things similarly. Additional comments may be found here. Mr. Teague is becoming something of a serial petitioner who generates far more heat than light.

Manager’s Agenda #4. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the results of the bi-annual City of Cambridge Citizen Telephone Survey for 2014.

As the Manager’s communication notes: "Affordable housing/housing was reported as the ‘single most important issue facing the City of Cambridge today’ by 18% of respondents in this year’s survey. This is up from 8% in 2012 and replaces education (10%) as the most important issue identified. Traffic/bikes, a new issue this year, was also identified as the ‘most important issue’ by 10% of survey respondents. Other new issues raised in the 2014 survey include development/overdevelopment (3%), construction (2%), climate change (2%), and parking (1%)."

Statistical surveys are not always so easy to interpret, but one thing I’ve always noted in these bi-annual surveys is the disconnect between the priorities of the activist community and the priorities of the residents at large. A big challenge as we enter into the Citywide Comprehensive Planning process will be to promote participation by people representing the whole city and not just those who have the spare time (and the fervor) to go to meetings. It’s also very likely that priorities are not uniform across the city. In some locations traffic congestion will be a far greater issue than the affordability of housing, while in other locations the opposite will be the case. The activists will promote the view that the city is going to hell in a handbasket yet the surveys consistently indicate general satisfaction. So it goes.

Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the revised ordinance titled "Checkout Bag Ordinance", the related regulations and application for exemption. [Attachments]

Unfinished Business #10. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee for a public hearing held on Dec 19, 2013 to conduct a public hearing on an amendment to the Municipal Code in Chapter 8.67 entitled relating to Plastic Bag Reduction. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Feb 24, 2014.

Communications & Reports #1. A communication was received from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone regarding the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance.

Councillor Carlone has expressed interest in having this matter voted at this meeting. Several points are worth noting. First, a significant number of Cambridge residents do most of their shopping outside of Cambridge due to access and affordability (can you say "Market Basket") , so a City ordinance will likely have limited effect. Second, it’s so simple for people to bring their own durable bags for their regular shopping and it’s bewildering that many people continue to come home with unnecessary plastic bags. Third, there are differences between the originally proposed "Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance" and the modified "Checkout Bag Ordinance" with related regulations forwarded by City staff. On balance, the latter is the preferred alternative. Above all, there should have been (and hopefully soon will be) a lot more promotion of reusable bags in addition to the enactment of prohibitions and penalties.

Manager’s Agenda #12. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the Final Landmark Designation Report for the C.F. Hathaway & Sons Bakery at 15-33 Richdale Avenue, received from Executive Director of the Historical Commission Charles Sullivan.

I’ll simply once again express my gratitude to the Cambridge Historical Commission for all their research and excellent publications. They’re all keepers.

Manager’s Agenda #17. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to an update on the Foundry Building process, including the City’s plans to collaborate with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (the "CRA") to redevelop the Foundry building in a way that meets the vision and objectives expressed by the City Council and the community.

It’s been interesting witnessing the dynamic between the practical and financial necessities of carrying out a project like this and the desires of interested parties to gain some measure of control. In a way it’s like a microcosm of the difference between managed government and highly politicized government. All things considered, I’ll take the former.

Resolution #2. The Cambridge City Council go on record commending the STEAM Working Group, the STEAM Summit Steering Committee, and the STEAM Summit presenters and thanking all of the attendees for supporting the Economic Development & University Relations and the Neighborhood & Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts & Celebrations committees’ initiative to take actionable steps toward creating a better, more prosperous future for learners of all ages.   Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor Mazen

While I applaud the effort, especially the sincere desires of Vice Mayor Benzan for whom this has consistently been a high priority, as an educator I find myself somewhat skeptical of the outcomes. I have seen so many iterations of "the next big thing" in education – the New Math, technology in the classroom, a parade of new curriculum promising to cure all ills, differentiated instruction, flipped classrooms and more. In the end it will always come down to the personal connection between teachers and students. In some respects this latest initiative is reminiscent of the days of trade schools and "manual training" – what was old is new again. I really do hope that great things come of this latest installment, especially insofar as there’s such a pressing need to connect all young residents to the economic opportunities necessary for social mobility that are available locally. [Did that sound too lofty coming from me?] In any case, good luck!

If there’s one thing I wish would have happened it would be to have a collaboration between mathematics people from all levels of education in Cambridge (elementary schools through Harvard and MIT) getting together to develop a comprehensive view and plan to make the greatest impact outside of the context of City Council subcommittees. Perhaps there are still some opportunities for such a collaboration.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to initiate a program to deploy body cameras for police.   Councillor Cheung

Order #2. That the Civic Unity Committee schedule a meeting to discuss the local impact and ramifications of these recent events upon Cambridge and the City Manager is requested to ensure that the appropriate City personnel are available to participate in this meeting, and to ensure that proper notice goes out to the community to ensure that those who wish to attend and take part in this conversation can do so.   Councillor Simmons

As others have pointed out, there would be a huge contradiction between forbidding surveillance cameras on city streets while installing them on every police officer. It would be worthwhile to at least have the hardware available for optional use by police in appropriate situations. Regarding Order #2, I do hope that a discussion of street obstructions is part of the agenda. Freedom of speech and the right to obstruct (either roadways or abortion clinics) are not interchangeable. Rallies and marches are as American as apple pie, but people still have a right to go about their business. – Robert Winters

Comments?

December 8, 2014

The Central Square Olympics – Dec 8, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,City Council,cycling — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 2:30 pm

The Central Square Olympics – Dec 8, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Central Square Olympics!After a year or two of thumb twiddling, moratorium threats, and Master Plan myth-making, things are starting to perk up again in Central Square. At the previous meeting, the Twining/Normany zoning petition arrived to reignite the conversation. In response to City Council inaction, that petition now seeks to amend the zoning in a very small (though still important) portion of Central Square to allow greater heights in exchange for the provision of new housing, additional retail and more. Some aspects of the petition reflect goals expressed in the prior C2 recommendations. Many of us now wonder how we came to this point where initiatives by residents, the City Council, and the City administration were left to gather dust, and a zoning petition from a private developer was necessary to get things moving again. At tonight’s meeting we now also have a Council Order calling for a hearing and finally some movement on the moth-balled C2 plan and recommendations. It’s just a hearing, mind you, without any actual zoning proposal.

Order #6. That the Ordinance Committee schedule a hearing to discuss the C2 plan and recommendations and that the Community Development Department be prepared to present any changes or recommendations to this plan and that members of the C2 Committee be invited to attend.   Councillor Cheung, Councillor McGovern and Vice Mayor Benzan

There is, of course, a decent chance that nothing will come of any of this. The municipal election year is quickly approaching and our wonderfully progressive councillors dare not tread any path that might irritate their potential supporters. Besides, don’t you know that we have to produce a Master Plan before doing anything whatsoever? Well, that’s what at least some moratorium-lovin’ reactivists would have you believe. In contrast, it’s great watching the City of Somerville charge forward with Union Square plans and other projects. Perhaps we should create a sister city relationship with our northern neighbor.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on how all the Citywide Planning efforts will impact staff workload, and any capacity considerations the City Council should take into account when contemplating these or other initiatives.   Councillor Cheung

Yes, but perhaps we should add a clause to the order specifically addressing the City Council workload which apparently must be very, very burdensome. [Please pardon the sarcasm.] See above paragraph. That said, it will be most unfortunate if the upcoming Citywide Planning effort ends up being largely an exercise in staff-intensive hand-holding leading nowhere.

Manager’s Agenda #8. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-107, regarding a report on next steps to advance the creation of the Grand Junction Multi-use Path.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to confer with relevant City staff and members of the public to determine what, if any, changes should be made to the Harvard Square "Super Crosswalk" complex, to include the bike crossing at Church Street   Councillor Kelley

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to evaluate, through the up-coming winter, any opportunities to expand the use of off-street snow removal equipment, with particular attention to the concerns of wheelchair access, essential pedestrian routes, and off-grade cycle tracks.   Councillor Cheung

I’m grouping these three items together because they all have some relationship to bicycle use in Cambridge. The proposed Grand Junction Path is a great initiative in that it provides an amenity over and above the existing road network. There are a lot of people who enjoy such amenities for recreation and, in this case, the new route may actually provide a useful transportation connection between MIT, East Cambridge, and Cambridgeport and (hopefully) housing opportunities in Allston, Somerville, and beyond.

On the other hand, as evidenced by last week’s Bicycle Network Plan open house, some City staff remain hopelessly naive about actual cycling in Cambridge (and elsewhere). They see the segregation of cyclists off the road as the preferred alternative. The images they show of streets like Vassar Street show nothing but sunny days and no conflicts with vehicles or pedestrians. The reality that those of us see daily is quite different – a less-safe roadway narrowed to the point where there remains very little room for cyclists to safely share, ice and snow and blocked entries in the winter, significant conflicts with pedestrians (and wrong-way cyclists), and trucks and taxis with no other option than to park on the sidewalk. The north side of Concord Avenue near Fresh Pond is even worse. The segregationists would like to replicate this design on Magazine Street. Even worse, the plan for Massachusetts Avenue from MIT to Harvard appears to favor wedging cyclists into a narrow corridor between parked cars and the curb with countless obstructions and conflicts. This will likely also involve the narrowing of road lanes to the point where road cyclists will be endangered and the inevitable double-parked car will bring traffic to a standstill.

Communications #1. A communication was received from Saul Tannenbaum, 16 Cottage Street transmitting five reasons why hosting the Olympics is a terrible idea.

Order #11. That the Council go on record in opposition to any bid to host the Olympics that does not begin with broad community discussion and deliberation, including stakeholders from surrounding communities that would be impacted were the Olympics to be held in Boston.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor Kelley

There are differing opinions on the value of hosting the Olympics. One concern I have is that the people of the Greater Boston area tend to be a bit on the parochial side and they’re likely to resent all these outsiders. There’s also some legitimate concern about the illegitimacy of the process of procuring the Olympics. There’s a chance that some improvements in transportation infrastructure could come of it all, but there are no guarantees. I’m personally skeptical about the substitution of planning for a multi-week event for actual long-term planning for decades to come.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with a draft framework for a Community Benefits and Mitigation Plan no later than Jan 26, 2015.   Councillor Simmons, Councillor Cheung, Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor McGovern

This is a can that has been kicked down the road for several years now. Every new project, especially those that require zoning changes, seems to come with its own roll-your-own ideas about community benefits and mitigation. We can do better. – Robert Winters

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