Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 20, 2011

June 20, 2011 City Council Agenda Highlights – The Joy of Opportunism

Filed under: City Council,cycling — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 11:36 am

June 20, 2011 City Council Agenda Highlights

This Monday’s meeting could prove interesting. There are a number of significant zoning-related matters, but the items that jump right out are Committee Report #4 and Councillor Clarey Kelley’s Order #4. Opportunism apparently knows no bounds. Some may recall Councillor Kelley’s earlier Order in which he (or his ghost writer) prematurely speculated on the retirements of the City Clerk, the City Manager, and various department heads and how best to seize the moment. His colleagues handed him his head for that piece of spectacular rudeness. His latest Order is an attempt to renegotiate the City Manager’s contract based on an inadvertent omission in the 2006 and 2009 contracts that must now be corrected. Could someone loan Councillor Kelley a moral compass? He’s apparently quite lost.

Here are a few items of interest on the Agenda.

Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-57, regarding a report on Harvard University’s acquisition of three properties formerly owned by the Society of Jesus of New England/Weston School of Theology and affordable housing in Cambridge.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Chair of the Housing Committee, for a public meeting held on May 9, 2011 for the purpose of receiving information regarding plans to sell Craigie Arms (also known as Chapman Arms) and the City’s options to preserve affordability.

Order #7. That the City Council go on record asking Harvard University to work closely and cooperatively with the City Manager, the Affordable Housing Trust, Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc., tenants and others to facilitate the sale of the property to Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc to ensure the continued affordability at Craigie Arms for current and future tenants.   Councillor Decker

I might also add to this the upcoming meeting of the Community Preservation Act Committee scheduled for Tuesday, June 21 at 6:00pm at the Cambridge Senior Center. It is again expected that they will dedicate the maximum 80% for "affordable housing" and the minimum 10% to both open space and historic preservation. Perhaps dedicating so much money and other resources toward "affordable housing" still makes sense, but there never seems to be any effort made to measure the need or the effectiveness of these expenditures. There is a "Freakonomics" concept that if one community (like Cambridge) dedicates a disproportionate amount of resources to this, the effect may be to actually increase the local demand for this housing. Expenditures seem to be driven more by beliefs than by any hard analysis and rarely, if ever, do we see a regional analysis of housing needs and provision. How many people believe that housing agencies ensure that only those with legitimate needs are receiving the benefits of government-subsidized housing? In many respects, it has become just another system to be "gamed".


Manager’s Agenda #12. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appointment of Richard Johnson as a member of the Cambridge Water Board for a five year term, effective June 30, 2016.

Here’s to the many men and women who serve without compensation on the many City boards and commissions. Voter turnout and civic responsibility may be in decline, but the tradition is carried on by all those who volunteer for these boards and commissions.


Manager’s Agenda #25. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to proposed zoning language to enable a regional bike share program.

It may seem strange that the zoning code has to be amended to allow this use, but it is a service for a fee just like any other commercial use and the zoning code does spell out what uses are permitted in which zones. One curiosity in the proposed amendment is that all signage and illumination for a Public Bicycle-Sharing Station is exempt from regulation. Does this permit advertisements by companies that might subsidize the bike-sharing program?


Manager’s Agenda #29. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation of the Section 5.28.2 Rezoning Petition.

Unfinished Business #9. 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.

This proposed zoning amendment (spurred primarily by a development on Norris Street) will come to a vote either at this meeting or very soon. At issue is the appropriateness of language introduced in the years following the demise of rent control when new housing was being encouraged and when there may have been insufficient attention paid to the unintended consequences of those policies. One interesting idea expressed in this discussion and at the recent Roundtable meeting with the City Council and the Planning Board is to detail what could actually be built in various parts of the city under the current zoning ordinance. At a recent neighborhood study meeting (for Mid-Cambridge), CDD staff showed maps detailing where and how many new housing units could be built as of right without the need to seek a variance. Most proposed zoning changes are done either by developers who want increased densities for their projects (for which they often offer "community benefits" for the privilege) or by neighbors threatened by a specific development proposal. Ideally, the Planning Board and the Community Development Department should conduct "what if" studies throughout the city to identify potential problems before they arise.


Manager’s Agenda #32. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a request for approve of the alteration, layout and acceptance of the portion of Vassar Street that is between Massachusetts Avenue and Audrey Street in the City of Cambridge.

This is about the sidewalk bicycle paths that were underwritten by MIT along Vassar Street. Sadly, there are City staff who believe that the only safe place for cyclists is on the sidewalk, and they choose to ignore any testimony to the contrary. Few people will disagree with the value of such facilities along high-speed arterial roads such as Memorial Drive, but there are strong arguments to be made against such facilities along ordinary roads, especially when the creation of such sidepaths causes on-street lanes to be narrowed to the point that they become less safe for cyclists who choose to travel on the road rather than on the sidewalk (such as the current proposal for Western Avenue). The Vassar Street facilities are, at best, unnecessary.


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 Apr 6, 2011 and a follow-up public meeting on May 17, 2011 to consider a petition to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance filed by Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research, joined by M.I.T. as land owner, to allow for the creation of a new Special District 15 along a portion of Massachusetts Avenue between Albany Street and Windsor Street opposite the location of the Novartis main campus at the former Necco Building. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after June 6, 2011. Planning Board hearing held Mar 29, 2011. Petition expires July 5, 2011.

Committee Report #5. 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 June 15, 2011 to continue to consider a petition to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance filed by Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research, joined by M.I.T. as land owner, to allow for the creation of a new Special District 15 along a portion of Massachusetts Avenue between Albany Street and Windsor Street opposite the location of the Novartis main campus at the former Necco Building.

There is little doubt that the Novartis Petition, possibly with some amendments and certainly with some "community benefits" forked over, will pass either this week or next. Everybody loves Novartis. In the report, Councillor Reeves notes that the matter of community benefits has been referred to the Government Operations and Rules Committee to explore the issues of what principles should govern the negotiations for community benefits and to develop a formula based on these issues, but nothing has yet come of this. Reeves states that "there should be a community benefit fund and the City Councillors should decide what community agencies should benefit. He himself would tend to favor the settlement houses because they benefit some of the most disadvantaged residents."

It is indeed unfortunate that the Government Operations Committee has chosen not to address this issue. The inherent danger in the increased use of these "community benefits" deals is that the City Council might never reject a zoning petition as long as it has sufficient money promised that can be allocated at the discretion of the City Council. The committee report states that "Novartis is prepared to offer $1 million to go to the City of Cambridge for allocation of such benefits to the community as the City Council determines."


Unfinished Business #8. 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 Apr 6, 2011 for the purpose of considering the re-filed Fox petition to rezone an area primarily along Cottage Park Avenue from Business A-2 to Residence B. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after June 20, 2011. Planning Board hearing held Mar 29, 2011. Petition expires July 5, 2011.

As with the Novartis Petition, this must come to a vote either this week or next, or it will expire. The Planning Board has not yet reported on the re-filed Fox petition, but it gave a negative recommendation in January on the original petition.


Committee Report #4. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chair of the Government Operations and Rules Committee for a public meeting held on June 8, 2011 to discuss clarification/correction to the City Manager’s contract.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to submit an order allocating funds from the current budget so that the City Council can hire outside counsel to provide independent advice about the manager’s employment contract and his request to amend it.   Councillor Kelley

These two items will likely guarantee the attendance of the perennial Healy-haters – led by Councillor Kelley’s mentor/ghost writer Richard Clarey who has carried on his vengeful campaign for decades through a variety of venues. It’s one thing to harbor ill feelings about Robert Healy or even to take the position that the City should cave in to every lawsuit filed by those seeking "to milk Mother Cambridge" (as Councillor Reeves once characterized it). It’s an entirely different matter to opportunistically try to use an unintentional error in the wording of the Manager’s contract to renegotiate that contract after the fact. – Robert Winters

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