Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 5, 2011

Winding Down – Dec 5, 2011 Cambridge City Council Meeting

Filed under: campaign finance,City Council,East Cambridge,planning — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 11:27 am

Winding Down – Dec 5, 2011 Cambridge City Council Meeting

This is the home stretch of the 2010-2011 City Council term – a time to finish up tasks and jockey for position in the never-pleasant business of choosing the next mayor. Here are a few notable items on the agenda:

5:30pm   Special Presentation by the Oral History Project of the Longfellow Neighborhood Council to receive their new publication "From the Heart of Cambridge".

The idea for this book was conceived in 2004 by Penelope Kleespies and the Longfellow Neighborhood Council and Community School. The book was edited by Paula Lovejoy with the assistance of a constellation of others including Sarah Boyer of the Cambridge Historical Commission who has edited numerous other Cambridge oral history projects. The book tells the stories of 90 Mid-Cambridge people and their families and friends. It is available for sale at Porter Square Books, the Harvard Book Store, The Coop, Rodney’s Bookstore, and directly from the Longfellow Neighborhood Council. All profits go to support the Longfellow Neighborhood Council and Community School.

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Home Rule Petition providing the City of Cambridge with the authority to impose and increase certain motor vehicle fines in the City of Cambridge in order to improve driving.

Time will tell whether the increased fines actually improve driving in a world where texting and other distractions routinely focus the brains of drivers on everything other than their surroundings. This is just the text for a Home Rule Petition to the state legislature to allow the increased penalties. It does not yet raise any of these fines.

City Manager’s Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to language prepared by staff in anticipation of the process of reconstruction or renovation of K-8 school buildings in City.

As near as I can tell, this proposed zoning change is primarily intended to ensure that once an existing school building or part of a school building is demolished, any new building may be built to the same height and density. The proposed regulation would, however, allow the Planning Board, by Special Permit, to waive any dimensional or other zoning requirements as long as the Floor/Area Ratio (FAR) does not exceed 1.25 and the height does not exceed 55 feet, plus several other restrictions. It is expected that a number of school buildings will be reconstructed over the next decade most likely starting with the King School on Putnam Ave. The plan is to use the old Longfellow School as "swing space" for each school during reconstruction.

City Manager’s Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 11-170, regarding a report on an opinion on the issue of spot zoning on the Runkel petition.

Unfinished Business #10. 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 Oct 13, 2011 to consider a petition filed by Laura Runkel et al. to rezone 41 Bellis Circle, an area abutting the northern block of Bellis Circle, bordered on the north by the commuter rail tracks, on the south by Bellis Circle and on the east side by Sherman Street, from Residence C-1A to Residence C. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 14, 2011. Planning Board hearing held Sept 13, 2011. Petition expires Dec 13, 2011.

These two related items concern the Runkel et al. Zoning Petition that would affect a single large parcel at Sherman St. and the RR tracks. The Planning Board report did not recommend approval of the petition arguing that it "does not find it appropriate to consider only this single site for potential rezoning when there are adjacent sites that remain zoned Residence C-1A". The possibility that this might be "spot zoning" or "reverse spot zoning" was discussed at the Nov 21 City Council meeting and an Order was passed asking for a legal opinion on the matter. City Solicitor Don Drisdell’s report indicates that it is unlikely that a court would rule against this proposed zoning change.

Unfinished Business #11. 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 held on Sept 14, 2011 and a follow-up public meeting on Oct 25, 2011 to consider a re-filed petition to amend the zoning ordinance filed by Chestnut Hill Realty. The petition would allow creation by special permit of rental apartment units in basement units of existing multifamily residential buildings in Residence C Districts which meet the special permit criteria. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 28, 2011. Planning Board hearing held Sept 6, 2011. Petition expires Dec 13, 2011.

As has been stated here before, this is The Petition That Will Not Die – twice disapproved by the Planning Board with numerous questions raised by the City Engineer. The fact that the petitioners, Chestnut Hill Realty, have contributed mightily to the campaign accounts of several city councillors raises questions of conflict of interest and whether zoning relief can be purchased via campaign contributions. This perception, of course, is not limited to this petition. In fact, the scale of political contributions by parties with business before the City Council has skyrocketed in recent years.

It may be time for the Cambridge City Council to consider an Ordinance prohibiting campaign contributions by any party with business before the City Council (or the representatives of any such party) for a period of one or two years before and after the matter is voted by the City Council. In these days of Citizens United, it is unclear what such limits may legally be imposed, but it would be a welcome initiative by any city councillor willing to propose such an ordinance.

Unfinished Business #12. 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 held on Sept 14, 2011 to consider a petition by Matthew Bagedonow et al. to amend Section 5.24.4 Paragraph(4) of the Zoning Ordinance as follows: "For Residence Zoning District C-1, in no case shall side yards be less than 7′-6". This shall apply to any plane or projection from the plane of the building." The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 28, 2011. Planning Board hearing held Sept 13, 2011. Petition expires Dec 13, 2011.

The Bagedonow et al. petition received a positive report from the Planning Board with a minor revision. This will likely be ordained as amended.

Resolution #10. Resolution on the death of Paul Kurt Ackermann.   Vice Mayor Davis, Mayor Maher

Paul Ackermann was the husband of former City Councillor and former Mayor Barbara Ackermann. Paul was 92 years old.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to provide monetary information regarding the Monteiro and related cases.   Councillor Reeves, Councillor Cheung, Councillor Seidel and Councillor Simmons

Though I agree in principle that a general idea of the scale of these settlements should be made public, the politicizing of this matter remains disturbing. Having witnessed the same people celebrating the financial hit taken by the City and then bemoaning its effect of taxpayers makes one wonder about the motivations of these citizen activists.

Order #5. That the City Clerk is requested to list mayoral commission meetings on the City Council Hearing Schedule in addition to the City Calendar in order to reach as many interested members of the public as possible.   Vice Mayor Davis

It seems odd that there should even have to be a City Council Order asking that these public meetings be included in the City Calendar. Unfortunately, the truth is that none of the "Red Ribbon" meetings on Central Square over the last year or so were ever advertised. Though no one who showed up was ever turned away, the meetings were by invitation only and this calls into question whether the whole enterprise may be properly characterized as a public process. The same criticism applies to the "Silver Ribbon" commission on housing options for older people, and the "Blue Ribbon" commission on early childhood education.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Community Development Department to ascertain data previously requested regarding the Andrews Petition.   Councillor Cheung

The Andrews et al. Petition received a negative report from the Planning Board. The proposal would have amended the City’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance to eliminate the density bonus that forms the economic basis of the ordinance.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Personnel Department to look into the disability makeup of the City’s workforce by level and department and report back to the City Council on this matter.   Councillor Cheung

This Order comes in the wake of a previous Order and report on the racial/ethnic composition of City employees. While almost everyone agrees that nondiscrimination should be the general rule for City employment, these Orders do suggest that employment quotas for various racial/ethnic/gender/disability criteria may still be the mindset of some elected officials.

Order #11. That this City Council urge the United States Government to sign and ratify the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families and to similarly recognize Dec 18, 2011, and annually thereafter, as International Migrants Day.   Councillor Decker

The following Wikipedia excerpts may be relevant: "So far, countries that have ratified the Convention are primarily countries of origin of migrants (such as Mexico, Morocco and the Philippines). For these countries, the Convention is an important vehicle to protect their citizens living abroad."… "No migrant-receiving State in Western Europe or North America has ratified the Convention. Other important receiving countries, such as Australia, Arab states of the Persian Gulf, India and South Africa have not ratified the Convention either." [Full text of the convention]

Cambridge just wouldn’t be Cambridge without the occasional excursion into foreign affairs.

Order #12. That the City Manager report back to the City Council with the required changes to city council rules, city zoning code and/or municipal ordinance to achieve the Community Benefits Mitigation Fee.   Councillor Seidel

This Order is the culmination of a process that has been going on for the past year having to do with extracting "community benefits" in exchange for granting significant upzoning to developers. While it would be hard to find anyone opposed to financial benefits (in addition to new real estate taxes) growing out of new development, there remains a significant question regarding whether this may amount to a de facto "upzoning for sale" situation. Would a City Council ever vote against a major development if it meant turning down millions of dollars for nonprofit agencies, affordable housing ,etc.?

Messages circulated over the weekend by members of the East Cambridge Planning Team point out another problematic aspect of the proposed "Community Benefits Mitigation Fee" structure. Specifically: "The successful negotiation with Alexandria whereby the City and East Cambridge will receive: a 2.5 acre park; a triangle park; $9.5 million to design and build the parks; an approximately 30,000 square foot building, and up to $6,000,000 for the East Cambridge Open Space Fund, would not be possible under the approach contained in this Order as the 1.7 million square foot project would have been limited to a total of $17 million in community benefits. So we have an Order covering mitigation potentially implementing a process whereby a very successful mitigation effort, Alexandria, could not be achieved under the Order’s proposed methodology."

Charles Marquardt’s estimates are that the total mitigation value received from the Alexandria zoning relief was $43 million; and that under the proposal the value would have been only $17.5 million. That’s a difference of $25.5 million. Of course, there’s nothing in the proposal that says that Alexandria could not have voluntarily contributed the difference, but this seems an unlikely outcome if the financial arrangements were so explicitly codified in advance of granting the zoning relief. – Robert Winters


  1. The Silver Ribbon Commission meetings are listed in the City Calendar – tomorrow’s meeting is visible on the front page of the City Home page. We have had members of the public present at each meeting and when we have divided up into smaller working groups for part of the meeting members of the public who were present joined in. This Commission has had a good mix of key city employees, experts, and residents as participants – a good model of how to attack a complex issue.

    The big challenge will how to turn the recommendations into actions and follow up on them.

    Comment by John W Gintell — December 6, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  2. This is just a test message. Someone said he had a hard time getting past the anti-SPAM protocol. If this goes through, then there is no problem.

    Comment by Robert at MIT — December 7, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  3. A late comment about Sarah Boyer–Sarah is an oral historian in the office of the Cambridge Historical Commission. She hasn’t simply (actually, not so simple) edited, she had produced four Cambridge oral histories (North Cambridge, Central Square, East Cambridge, World War II & the Home Front; working now on Area IV); Sarah conducts outreach, interviews all of the participants, edits the transcriptions, researches each neighborhood, and creates the manuscript. This is to take nothing away from the excellent book produced by the Mid Cambridge people!

    Comment by Kit Rawlins — December 12, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

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