Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 12, 2011

Now Featured on the Dec 12, 2011 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: campaign finance,City Council — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:02 pm

Now Featured on the Dec 12, 2011 Cambridge City Council Agenda

The agenda is short but potentially interesting. Here are a few items worthy of a comment or two:

Manager’s Agenda #8. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of $100,000 to the Community Development Public Investment Fund Extraordinary Expenditures account which will be used to pay for design consultant services for a proposed bicycle & pedestrian path along the former NECCO railroad spur in Cambridgeport.

This is personal highlight in that I recall making the initial suggestion for this at a meeting of the Central Square Advisory Committee when Novartis first presented its plans to occupy the old NECCO candy factory. The old RR line once brought in trainloads of sugar to the NECCO plant.

Manager’s Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to four appropriations totaling $1,204,701 to the Community Development Public Investment Fund Extraordinary Expenditures account. These appropriations will be used to pay for the purchase of and a three year maintenance contract for Hubway bike share stations, holding 220 bikes at 22 stations located in the densest areas of the City. [The total of this appropriation is derived from the following sources: Metropolitan Area Planning Council through funds received by a Federal Transit Administration Grant ($630,640); Massachusetts Department of Transportation through funds received by a Federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Grant ($274,061); Harvard University ($200,000) and; Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($100,000). The Hubway Bike Share system is expected to be launched in the spring of 2012 and will operate approximately nine months per year and be removed during winter months.]

On balance, the availability of the Hubway bikes in Cambridge is a nice added convenience for those who choose not to use their own bicycles for short-trip transportation. One potential advantage I see is less worry about bicycle theft (presumably most of that liability will fall to Hubway). There are still some awkward details to be worked out about the location of the Hubway stations. For example, there have been some concerns expressed by people who work at the City Hall Annex (344 Broadway) that some of the landscaping would be removed to accommodate the bikes. Alternately, on-street parking spaces could be removed. In any case, convenience does have its costs.

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 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.

Communications #3. A communication was received from Heather Maguire Hoffman, Co-President, Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, regarding the Chestnut Hill Realty petition.

As has been stated repeatedly here, this is The Petition That Will Not Die – twice disapproved by the Planning Board with numerous questions raised by the City Engineer, and accompanied by gobs of cash directed to the campaign accounts of several city councillors. It’s actually quite telling that there is such activity to approve some variant of this petition before its Dec 13 expiration. Squeezing in basement apartments (legal or otherwise) to make some extra cash has been going on for a long time, and stories of mold and flooding problems have often accompanied these units. This is not to say that they are always a bad idea – as long as the hydrology works. Basement apartments on hilltops should be fine. In low-lying areas like Area 4, the Agassiz neighborhood, or much of Cambridgeport or Riverside, or on streets that become watercourses during heavy rains, it seems like a dreadful idea. Whether or not the properties that are the subject of this petition are appropriate for packing in more cash-producing units is a question best left to the engineers. The bigger issue here is the role of mammoth campaign contributions in the approval of this or any other zoning petition.

The letter from Heather Hoffman on this is interesting. The Chestnut Hill Realty petition has been accompanied by mendacity from its inception. It was first billed as "workforce housing" as if to suggest that kitchen workers and housekeepers might be the principal residents of the new units. The re-filed petition asserts that "reasonably priced, affordable studio and one bedroom units" is the basis for their wish for permitting greater density. Ms. Hoffman’s letter calls their bluff by proposing an amendment:

20.650 Affordability. The addition of dwelling units under Section 20.600 shall not result in an increase in the number of market-rate units in the building. A number of units equal to the number of new dwelling units shall become affordable units and comply with all of the affordability, distribution and unit type requirements of Section 11.200. However, only the unit types of the new dwelling units need be considered for this purpose.

Considering past public statements (on the record) by some councillors regarding locating "affordable units" in some of the more high-rent areas of the city, coupled with the fact that said councillors have received significant funds from the petitioners, it should be interesting to hear the ensuing discussion should Ms. Hoffman’s suggested amendment be introduced. Ahh… the sweet smell of mendacity!

Order #2. That all items pending before the City Council and not acted upon by the end of the 2010-2011 Legislative Session be placed in the files of the City Clerk, without prejudice provided that those proposed ordinances which have been passed to a second reading, advertised and listed on the Calendar under "Unfinished Business" during the 2010-2011 City Council term, along with any other pending matters on the Calendar listed as "Unfinished Business," shall be forwarded to the next City Council and further provided that any items pending in committee may, at the discretion of the committee, be forwarded to the next City Council.   Mayor Maher

This is standard procedure at the end of every Council term. Individual councillors can forward items to the new term only in their roles as committee Chairs and members, though the truth is that most Council committees have become primarily one-person affairs where the Chair determines virtually every action undertaken by the committee.

7:00pm   Special Presentation – Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on Central Square.  (Sullivan Chamber)

It is perhaps true that every initiative like this one will produce some good results. However, the proliferation of studies and committees on Central Square has been so common that one might suggest that there be created an "Office of Central Square Studies" to house all the reports. The process leading up to this report has not exactly been an open public process, though no one who showed up was ever turned away. From the beginning there were presentations of very specific proposals for the Naggar property at Norfolk St. and Mass. Ave. that seem very much to be the fulfillment of something listed on the Mayor’s Office website during the 2006-2007 term and in the "Office of the Mayor" section of both the FY2007 ("An initiative envisioning a new square in Central Square") and FY2008 ("Envision a new square in Central Square") Budget Books. Will this be the centerpiece of this latest report? – Robert Winters

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