Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 11, 2012

On the Agenda – Highlights of the June 11, 2012 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,City Council,planning — Tags: , , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:45 am

On the Agenda – Highlights of the June 11, 2012 Cambridge City Council meeting

There are several substantial items on the agenda this week. Among them:

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-33, regarding a report on a plan for implementing separate trash or recycling curbside pickup for small businesses along existing curbside pickup routes. ["Please be advised that I am not recommending the implementation of such a program given the cost impacts to the City."]

This responds to an Order that grew, at least in part, out of East Cambridge traffic congestion problems caused by multiple collection vehicles. Needless to say, the suggestion that the City should take over all collection did not resonate with these multiple waste haulers. The real deal-breaker is the very substantial additional cost.

City Manager’s Agenda #28. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the purchase of 53.6 acres of watershed land in Lincoln, MA, for $1,152,247 from Community Preservation Act Open Space Reserve Fund, for the purposes of drinking water supply protection and land conservation.

This watershed land is located on the north side of Route 2 in Lincoln just east of Bedford Road. The City has in recent years acquired numerous parcels through which the Hobbs Brook flows en route to the Cambridge Reservoir (Hobbs Basin) in the vicinity of Route 2 and Route 128. Some may argue that Community Preservation Act open space funds should be spent exclusively within the city limits, but watershed protection is generally a very good investment.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Police Commissioner, the Superintendent of Schools, and other appropriate personnel to organize a youth-focused community forum to discuss issues related to the shooting at Willow Street on June 3, 2012, to allow our young people a chance to openly communicate their concerns, grievances, and ideas directly with City officials and administrators.   Vice Mayor Simmons

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Police Commissioner and to urge him to reach out to the various stake holders in the community, including building managers, property owners, and local business owners, in an attempt to proactively address the summer violence before it has a chance to begin.   Vice Mayor Simmons

Though the law enforcement aspects of the shooting near Donnelly Field are appropriately in the hands of the Cambridge Police and the District Attorney, it is appropriate that Vice Mayor Denise Simmons should take a leadership role in the many other necessary responses to this incident that hit uncomfortably close to home. The greatest opportunity for leadership lies among the young people who know the victims and who may be able to help in the resolution of the case and in the prevention of future violence.

Order #4. That a Task Force be formed to review Cambridge’s current program to creatively encourage and maximize participation in PILOT agreements with the City, and to evaluate the possibilities of implementing SILOT (Services In Lieu of Payment) and/or GILOT (Grants In Lieu of Payment) programs.   Councillor vanBeuzekom and Councillor Cheung

The motivation of this Order appears to be a comparable program by the City of Boston that has achieved some success in generating addition revenue from tax-exempt institutions. Though the prospects are not great for additional payments in lieu of taxes, there is clearly plenty of opportunity for non-profit and educational institutions to offer services in lieu of taxes. The major colleges already provide many such services and could probably do more with some facilitation.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with relevant City and Harvard staff to determine who is doing what on the Cambridge Street Overpass, how through passage is being safely managed, how signage has been displayed, what the overall plans for this project are and the timing of the work and its expected completion date.   Councillor Kelley

There was a very comprehensive presentation about this made at a recent meeting of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association. Though substantial work is planned, the disruption both to the tunnel and the plaza above should be acceptable. The redesigned plaza will no longer have its familar grassy areas, but it will have the potential to become an important new public space for both Harvard and the City. [Details on the project (DPW) – Check out all the tabs.] I just hope the Harvard planners have an alternative for driving stakes into the ground when they want to install a tent. It’s not so easy to drive stakes into concreate pavers.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with an explanation of how the City plans to maintain grade separated bikeways and keep them as free from sand, branches and other debris as the adjacent streets.   Councillor Kelley

The larger issue is the grade-separated facilties themselves. While City officials and the public continually frown upon bicycling on sidewalks, they are simultaneously designing it into the Western Avenue project commencing later this year. To those of us who choose to ride in the street with all other vehicles, the City proposal will be less safe for us and slower for the cyclists who use the sidewalk track. It is very unlikely that the sidewalk track will be kept free of snow and ice in the winter. [“Cycle track”: a sidewalk by another name]

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with an explanation of how the locations for the three bike corrals currently in place in Cambridge were determined.   Councillor Kelley

Good question. One of these corrals appeared recently in front of the Broadway Bicycle School. It’s empty basically all the time. [Correction: On Monday there were 8 bikes locked up there, probably related to the City Hall Annex.] Cyclists coming to the Broadway Bicycle School generally bring their bikes inside to work on them. Meanwhile in places all over Cambridge there are derelict bikes chained up for months at a time taking up many of the available locations for locking up a bike.

Order #14. That the City Manager confer with the appropriate departments to discuss the potential of installing security cameras in the Donnelly Field area and report back to the City Council.   Councillor Toomey

The recent shooting at Donnelly Field does not in and of itself justify the installation of such cameras, but their presence could very well have resolved this case in short order. Though the government conspiracy theorists may feel otherwise, their arguments against these cameras remain weak. Public spaces are public and cameras strategically located along roads and on public buildings can and do help in solving crimes.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on May 15, 2012 to discuss the petition of Forest City/MIT to amend the Zoning Ordinances by extending the Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District from Green Street out to Massachusetts Avenue in the area adjacent to Blanche Street and further to provide for the potential development of a residential building on Sidney Street between Massachusetts Avenue and Green Street.

A few thoughts on this (more to follow in the coming weeks as the various advisory committees complete their efforts):

Though the proposal for the All-Asia block is similar to what MIT/Forest City proposed last year, the proposal for a 165-foot residential tower next to the Lafayette Square fire house apparently came out of the Community Development Department. Forest City was receptive to the idea, but it wasn’t their idea. A more human-scale residential building next to the firehouse might be more acceptable as long as an equivalent amount of open space is relocated to a site people would actually use. MIT/Forest City’s primary motivation is the development of the All-Asia block – something they would have done 20 years ago if they had sufficient control of the property. Significant height (about 140 ft.) and density is also proposed there. Of great concern to some MIT faculty is the current trend of MIT sacrificing properties close to the core campus to private development (e.g., Pfizer, Novartis) that might otherwise have supported the academic mission of the Institute.

I would caution people against taking an either-or view of this or any of the other proposals that will soon appear for future development in the greater Central Square area. Some will be opposed to any additional height or density and others will be receptive to any and all additional height or density. I find both of these points of view to be lacking. Surely there is room for people to express their own "vision" for what they want the future of Central Square to be – as opposed to simply reacting to the proposals of others. It’s ironic that the City Council has a Neighborhood & Long-term Planning Committee, yet two things the committee apparently doesn’t do are neighborhood and long-term planning.

I would much rather see the emphasis be on increasing density within the envelope currently prescribed by the zoning code with some strategic modification to induce good uses. The zoning is actually pretty generous already and there are many underbuilt sites in the area – including the All-Asia block. My "vision" for Central Square primarily consists of replacing the one-story and two-story "taxpayer" buildings with buildings that rise 3 to 5 stories at Mass. Ave. and possibly step back an additional story or two. I feel that a good-looking ten-story building like the Central Square Building at Mass. Ave. and Western Ave. should be the (anomalous) upper limit for height. I might be convinced that one other such building should be built, but this should not be the norm. Central Square is not Kendall Square, and it should not be redeveloped in the manner of Kendall Square. The Central Square neighborhood is already somewhat dense and can afford to be more dense if the gaps along Mass. Ave. are better developed and if some of the back lots see new construction. If housing in new buildings close to work is what is needed, I would suggest that the best place for new housing would be in Kendall Square, in the area between Main Street and Mass. Ave. replacing some of the old industrial properties, and on some (not all) of the parking lots.

Regarding the issue of shadows cast by taller buildings, I’ve always felt this to be primarily a naysayer strategy transparently intended to block a given proposal. In Jill Brown-Rhone Park (Lafayette Square), the City has installed umbrellas in that area because of the excess sunniness. I would prefer to see a shorter building than the 165 foot tower currently proposed, but I don’t really care about the shadows. I simply prefer a more human scale in an area that is primarily oriented toward neighborhood people rather than trans-national industries. We have Kendall Square and downtown Boston for that sort of thing.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on May 23, 2012 to discuss a petition to amend the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge by adding to Section 5.50 entitled "Special Dimensional Regulations" a section 5.54 entitled "Special Regulations for Municipal Elementary and Middle (K-8) Schools.

This is largely a formality despite some of the scary and dishonest e-mail alerts distributed by some activists with nothing better to do than spread false rumors about unlimited heights, unlimited parking, exemption from all zoning, and the consolidation of all middle school programs into a single "supersized" building. False, false, false, and false. – Robert Winters


  1. City Council is now discussing a motion by Councillor Maher to remove the proposed 165 ft residential tower from the Forest City petition. Kelley and Cheung are not supporting the amendment. Councillor Decker will not vote to move to 2nd Reading unless the amendment to split the petition is approved.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 11, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

  2. Reeves notes that petition filed last December and then pulled back. He says that housing part came out of Community Development. Says he can’t follow the process. He says housing a smart choice and that he brought 40 people down to Washington, D.C. to look at housing. He says a proposed moratorium would be worst thing.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 11, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  3. Decker says nothing is being fast-tracked. Anxiety has been created over possible multiple developments.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 11, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

  4. David Maher emphasizes that by splitting the petition there will now be more opportunity to discuss and evaluate housing possibilities with Forest City. There are multiple vehicles for holding them to a housing commitment. Cheung does not want to separate out the housing component. Maher says it may technically separate out the housing but that there may be a housing requirement linked into the remaining petition.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 11, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

  5. Amendments to Forest City petition pass 6-3, remaining petition (without the residential tower) passed to 2nd Reading on 6-3 vote.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 11, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

  6. Order 6: It seems Harvard and MIT help pay for road projects, much like an office park developer would. BU, tries not to. The Kenmore Square project was short on funding and was not going to happen until BU finally added money. The next phase for Comm Ave is a $20M project to widen Green Line platforms for BU at a cost of $5M to MBTA, and $15M to state/fed for road realignment and landscaping (for BU). BU is touchy when asked why they don’t contribute to projects where they are the primary beneficiary and area land owner.

    Order 7: I asked planners at an open house about a year ago how they would clear snow from raised bike tracks. The answer was: “Contractors.” They must see their jab as winning design awards more than practical solutions for residents. Shared bike/vehicle lanes benefit from moving motor vehicles blowing aside sand, debris, and snow, unlike bike lanes and parking separated bike lanes.

    Comment by Mark Kaepplein — June 12, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

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