Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

November 19, 2012

Nov 19, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,cycling,elections,planning — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 11:42 am

Nov 19, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda highlights

Here are some items that jump out as worthy of comment:

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Council Order Number 10, dated 5/23/2011, regarding Biogen return to Cambridge.

Biogen Idec Inc. intends to soon relocate its headquarters to Cambridge where it now has a substantial presence. As the Manager’s letter states, "The remaining outstanding barrier is the zoning requirement that a cafeteria be located on the ground floor of the building and open to the public at least 20 hours per week." This seems like a completely reasonable accommodation, especially if the local business association makes a parallel effort to create affordable food options in the immediate area. Most people would likely choose to eat in a restaurant than in the cafeteria of a life sciences building anyway. Perhaps that existing provision in the zoning code is a vestige of the days when Kendall Square had vanishing dining options. That’s no longer the case, though the provision of affordable dining options could still use some attention.

Resolution #15. Resolution on the death of William M. Hogan, Jr.   Councillor Maher

William Hogan was a former Cambridge City Councillor and first Vice Mayor under the Plan E Charter. He was the last surviving councillor elected in 1941 in Cambridge’s first PR election under the Plan E Charter adopted the previous year. He died at the age of 100. He would have been about 27 when he was elected (in 1939) and 31 when he left office. He ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1943. He was among the last elected councillors-at-large in 1939 under the previous charter and the first under the new Plan E charter.

Resolution #25. Thanks to City staff for their work on Election Day.   Mayor Davis

Order #16. That the City Manager confer with the Election Commission to make information publicly available on wait times throughout Election Day and the number of booths at each precinct.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor vanBeuzekom

Though I had to wait over 40 minutes in line to vote this year, when I got to the front of the line I saw only efficiency and courtesy from the the poll workers at the City Hall Annex. Though things may have run faster with more booths, the real slowdown was caused by the presence of several additional nonbinding ballot questions that most people did not have an opportunity to read prior to voting. If it were my call, I would allow voters the option to vote outside of the booths if they don’t mind doing so. The checking in, checking out, and inserting of ballots into the scanner go very quickly. The limiting factor is the number of booths. One of the great advantages of scannable paper ballots is that there is no strict limit on how many voters can simultaneously if there is some flexibility in where you can fill out your ballot. Mayor Davis’ appreciation of election workers stands in marked contrast to the recent bellyaching of one of her colleagues.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to investigate creating a pilot program for installing mini exercise stations on major walking routes throughout the city, perhaps at bus stops, subway stations and public parks.   Mayor Davis

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to look into the installation of public drinking fountains at additional locations in the city – possibly working with the Cambridge Arts Council on interesting designs.   Mayor Davis

These are interesting and creative suggestions. Every such installation, however, will have to be maintained and that could be problematic. I’m inclined to believe that public parks and plazas would be a lot more appropriate than bus stops and subway stations.

Order #4. That the Cambridge City Council go on record urging the members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee to pass MA Senate Bill 2314, "An Act Relative to Plastic Bag Reduction."   Councillor vanBeuzekom

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the Law Department to prepare language for an amendment to the Municipal Code to ban the use of polystyrene-based disposable food containers and to provide a waiver provision similar to the by-law of the Town of Brookline.   Councillor Cheung and Mayor Davis

I’m glad that there is attention being given to some of these more annoying aspects of waste management, especially the reduction of materials for which there are limited recycling options. It should be noted that consumers have always been able to avoid plastic bags simply by providing their own reusable bags when shopping. Regarding the banning of polystyrene food containers, don’t be surprised if some food vendors replace them by even more wasteful containers made of other plastics that rarely make it into the recycling stream.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to work with the appropriate city officials to explore the possibility of completing and submitting the Bicycle Friendly Community application by Feb 26, 2013 so that the City of Cambridge may be included in the next review cycle and join together with other communities in participating in the Bicycle Friendly Community program.   Councillor vanBeuzekom

As a daily cyclist, I continue to scrutinize the City’s decisions regarding safe accommodation for cyclists and transportation policies that often seem more rooted in hostility toward motor vehicle operators than in the promotion of good alternatives. The City does seem to be doing a better job in their design of on-street bike lanes, though they routinely err in their treatment of these lanes at intersections. State law requires that right-turning vehicles move as far right as possible before making their turn, yet the City often stripes bike lanes with a solid line right up to intersections. Unless a motor vehicle operator drives in the bike lane immediately before turning, there will be a greater risk of turning into a cyclist passing on the right – and many cyclists are oblivious to this danger. The City is also installing "cycle tracks" on some streets that will create significant conflicts at driveways and intersections and will most likely narrow travel lanes to the point where on-street cyclists wishing to maintain more than casual recreational speeds are endangered. I don’t expect these realities to be reflected in the City’s application, and City planners have been unresponsive in their cycle track juggernaut.

Order #9. Special Permit process pursuant to MGL 40A as it relates to the impact of re-filing a zoning petition on pending special permits or special permits that have been granted.   Councillor Kelley

Though I won’t speak to the merits of this Order, the confusion by city councillors over the recent "move to withdraw" the Yanow Petition indicated that a little more schooling on zoning regulations and procedures may be in order.

Order #11. That the Cambridge City Council go on record urging the members of the Massachusetts Committee on House Steering, Policy and Scheduling to pass MA House Bill 4165, "An Act Relative to Speed Limits."   Councillor vanBeuzekom

This legislation would reduce the speed limit within "thickly settled areas" and business districts from the current level of 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. As a "thickly settled area", all of Cambridge would likely be covered by this reduced speed limit. While this would make sense in many Cambridge locations, especially on narrow streets with many parked cars, there are plenty of other streets where the existing 30mph speed limit makes more sense. This proposal is introduced every few years and is usually not supported by transportation engineers who argue that, in the absence of other factors, speed limits should be set according to prevailing speeds in order to minimize conflicts.

Order #20. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate city officials to explore the possibility of communicating appropriate storm preparedness through the website and text messages sent by the city.   Councillor vanBeuzekom

This is a good suggestion and consistent with the City’s long-standing practice of encouraging residents to help keep storm drains clear during and after winter storms. Having braved Sandy’s wrath on several occasions to clear the storm drains in my neighborhood, I think it would be very helpful if people were more aware of keeping these drains unobstructed. That means not only parking clear of the drains, but also picking up a rake and getting out there to help keep the drains clear.

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 Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a public meeting held on Oct 19, 2012 to discuss Community Benefits.

The report suggests that the City Council has a long way to go before really coming to terms with this issue. In simple terms, a community benefit is the money paid or benefit provided by a developer for up-zoning property. However, when city councillors are closely involved in deciding how these funds should be spent, the funds often go toward pet projects or priorities of individual councillors. The default option is often affordable housing. One of the more refreshing aspects of the Goody Clancy process for Kendall Square and Central Square has been the expanded definition of community benefits to include things like the exclusion of ground floor retail in the calculation of building densities, financial support for retail in the form of either reduced rent or outfitting the space, and the creation of public spaces for markets and other purposes. These and other ideas are welcome additions to the discussion of what community benefits might flow from permitting additional density in appropriate locations. This committee report only refers to housing and human services, and that’s far too limiting. The Government Operations Committee and Ordinance Committee would be well-advised to absorb the forthcoming recommendations regarding Kendall Square and Central Square before redefining what constitute community benefits and how any related funds should be disbursed. It should also be stated that when community benefits are tied to up-zoning proposals, there is the very real possibility that every such proposal will be granted as long as enough cash is put on the table – regardless if the proposal makes good planning sense. – Robert Winters

5 Comments

  1. Biogen Idec Inc. intends to soon relocate its headquarters to Cambridge where it now has a substantial presence. As the Manager’s letter states, “The remaining outstanding barrier is the zoning requirement that a cafeteria be located on the ground floor of the building and open to the public at least 20 hours per week.” This seems like a completely reasonable accommodation, especially if the local business association makes a parallel effort to create affordable food options in the immediate area. Most people would likely choose to eat in a restaurant than in the cafeteria of a life sciences building anyway. Perhaps that existing provision in the zoning code is a vestige of the days when Kendall Square had vanishing dining options. That’s no longer the case, though the provision of affordable dining options could still use some attention.

    I don’t know the statutory history here, Robert, but if I had to guess, the provision that BioGen Idec wants to waive still makes perfect sense. It reads to me like an effort to prevent Kendall Square office buildings from functioning as self-contained islands – with employees arriving by car, taking an elevator up to their offices, dining in the corporate cafeteria, and then driving home again at the end of the day. Wholly apart from what it does to the lives of the employees, corporate structures that follow that model tend to have a devastating effect on the local streetlife. With all their needs ‘provided for’ in the building, workers much less likely to venture outside to patronize local restaurants, cafes, or shops – and indeed, may be actively discouraged from doing so by their supervisors.

    So this looks like a provision designed to ensure that if an employer insists on providing an in-house dining option for employees, it at least function as a subsidized restaurant – opening to the street and welcoming in unaffiliated patrons. You’re right – it’s not a terribly appealing model. That’s probably the whole point. The neighborhood, the city, and the employees are all better off taking advantage of the benefits of urban density. The local small business association can do all it wants to encourage the creation of affordable dining options, but if Biogen Idec’s employees and executives are encouraged to use their in-house cafeteria instead, there won’t be much of a clientele.

    That said, I’m fine with this particular waiver. I’d give up quite a lot to ensure that Biogen’s return to Cambridge is a success story. It’s very important to have C-Suites here in the city, and not just R&D operations. CEOs based in Cambridge are much more likely to re-invest in the city. And Biogen’s return has become a huge story, emblematic of the virtues of locating operations in a livable city and not a suburban office park. So the corporate cafeteria may be unfortunate, but on balance, if that’s what it takes to seal the deal, it’s a very small price for the city to pay for a hugely important precedent.

    Comment by Observer — November 19, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  2. Please, the rule on this forum is to provide real names. It’s not fair that people have to respond to anonymously posted comments.

    Comment by Robert Winters — November 19, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

  3. Robert,

    I agree that the polling location staff with whom I interacted on Election Day were very professional and moving things right along. Rather than thinking of the lines as an issue, I look at them as a positive sign in our Democracy.

    Now taking a quick moment to look at the maximum wait time of 10 minutes and I see some really intesting problems popping up. If we take the just completed election where over 48,787 people voted and assume that 5% where there to vote at the start of the day, I.e. when the polls opened, and that such distribution was even in all 33 precincts we would have 74 voters ready to go when the doors opened. Then assume it takes a voter 5 minutes to vote, read the questions, etc. (may be high for some and low for others, but its my assumption for now) and you will need approximately 37 voting booths at each precinct to make sure that anyone who shows up right on the heels of these early arrivers does not have to wait more than 10 minutes.

    I appreciate the goal to make it easier to vote, but we need to keep everything in perspective and waiting a little bit to vote is but a small price to pay for the privilege of participating in our Democracy.

    Comment by Charlie Marquardt — November 19, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  4. Have there been any prior attempts to allow for early voting as other states have done or relax the rules for absentee balloting. Doing that should reduce the number of people queuing up on election day and might actually increase voter participation because of more convenience.

    I voted absentee in person since I was going to be out of the country on election day and it was fast. Being in Spain on Election day was nice – no watching the polling data and the incessant newscasters blather. I woke up at 8am (2am EST) and a quit check on my iPad gave me the results I wanted to hear. (This was unlike the Bush-Gore election where I was in small French village on the day after and had worried that I wouldn’t know who won for a couple of days!)

    Comment by John Gintell — November 20, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  5. I believe the impetus in other states to adopt early voting was the long lines and inconvenience. It’s not something that individual cities and towns can change, but I can easily imagine the Massachusetts Legislature taking up the issue and allowing early voting in addition to absentee voting. There is, of course, a way to do early voting now – just lie on the affidavit – but that may technically be a felony (or at least a serious infraction). It would probably be a good idea for the Legislature to make the change to legitimize early voting.

    Comment by Robert Winters — November 20, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

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