Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

January 27, 2014

Striking Before the Iron’s Hot – Jan 27, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,City Council,East Cambridge — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 12:34 am

Striking Before the Iron’s Hot – Jan 27, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

This week brings two Orders relating to the disposition of the Foundry Building that was added to the City’s assets as a result of the Alexandria rezoning process a few years ago. One City report last June recommended that the building be sold, but advocates for a variety of possible future uses have been making their wishes known ever since the building was transferred to the City. It’s not so clear that any real consensus has been developed about what the next steps should be. In any case, we now have two somewhat competing Orders trying to steer the discussion. It’s possible that the City Council committee appointments might be made known at this meeting, but it’s not an agenda item. Here are some of the more interesting agenda items:

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a presentation on Poverty in Cambridge based on census data and American Community Survey data. [presentation dated Jan 21, 2013 (PDF)]

The data in this presentation dates to 2009-2011. At that point the median household income in Cambridge was $69,259; it was $130,349 for married couples with children, $92,604 for a single father with children, and $46,809 for a single mother with children. Black or Hispanic residents were more than three times as likely to be living in poverty as White or Asian residents. It’s a short and not very detailed report, but it’s interesting.

City Manager’s Agenda #3. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to an appropriation of $2,450,000 from Free Cash to the Public Works Public Investment Fund Extraordinary Expenditures Account for audiovisual upgrades in City buildings, including: the Sullivan Chamber, the Ackermann Room, and Sophie J. Anastos Room in City Hall; the Senior Center Ballroom; the City Hall Annex Community Room; the Lombardi Room at 831 Massachusetts Avenue; the Walter J. Sullivan Water Treatment Plant Lobby at 250 Fresh Pond Parkway; and a portable AV system.

This appropriation is long overdue – and it’s unfortunate that it’s coming only after the strongest advocate for these improvements, Councillor Ken Reeves, has exited the City Council. Anyone who has attended public meetings and events over the years has experienced their share of malfunctioning equipment, poor acoustics, and presentations that could only be viewed if you picked the right seat. The range of proposed improvements is impressive and the price tag seems to be well worth it. The only thing I would add would be to have the City Council staff review the seating in the Sullivan Chamber where, under the current configuration, many of the audience seats are difficult to access and much of the space near the entry door lacks seating. Creating multiple aisles for greater access and providing some movable folding chairs would be a big improvement. [I’m speaking now as the official "long term observer" in the Sullivan Chamber.]

Chip Norton
Chip Norton

Resolution #11. Resolution on the death of Frederick "Chip" Norton.   Mayor Maher

The announcement of Chip’s unexpected death on January 13 left many of us stunned. Chip was the Watershed Manager for the Cambridge Water Department who led many public tours at Fresh Pond and in the Cambridge watershed in Weston, Waltham, Lexington, and Lincoln. He was one of the most decent, friendly people you could ever know and Cambridge was so lucky to have him working to protect the Cambridge watershed and educating people about our water supply.

My first serious involvement in Cambridge civic affairs came with my appointment to the Mayor’s Water & Sewer Advisory Committee by Mayor Al Vellucci around 1988. Ever since then I’ve maintained a friendly relationship with many of the people who are responsible for Cambridge’s water supply. For some of us, this is not just the death of a respected City employee but also the loss of a friend.

Order #1. That the amendment to the Zoning Ordinances to rezone the northern border of Richdale Avenue from Upland Road to Walden Street from C1-A to residential C-1 be refiled   Mayor Maher

Order #2. That the amendment to the Zoning Ordinances in the Linear Park area be refiled.   Mayor Maher

There are routine re-filings of zoning petitions that expired during the closing days of the previous Council term. They will now be the first order of business for the new Ordinance Committee whose Chair has not yet been announced. The only thing for sure is that the Chair won’t be Mayor Maher. The mayor sits as an ex-officio member on all City Council committees but is the Chair of none of them.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to direct the appropriate City personnel to initiate a traffic and parking study pertaining to the further development of Area IV if one is not already available.   Councillor Simmons

The incentive for this Order is apparently the long-anticipated opening of the H-Mart grocery store which is now finally starting to take shape in the old Harvest Market space. The Order also references the new 10 Essex Street building that will bring another 46 units of much needed houisng to the Central Square area plus ground floor retail (possibly associated with H-Mart). There’s little doubt that the new housing and retail will have some impact on the surrounding area, but these are great new additions to Central Square. It’s not so clear what additional purpose will be served by a traffic and parking study other than to confirm the obvious.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to compile a comprehensive list of nonprofit, for-profit, neighborhood associations, and distinguished individual-practitioner stakeholders who benefit from, inform, or participate in STEAM-related education and training in an effort to determine the feasibility of dedicating the Foundry to STEAM related entities.   Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor Mazen

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Arts Council to determine the types of spaces that are most needed within the local arts community with the view of using the Foundry to fill those needs and to allocate appropriate funds to make appropriate upgrades for the purpose of creating a community arts center.   Councillor Toomey

These are probably the agenda items that will bring out more public comment than everything else combined. That said, there seem to be a number of assertions made that are not necessarily accurate. For example, the Benzan/Mazen Order #9 states that "Our neighborhoods are in dire need of substantial new space dedicated to mentorship, apprenticeship, scholarship, fabrication, expression, and training related to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics)." When was this conclusion determined? If anything, what has become clear is that there is now passionate advocacy for many goals, and they are not necessarily all compatible. The Toomey Order #10 favors a community arts center. The previous City Council exhibited more than a little sentiment toward use of some of the Foundry space for entreprenuerial/innovation space.

There have been numerous instances over the years where political advocacy for "community space" ran well ahead of actual demand. Youth Centers have been built that were not particularly well-utilized. In East Cambridge, the Multicultural Arts Center hasn’t always lived up to its public purpose. One could certainly argue that the latest trend toward STEM and STEAM are really educational functions that should more properly be developed in conjuction with the Cambridge Public Schools (and which may require a range of new employees). Though it’s appreciated seeing both new councillors and long-term councillors jumping in early to address the future of the Foundry issue, it does seem that they are striking the iron before it’s hot.

I would respectfully suggest that we should first take a step back and assess what all the unmet demands really are (and not just what some advocates say they are) and what assets the City has to meet these demands. It’s particularly interesting that councillors who bought into the need for a "master plan" for development have not yet expressed any interest in a "master plan" for the many auxiliary services that the City does deliver and should deliver using its variety of school buildings, youth centers, and other facilities, including the Foundry building.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor and Massachusetts Attorney General to determine whether Councillors ‘replying all’ to emails addressed to the on business that may subsequently come before the Council are unintentionally violating the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.   Councillor Cheung

I hope I’m not the only one who believes that there’s a need for Councillor Toomey and his colleagues in the State House to tweak the Open Meeting Law to correct for the numerous unintended consequences that it has caused that do harm to collegiality and cooperation among elected officials and with the public.

Order #12. That the City Council go on record urging swift passage of the STEM Gateways Act.   Councillor Cheung

As a STEM person myself (mathematics lecturer), I can’t argue with the sentiments contained in this Order. – Robert Winters


  1. Any attention to poverty is good. As I noted here , per capita income has doubled over the past 30 years, while the poverty rate has remained largely stagnant, City Council goals don’t mention poverty, and the City budget barely mentions it. It’s not that Cambridge doesn’t do anything about poverty, but it has no focus and it doesn’t seem very effective. And looking at the City’s map, it should be a wake up call that one of the city’s poorest areas borders on Kendall Square, which is producing a gusher of wealth.

    Comment by Saul Tannenbaum — January 27, 2014 @ 10:19 am

  2. Saul,

    If you looked at a map then you’d have to face the fact that Cambridge isn’t the bastion of progressiveness that it claims to be and is in fact as racist/classist as anywhere else in the commonwealth.

    That being said, when did the Essex St. gang appoint themselves as the new planning board. I must have missed that meeting/vote.

    Comment by Patrick W. Barrett III — January 27, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

  3. I was really sorry to hear at last night’s City Council meeting of the death on January 23 of Bill Cobham. He was President of the Cambridge Council on Aging and one of the people I would often talk with when passing through the Senior Center. Bill was also a dependable election worker who was there every day working at the recent City Council election recount. People say it all the time, but Billy really will be missed by me and many other people.

    There will be a Celebration of Life for Bill Cobham this Thurs, Jan 30, at 7:00pm at the First Church Congregational (11 Garden St.). Arrangements by A.J. Spears Funeral Home:

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 28, 2014 @ 10:26 am

  4. Foundry Update: As expected, the City Council spent a considerable amount of time on this topic. There were definitely conflicting points of view in terms of urgency and direction. One thing was made abundantly clear by the City Manager and everyone else — The Foundry Building will continue to be owned by the City in any scenario, so you can unsound the alarms.

    There will be a Special Meeting of the City Council in early March to exclusively take up the Foundry Building issue. The centerpiece of that meeting will be a cumulative report/overview from the City Manager on where we stand, what has taken place to date, and a range of options that could possibly take place in terms of programming and financial considerations.

    The total cost could range into the $25 million territory, so financial considerations are not insignificant.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 28, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

  5. I am also saddened to hear now of the death of Billy Cobham.
    Probably the longest-serving member of the Cambridge Republican City
    Committee. A tireless worker, advocate, and friend.
    Always in our prayers.

    Thanks for reporting this, Robert. Without your site I wouldn’t know a
    lot of news from home.

    former CRCC Chairman 2004-2008

    Comment by FRED BAKER — January 28, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

  6. Erin Baldassari (Cambridge Chronicle) has a nice write-up of the Foundry discussion that took place at the City Council meeting:

    The primary comment I’d make now is that so much of what has been stated as fact is, in fact, speculation. If a facility focusing on STEM skills is created, one outcome might be that most of the demand comes from people who were already destined to go into these fields. The notion that this will be a vehicle that lifts disadvantaged kids out of poverty and steers them toward lucrative careers in Kendall Square could prove to be more illusion than reality.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 28, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

  7. Rossi has long maintained the building should be reused in a way that’s most advantageous for taxpayers. Cambridge ranked 317th out of 351 municipalities in 2013 for the lowest residential tax rate and 78th out of 351 on its commercial tax rate, according to data compiled by the Boston Business Journal from the state’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance. With free cash reserves at an historic high – over $142 million – the city reduced tax rates for residents and businesses in fiscal year 2014.

    David Maher looks to “philanthropy” to fund this. Me, I’m happy with using legacy crowdfunding, taxes.

    There is an element of chasing the new and shiny when it comes to STEAM for the Foundry building. But it also seems clear to me that we should be working harder to build a ladder from our neighborhoods to the wealth creation that is Kendall Square. That would depend on what programs are actually installed in the Foundry building and, more indirectly, what sort of governance of the space is created.

    Comment by Saul Tannenbaum — January 28, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

  8. Considering you could build a new structure for about $400/sqft who is doing the math on that refurbishing number?

    Comment by patrickwbarrett — January 29, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

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