Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 20, 2014

Preview of the Oct 20, 2014 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:34 pm

Preview of the Oct 20, 2014 Cambridge City Council meeting

Here are a few items on this week’s Agenda that seem interesting and worthy of comment.

Manager’s Agenda #11. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-36, regarding a report on the feasibility of offering residents an online option to complete the City’s annual census.

This is a welcome option that will hopefully streamline the census and save on postage. Ideally, the City could avoid mailing out the form to those residents who have already completed it online.

Applications & Petitions #3. A petition was received from Alvin Helfeld, et al., 417 Concord Avenue, requesting the Fern Street remodeling plan be reevaluated so that parking is allowed on the left side of the street.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to consult with City project and traffic planners to see if a compromise can be reached which will allow parking on one side of Fern Street while accomplishing City efforts to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety.   Mayor Maher and Councillor McGovern

Fern Street Plan

In addition to complaints about the loss of parking in the planned design for Fern St., City officials also plan to force bicycles off the street and onto the sidewalk. This is apparently a nondebatable issue. It’s one thing to safely accommodate children by allowing sufficient space on sidewalks away from business zones, but narrowing road lanes to force other cyclists off the road is both wrong-headed and hostile. At least in this case there appears to be about 15 ft. of road width that might safely accommodate both a motor vehicle and a bicycle sharing the lane. Otherwise a cyclist has no choice but to be forced onto the sidewalk. We would all like to see an interesting and artistic plan for this street, but the current plan still needs work.

Fern Street cross section

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Assistant City Manager of Finance to discuss the feasibility of introducing a Home Rule Petition requesting an increase to the residential exemption.   Councillor Toomey

Somerville has already done this. The standard used to be that the City Council could exempt up to 20% of the assessed value of an owner-occupied home from the local property tax. In 2003 the state legislature amended this to permit up to a 30% exemption, and the City of Cambridge has chosen to do this since then. Since the tax levy is independent of this, the net effect (for owner-occupied homes) is to shift the tax burden onto higher-valued homes. In FY15, the break-even assessed value in Cambridge is approximately $1,282,800. Somerville’s home rule petition was approved and increased the allowable exemption to 35%. It seems certain that a similar petition from Cambridge would also be approved if the City Council chose to pursue this option.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Assistant City Manager of Community Development and the City Solicitor with the intent of producing language for an affordable housing overlay district to be considered by the City Council.   Councillor Toomey, Councillor McGovern, Councillor Cheung and Vice Mayor Benzan

Order #20. The City Manager is requested to determine the feasibility of collaborating with partners like the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA), and/or companies in the private and public sector to achieve the desired development objectives in a manner most cost-effective to the City and that ensures the City will retain a high degree of control over the ultimate outcome of the City-owned Lots 5 and 6.   Vice Mayor Benzan, Councillor McGovern and Councillor Carlone

Order #5 doesn’t specify whether this "affordable housing overlay district" would be in one or more specific areas or if it would be city-wide (in which case it would be silly to call it an overlay district since it would a city-wide change to the Zoning Ordinance). Coupled with Order #20, one gets the impression that the intention here may be to simply designate some parts of the city as areas where only families whose combined income is below a certain threshold are welcome. This is the antithesis of the more thoughtful inclusionary zoning that creates an incentive for more economically integrated "affordable" housing units, especially in new higher density housing proximate to transit. The required percentage of inclusionary units can and should be debated and possibly increased, but inclusion beats the alternative of economic segregation. It should also be emphasized that Central Square and environs, in particular, should not be the sole location for such a proposed overlay district.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back on possible next steps to advance the creation of the Grand Junction Multi Use Path on City and CRA-controlled property identified as Phase 1 in the Grand Junction Feasibility Study.   Councillor Toomey

The timing of this Order follows the recent release of MIT’s study on its share of this corridor.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to take all steps to ensure that the owner of the property on the Belmont-owned portion of the Silver Maple Forest is informed of the opposition to the use of Cambridge land is used for this project.   Councillor McGovern, Councillor Carlone and Councillor Mazen

Yeah, I’m sure the property owner is completely oblivious to the nearly decade-long series of challenges to the proposed project and the fact that building on the Cambridge portion of this parcel is unwelcome. Did the sponsors of this Order read the following statement from the City Manager in his report last month?: "The project is located within the Little River watershed, which is 8.16 square miles and the larger Mystic River watershed, which is 76 square miles. The project area represents approximately 0.3% of the total Little River watershed and 0.03% of the Mystic River watershed. The project will provide a conservation easement on a total of 7.95 acres, including all of the 2.6 acres in Cambridge."

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Affordable Housing Trust to investigate the status of the Tokyo restaurant site on Fresh Pond Parkway and if available, consider acquiring this site and report back to the Council regarding findings.   Councillor McGovern, Councillor Simmons, Vice Mayor Benzan and Mayor Maher

When I read Orders like this one, I am reminded of the efforts over 20 years ago by some city councillors to create a "Land Bank" consisting of every undeveloped City-owned parcel, no matter how small, that might possibly be available for "affordable housing" development. The plan was hatched with absolutely no regard to the sentiments of existing residents. In fact, included in that plan was the possibility of repurposing a building and part of the playground in Corporal Burns Park on Banks St. as affordable housing. Thankfully that plan went down in flames. Building new housing in the Greater Boston area, including "affordable housing," is essential, but we should also be wary of efforts to identify every single available parcel for this single purpose. Large housing developments are perfect for the including of affordable housing units and a good case can be made for increasing the required percentage of inclusionary housing units in those projects. The Tokyo restaurant site may or may not be a good site for the Affordable Housing Trust to acquire (though it’s likely unavailable), but all such proposals have to be considered in the context of their surroundings. It would not be wise to create an atmosphere where residents see the City as an invasion force. In the long term that would likely be counterproductive.

Order #14. That the following amendment to the Zoning Ordinance be referred to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee for hearing and report: That the areas bounded by Garden, Walden and Sherman Streets and the park currently zoned Business A be rezoned to Residence C-1 to be consistent with the surrounding area.   Councillor Cheung

This is interesting in that the site where Masse’s Hardware and its warehouse existed for many years remains zoned in recognition of its previous commercial use even though the abutting neighborhood, including the site of Paddy’s Lunch across the street, is zoned as Residence C-1. This proposed amendment would uniformize the zoning. The result would be that fewer housing units could be built there by removing the anomalous zoning that now exists which allows for higher densities. This is not a site that’s close to transit, so the case for "smart growth" and higher density housing really is not applicable here. That said, it’s unfortunate that zoning proposals are so often reactive than proactive.

Order #16. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments to determine the feasibility of hosting a Cambridge Challenge Competition for Transportation that offers a prize to the resident or group of residents that come up with the best viable solution to solve our greatest traffic issues.   Vice Mayor Benzan, Councillor Carlone, Councillor McGovern and Councillor Mazen

This could be an interesting exercise. I especially like seeing some of the "out of the box" thinking that can result from these kinds of exercises. Don’t be too shocked if some of the proposals include monorails, personal flying machines, or quantum tunnelling. This is Cambridge, after all. Among the entries, I’m sure, will be some creative and viable concepts. Hopefully not all of them will be shot down by residents fearful of change. My own fear is that City insiders will use the exercise to justify forcing more cyclists off the roads and onto the sidewalks.

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Community Development Department, the Arts Council, the Department of Public Works to determine the feasibility of creating an adult playground in Cambridge.   Councillor Mazen and Councillor Carlone

I though Cambridge was an adult playground. (It is for me.)

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Personnel Director and City Solicitor to determine if a point system similar to the system that awards preferences to Cambridge residents for Affordable Housing units can be used in the hiring process thereby providing a local preference for Cambridge residents when applying for positions within the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Toomey

The potential flaw in proposals like this is that it presumes that anyone wishing to work for the City of Cambridge can afford to live in the City of Cambridge. Thankfully there’s no residency requirement being proposed. We all would like to see more Cambridge residents getting Cambridge jobs, but if every city and town chose to make this too rigid a rule this would create more problems than solutions. A little incentive may good, but not too much.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Paula Crane, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor E. Denise Simmons, Chair of the Housing Committee for a public hearing held on Sept 30, 2014 with the Community Development Department to provide updates on inclusionary zoning, linkage, the Nexus Study, the three expiring use buildings (Briston Arms, the Close Building and Fresh Pond Apartments) that the City is working to preserve and preferences for affordable housing waitlists.

As many wise people have pointed out, it’s far more cost effective to preserve existing affordable housing than it is to build new affordable housing. The Affordable Housing Trust and the Community Development Department have made the preservation of these expiring-use buildings a high priority. The Nexus Study and possible revisions to the linkage fees from new commercial development are long overdue. The Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance may also need revision, but everyone needs to understand that requiring additional inclusionary units also likely means permitting additional density. That’s most likely a good trade-off. One idea that I hope is explored is the idea of a stepped increase in the percentage of inclusionary units required for larger housing developments. – Robert Winters


  1. I have yet to hear any of these political “activists” give an actual compelling reason on why they are so set on stopping this Silver Maple Forest project – outside of “it’s bad” or “think of the environment!”

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — October 20, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

  2. How about its a crap location to build housing? Actually I’ve seen worse, I just can’t imagine living there…perhaps I lack imagination?

    I’m more ticked off by policy order #5 and #20. Area IV as far as I can tell already is an “affordable housing overlay district.” I also love how everyone mentions C2, takes from C2, but no one actually brings C2 in its entirety up for a vote or much less a discussion. To turn over lot 5 and 6 without changing the zoning to correspond that would unlock potential development value is pretty amazing backwards thinking. To suggest that maybe this area become a PUD overlay (within an existing overlay mind you) is zoning run amok. Change the damn zoning in the entire overlay district, create value for those parcels BEFORE you start rfp-ing them out to developers. The inequity that exists between the large developer, small, and institutional is laughable…and then there is the small home owner who can’t put up a dormer or renovate their basements without triggering a variance. I guess C2 and fightclub have more in common than I thought.

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — October 20, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

  3. Regarding the so-called “Silver Maple Forest”, many of us would have preferred to see the area remain as a wild area, but this has been processed to death and, barring the remote possibility that the temporary restraining order on clearing the site is continued, it’s all over. Cambridge officials have done all that can be done. In the meantime we even recreated a wetland that purifies storm water. City staff deserve a vast amount of credit for all that they have done in improving the environment of the Little River and the Alewife area in general.

    In the final analysis, let’s make clear that the amount of misinformation that’s been spread about this parcel and the development proposal is simply stunning. In some cases, this is clearly being done for political reasons by past, present, and potential City Council candidates. For the most part, however, the mythology has been created by just a few people and swallowed whole by a chorus of activists who never dared to question the mythology.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 20, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

  4. Is anything proposed in the Grand Junction Railway project going to curtail the T’s plans to run light rail or DMUs from Allston of further to Assembly Square with a couple of stops in Cambridge? That’s an important element of improving public transportation to connect several of the new potential growth areas to Cambridge.

    Comment by John Gintell — October 21, 2014 @ 12:15 am

  5. Regarding Order #11 (which brought out lots of people):
    Later in the meeting Cambridge Public Works Commissioner Owen O’Riorden and Conservation Commission Director Jennifer Letourneau clarified most of the misinformation that had been spread concerning this site, especially the part of the site that lies in Cambridge. Most significantly, it was noted that only a small percentage of the site even lies in the flood plain. In spite of the overwhelming support for Order #11 from the audience, the Order from Councillors McGovern, Carlone, and Mazen was withdrawn later in the meeting after it was determined that most of the information contained in the order was substantially false – so much so that when the falsehoods were deleted there was essentially nothing left.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 21, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

  6. Also on the topic of the so-called “Silver Maple Forest”:
    The matter of water uptake by these trees (and any trees for that matter) needs to be explained better. Anyone who has had a tree in their yard understands that trees will draw moisture from the soil. This can be very helpful in preventing things from being perpetually soggy. On the other hand, those thirsty little capillaries are of limited use during flood events. They draw up moisture over time, but they can’t do it so fast as to mitigate any serious flooding. That’s why the good lord (if you believe in that sort of stuff) gave us rivers and streams.

    The greater problem in the Alewife area is the absurdly narrowed corridor of the Alewife Brook and its various culverts under roads as well as the limited ability of the Amelia Earhart Dam to evacuate the Alewife and Mystic Rivers during serious storms. The dam may do a good job of keeping back the ocean, but it doesn’t do such a great job of conveying river water out to the sea. [You may have to check if this is currently the case.]

    Another important factor is storm water detention. Many decades ago when the Great Swamp covered much of this area there were more nooks and crannies to store water. These days, it’s man-made underground basins and drainage swales that are used to manage as much storm water as possible and many of these systems work pretty well. The “Silver Maple Forest” is primarily an upland area bordering the wetlands and flood plain, and only a small fraction of the proposed housing site lies in the flood plain.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 21, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

  7. With all the blog posts and news articles that question nothing regarding the mythology of the “Silver Maple Forest”, I’m reminded of the line near the end of the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”:
    When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 22, 2014 @ 9:45 am

  8. Regarding the brouhaha over the proposed redesign of Fern Street, one observation I’ll make is that the Cambridge Bicycle Committee and several key people on City staff often act based on IDEOLOGY rather than practicality, good design standards, or even common sense. They are hell bent on installing segregated facilities for bicycles no matter what anyone thinks. Public meetings and charettes on proposed cycle tracks have all been a sham. Various studies that support their position are disseminated at every possibility while conflicting studies showing diminished safety are conveniently ignored.

    The fact that the City Council voted to require a meeting to be held to impartially reconsider the proposal is a huge victory, but I seriously doubt that anything in the design will change. It’s worth noting that several people spoke eloquently on the hardship associated with this proposal in regard to the loss of parking. Unfortunately, I fear that there will be no changes whatsoever to the proposal to force cyclists onto the sidewalk. In fact, if they do decide to allow on-street parking, I suspect they will accommodate this only by narrowing the travel lane to the point where it will be nearly impossible for a car and a bicycle to share the lane (which is how they designed Vassar Street in the MIT area). It will be interesting to see just how much the Western Ave. lanes will be narrowed when the street is finished and the lanes are striped. My prediction is that it will a nightmare for both traffic congestion and safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 22, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

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