Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

November 2, 2014

Boarding and Baiting – Nov 3, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 10:22 pm

Boarding and Baiting – Nov 3, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Boards & Commission ReceptionThere’s a reception this Wednesday honoring the many volunteer members of Cambridge’s boards & commissions. The City administration, the Mayor and, presumably, all of the city councillors actually appreciate the efforts of these residents who give their time and energy in support of their city – all without compensation. Some board members deserve special thanks and recognition for their willingness to serve on regulatory boards such as the Planning Board which often has to decide controversial cases. Their public service and generosity often puts them in the crosshairs of malcontent activists who thrive on negativity.

The long-awaited appointments of several new Planning Board members are on this week’s agenda. As with every current member of the Planning Board, the new appointees will bring wisdom and a generous spirit to the Planning Board. Unfortunately, the anti-everything activists await them only with slings and arrows. One especially sorry individual even characterized the appointments in a message titled "Healy-Lite locks and loads his ‘Planning’ Board" stating that "Member-for-Life Chairman Hugh Russell and five other real estate and construction industry reps were retained and extended" and "three more connected pro-development insiders added to the team." His unhappiness is apparently tied to his great disappointment that an applicant who has repeatedly been involved in lawsuits against the City was not appointed (shocking!). The appointments by City Manager Richard Rossi are, in fact, excellent choices and his message to the City Council shows just how responsive this City administration has been to feedback from the public.

Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to appointments of the following citizens to the Planning Board effective Dec 1, 2014: Mary T. Flynn, Louis J. Bacci Jr., and Thacher Tiffany (Associate Member), and I have reappointed H. Theodore Cohen, and Catherine Preston Connolly.

Nov 3, 2014
To the Honorable, the City Council:

I am pleased to inform you that I have appointed the following citizens to the Planning Board effective Dec 1, 2014: Mary T. Flynn, Louis J. Bacci Jr., and Thacher Tiffany (Associate Member), and I have reappointed H. Theodore Cohen, and Catherine Preston Connolly. They will be serving on the Board with continuing members Steven Cohen, Tom Sieniewicz, Hugh Russell, and Ahmed Nur (Associate Member).

Let’s extend a hearty welcome to Mary Flynn, Luis Bacci, and Thacher Tiffany who will lend their various talents to the planning of their city. Let’s also extend heartfelt thanks to outgoing members Pam Winters and Steve Winter who have given so much of themselves over the years as members of the Planning Board. As with the newly appointed members, they are our neighbors and friends.

Manager’s Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to appointments of members to the Police Review & Advisory Board effective Oct 23, 2014: Mertin Betts, reappointment to a 5-year term; and Beverly C. Sealey, appointment to a 5-year term.

Manager’s Agenda #3. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointment of Ivria Glass Fried as a member of the Conservation Commission for a term of 3-years effective Nov 1, 2014.

Much attention has been focused on the Planning Board appointments, but there are many City boards – and hundreds of appointments to be made. The Police Review & Advisory Board (PRAB) and the Conservation Commission are two boards that also serve crucial functions within the City of Cambridge requiring special expertise. We’re lucky to have as much available talent in Cambridge as we do.

Manager’s Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a recommendation to change the street name "Rumeal Robinson Place" to Norfolk Place.

I have lived long enough in Cambridge to remember that street being renamed in honor of former CRLS basketball star Rumeal Robinson who went on to achieve fame in both college basketball (Univ. of Michigan) and in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and several other teams. After his playing career ended he tried his hand at property development in Jamaica and ended up being arrested and charged with bank fraud, bribery and wire fraud. He was found guilty and served time in jail. His adoptive mother, Helen Ford, was swindled out of her home by one of Robinson’s business associates when Robinson asked her to use it as collateral for a loan. The agenda item contains only the message from the City Engineer: "I have received requests from property owners and residents of Rumeal Robinson Place, formerly known as Norfolk Place, to change the name of the street back to Norfolk Place. I have consulted with both the Historical Commission and the Traffic Department regarding this request and have also met with the residents and property owners of the street. All parties are supportive of the requested change." Considering the background, it’s no surprise that everyone is in agreement that the name of the street should revert back to Norfolk Place. [You can read one account of the story here.]

Manager’s Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-19, regarding an update on the Concord-Alewife Plan.

The short version is that the Concord-Alewife Plan was well-conceived and the associated zoning was adopted by the City Council in 2006. At the core of the plan was the goal of introducing housing into this previously commercial precinct to transform it to a mixed use district. Now that the recovering economy has led to housing production in this area, some activists have risen up over the last few years to oppose it. The plan will not be reviewed separately but the City expects to "develop recommendations for possibly updating the plan and zoning in the Concord-Alewife area as the early phase of the upcoming Citywide Planning process in the context of the overall city goals and objectives." Next year is shaping up as an interesting battleground between the pro-growth and no-growth forces. Quite a few cans have now been kicked down the road that we’ll now have to travel.

Order #2. The City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, the Department of Public Works and Boston Properties BXP to determine the financial feasibility of the repair needed to the Galaxy: Earth Sphere sculpture and fountain.   Councillor Mazen

There’s some interesting background (and photos) on this in former Cambridge Redevelopment Authority Associate Director Thad Tercyak’s article "MBTA Role in Cambridge Center Project – Kendall Station Urban Initiatives Project, 1979-1989". The artist’s name, by the way, is Joe Davis.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to provide the City Council with a listing of all available land and buildings currently on the market or potentially for sale in order to initiate a discussion about land purchase and subsequent development of 100% mixed-income housing.   Councillor McGovern, Vice Mayor Benzan, Councillor Kelley and Councillor Simmons

I’m sure some developers would also like to get a copy of that listing once it becomes a public record. It will save them a few bucks on research. Two points can here be made. First, it’s not such a good idea to show your cards in potential real estate transactions. Second, consider carefully how neighborhood residents will perceive their City government. Most people tend to want to preserve what now exists – even if this is not in their overall best interest or that of the city and the region. The choice they may end up with is between a developer wanting to build lots of gilded condos or the City wanting to build subsidized housing. It’s likely that neither option will match the ideal of existing residents. – Robert Winters


  1. Open/release the most recent Minutes of the most recent Public Meeting of each Board/Commission in accord with Sunshine Open Government principles of FOI Freedom Of Information Public Records and Open Public Meetings.

    Comment by theszak — November 2, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

  2. Order #4 is interesting and very telling. I would loooooooooooooooooooooooooove to have that list and look forward to its being made public. What effect do you think creating such a list will have on the price of these on the market properties? As someone who dabbles I can say with confidence that if any of the properties that I currently own were on the market I would never have been able to afford them. It might be a better strategy to form an action committee whose purpose it is to identify “ideal” locations (preferably in places other than Area IV, Cambridge Port, or East Cambridge) for housing and quietly approach the owners, get them to sign NDAs, and buy the land before the vultures start circling. But if the city is determined to do my work for me, I shall happily let them.

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — November 3, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

  3. Patrick – I would hope that the Affordable Housing Trust and key people in the Housing Division within the Community Development Department would work with just a little cunning and stealth to secure properties suitable for new affordable housing without having to pay a premium. I would also hope they would use sound judgement in choosing locations that will be welcomed by existing residents. I would, however, prefer to see most or all of the Affordable Housing Trust funds go toward preserving existing affordable units rather than spending a fortune on building new ones. I would look to Inclusionary Zoning as the preferred source for delivering new “affordable” units integrated into buildings alongside market rate units.

    Comment by Robert Winters — November 3, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

  4. On Order #4:
    Some Councillors had concerns with the scope of work, which could include every piece of real estate in the City. They voted to have the City Manager tell them what they really meant.

    I agree that it’s not the best idea to telegraph your strategies in the purchase of real estate. Among other things, that’s what Executive Session is for.

    Patrick, the Alewife area has seen a huge amount of new mixed income housing, one of the largest increases in the City. The problem may be that there’s too much. Mixed uses leads to lively places. Kendall Square suffered from too little housing. Now that there is more, it has become a much better place. Alewife suffers from too little commercial/retail in the right places and some very poor connections over the rail tracks (an old problem), more housing won’t help.

    On Manager’s Agenda #1:
    To be clear Robert, do you really mean to say that the City Manager will not pick qualified applicants who have brought lawsuits against the City to Citizen Boards?

    And Patrick, I applied for the Planning Board positions. Is it true that you applied too? Too bad, I think you would’ve been a breath of fresh air.

    Tom Stohlman

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — November 4, 2014 @ 8:13 am

  5. Responses to Tom:
    (1) In the Alewife area, I have heard some people say that there’s too much housing being built and not enough retail. I personally don’t think there’s too much housing being built, but it would be best if Cambridgepark Drive was extended over the tracks to connect to Concord Ave. – a real bridge that also allows motor vehicles in addition to bikes and pedestrians. I don’t think it makes much sense to build much retail into the Triangle until there’s at least some confidence that it will be viable. Future plans should allow for that possibility. Through traffic and some on-street short-term parking will help.

    (2) Regarding the Planning Board appointments, I know for a fact that one of the sitting members on the board pursued a complaint against the City, and that never stood in the way of his appointment. The issue is whether it would be healthy to have a “bomb-thrower” on the board who is fundamentally incapable of getting along with his colleagues. There are plenty of Cambridge activists who thrive in that role, some of whom regularly step up to the microphone during Public Comment. Sometimes they even have useful things to say. I still would prefer that they not serve in an official capacity. Difference of opinion is one thing, but monkey-wrenching just for the sake of disruption gets old pretty fast.

    Comment by Robert Winters — November 4, 2014 @ 9:00 am

  6. Robert,

    I agree 100% about inclusionary housing being the best means to ensure afforable housing that this city can maintain. I have often suggested that a tiered approach would work best with the idea being that larger projects of a few hundred units or more have much more margin to play with regarding inclusionary housing. There are also financing vehicles that are available to larger scale parcels that just aren’t for smaller builds. The amount of bonus sqft is also much more valuable the larger the project gets, with some smaller parcels that can’t or won’t use it because it too greatly effects the razor thin margins on those projects. I just thought the order was kind of bizarre and reactionary to the sky-is-falling mentality of those who march inexorably toward the “WE MUST HAVE MORE HOUSING” mantra. I hope I’m not a “bomb-thrower.”

    Also when I’ve talked about the lack of commercial in the Alewife project(s), it has much more to do with retail that should facilitate living at the locus. You wouldn’t want to chuck viable sqft in favor of throwing a Chillis in one of these developments, but you would want to leave space for delis, laundromats, possible day-care, and other amenity-like commercial uses. The rub for developers is viability and cost of giving up that sqft, but you can offset this with rental adjustments, and better planning. The cost will always fall to the developer as that type of commercial use will generally be of lesser value. My cities already do things like this, and it aint controversial and simply just part of doing business.


    Yes I applied, and was denied. I wasn’t shocked by that, and my wife was greatly relieved. Thank you for the kudos, and shockingly you’re not the first to say that to me. Maybe someday I’ll qualify. I also threw my hat in at the BZA level too, but I’m not holding by breath. Its unfortunate but the BZA is often left out of these “high level” arguments, but they are a group that could use some help too. However without some substantial zoning changes they operate, much like the planning board, with one hand tied behind their back. I do like the new additions and I hope all this nonsense is cleaned up so we can actually start doing things in this city without the overshadowing non-controversy controversies that keep popping up.

    Comment by patrick barrett — November 4, 2014 @ 10:48 am

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