Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 12, 2015

Flashback to March 1998

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 1:09 pm

Flashback to March 1998 (Issue #7 of the original Cambridge Civic Journal)

Save Central SquareI was looking back at some early writings in the original Cambridge Civic Journal and took note of some of the similarities between then and now. This was before the invasion of the millennials and hipsters and the full buildout of Kendall Square and its associated companies and high-income employees. Surprisingly, the tenor of the conversation hasn’t really changed all that much. Just replace "Holmes project" with "Mass & Main" and the group "Save Central Square" with "Cambridge Residents Alliance" and subtract out some of the most severe Marxists among them, and it’s hard to tell them apart. Here are a few sample quotes, starting with my own:

"Civic participation has become a way of life for me over the last twelve years and has served as a kind of free education about government and society. In recent weeks I have been having second thoughts due to all the rancor associated with the Holmes project in Central Square. In all my time in Cambridge, I have not come across a more vicious, mean-spirited group of people than the gang that calls itself Save Central Square."

"There are some in Cambridge who have a distorted view of what democracy is all about. I watched last summer as propagandists from SCS, unencumbered by employment, galloped out from Central Square yelling that "the yuppies are coming", that a building 15 stories tall was about to be built, that everyone’s rent would rise because of the Holmes project, that it would cause traffic to become unbearable, that The Gap and malls and chain stores were coming in, that all commercial tenants would be thrown out permanently, that former Gov. William Weld was behind it, and that people like me who didn’t buy the propaganda did not live in Cambridge. When you lie to people and threaten them and attribute rising housing costs to a single project, and if you have unlimited time on your hands, it is no surprise that you can gather several thousand signatures. If I believed what was being said, I would have signed their petition. Fortunately I knew better. I also know what democracy isn’t."

"Cambridge has a serious problem of authenticity. Every week I hear individuals claiming to speak for entire neighborhoods with nothing to back up their claims. Neighborhood associations with ancient membership lists and no discernible outreach will meet and make declarations about what other people supposedly believe. They will gleefully blend their own personal agendas with their associations and claim authenticity. I propose that in all public meetings there should be a prohibition against anyone claiming to represent neighborhoods unless they can provide objective substantiation of that claim. Individuals will be free to speak their mind, representatives from organizations can speak for their members, but we should have no more advocating without representation." – Robert Winters, Mar 29, 1998

In that same issue, Clifford Truesdell of Essex St. was quoted:
"Save Central Square is not the community. They are a subset of the community. The community is a lot more diverse, a lot less 60’s-ish, and a lot better mannered."

Bill Cunningham’s remarks focused on his perceptions of urban renewal and tokenism and denounced the recently passed Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. Basev Sen asserted that the Holmes project would draw high income shoppers from the suburbs. He characterized traffic studies as somewhere between shoddy and outright deceptive. Ellen Al-Wequayan characterized the Holmes project as "the death of the neighborhoods." Jeff Duritz called Central Square the most unique place he’d ever lived and warning of "downstream social consequences" of the Holmes project. He railed against Starbucks, calling on the City to take the Holmes property by eminent domain. Michael Isenberg focused on his belief that the Holmes project was not consistent with the guidelines for development in Central Square. Waddie Taylor called for a moratorium on all development in Cambridge.

Loyd Smith was inexcusably insulting to the City Council and others and was followed by James Williamson, who has become the poster boy for incivility during this entire process. Jimmy repeatedly accused City officials of lying and disrespecting guidelines for Central Square development as he went on for 15 minutes in spite of a 5 minute limit on public comment under the rules. He repeatedly characterized minor revisions to the Holmes proposal as "new proposals". He labeled the use of City funds for facade improvements in Central Square as bribes. He accused officials in the Community Development Department of deliberately withholding information from him. My favorite quote of his: "We ARE the rest of the community." If this is the case, God help us all.

My own remarks on the Holmes project went something like this:
"When we were first introduced to the proposal a year ago, we viewed it as an opportunity. We understood the process through which the proposal would have to go. We asked for the inclusion of affordable housing and this was done. Some of us asked for reduction in height and this was done. We asked for alterations to the massing of the building and this was done. We asked that light be allowed to reach Carl Barron Plaza and this was done. This was a long process, a very inclusive process, and a largely successful process. There have been calls for a greater percentage of affordable housing, as was done in the neighboring Church Corner apartments, but the density of that project was far in excess of what is called for in the Holmes proposal and should not be used as a model." Some have characterized the Holmes project in extreme terms. This is neither the death of a neighborhood nor anything else akin to the apocalypse. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a building is just a building.

[Report on the Mar 17, 1998 Planning Board meeting where the Holmes project was approved (CCJ#7)]
You may recognize some of the players – then and now. – RW

1 Comment »

  1. I think this is a good example for people missing the forest for the trees. Advocates for rent control could have and should have fought a little bit harder to stop that sudden change, which had a far more deleterious effect on the ability of Cambridge to remain an affordable and working class city than any specific development or housing policy before or since. I suspect you were on the winning side of that vote, as were my parents, property owners in North Cambridge at the time, who voted against rent control. I think property owners doing that had honest and legitimate grievances with the status quo of an antiquated regulatory regime, but may not have expected all the unanticipated consequences that critics were right to point out. It has made all three of the communities where it was abolished significantly less equitable and less affordable.

    My first political fight with my parents was around 1998, 4 years after that vote when my sister moved in with us, kicked out of her formerly rent controlled building that went condo (Walden Park Apartments across from St. Peter’s Field), along with other members of our extended family. She went into public housing, then Section 8, then Chelsea and then Marlboro on a quest for better schools and better housing. It’s shameful Cambridge wasn’t an option for her, and isn’t for an increasing number of us who grew up there and want to come back. That said, rent control should have been modified and reformed, or eased out if it was so untenable, rather than the sudden and irreversible way it happened.

    It pitted advocates to defend an antiquated status quo, while the alternative was an immediate disruption that had a profound impact on the quality of life of many thousands of people. In many ways it mirrors the Uber debate. Obviously cabs are not working and the regulations are antiquated for modern realities, but simply allowing uber to run unfettered in it’s place is a disruption good government can and should mitigate against.

    That said, there is also a strong NIMBY mentality that is opposed to new ideas and new solutions. High rise, high density, transit centric development has to be part of the future and part of the solution. And I worry that Net Zero proponents, the CRA, and other groups are not focused on that. Focusing instead on the easy answers that a rigid anti-development perspective allows, rather than asking the hard questions and doing the hard work to arrive at a reasonable compromise. While eliminating rent control was not the result of a reasonable compromise, reimposing it is a pipe dream since it requires a statewide constitutional change.

    So we have to work with the reality that we have, which means creating an expanded market for affordable housing, which means approving new housing development. It means raising the cap on affordable unit allocation, something the City Council recently did. I am really uncertain what more they can do within their allotted powers and recognizing the political and economic realities that exist in the wider area.

    Advocates should turn their attention to the regional and state’s inability to create highly efficient and reasonably comprehensive mass transit, which is the ultimate solution to this crisis since it will open up suburban communities that are currently closed to the working class and people of color. Forcing other communities to raise their caps on affordable housing, and changing statewide housing and property tax laws to encourage sustainable and denser development. The City Council can stop the bleeding and mitigate the wounds, which it largely has, but the cure has to come from a more regional effort at mitigating this problem. Cambridge can’t go it alone, and expecting it to is a very narrow minded mentality that actually hurts serious efforts at change and advocacy.

    Comment by James Conway — October 12, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

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