Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 21, 2015

Last Call – Dec 21, 2015 Cambridge City Council meeting highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 2:37 am

Last Call – Dec 21, 2015 Cambridge City Council meeting highlights

This is the last meeting of the 2014-2015 Cambridge City Council. The new term begins with the Inaugural Meeting on Monday, January 4 at 10:00am in the Sullivan Chamber of City Hall. Here are a few notable items for this last meeting of the term grouped by topic:

2015 to 2016Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, regarding two commitment letters received from Boston Properties relative to the 88 Ames Street project.

Unfinished Business #8. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Dec 3, 2015 to continue discussion on the petition filed by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) to amend the Zoning Ordinance in the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan area (KSURP) and to amend the current zoning for the MXD District in Kendall Square to reflect the proposed changes to the plan. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Dec 21, 2015. Planning Board Hearing held Oct 13, 2015. Petition expires Dec 22, 2015.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting modifications to MXD Zoning Petition and Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan Amendment.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Assistant City Manager of Community Development and Executive Director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to provide a better economic analysis of the MXD District in Kendall as it would compare to a more typical land acquisition and development deal and to report back to the City Council.   Councillor Toomey

Essentially every modification requested by the City Council in regard to this has been successfully negotiated, so it’s difficult to see any rational basis for not ordaining this proposed zoning amendment on Dec 21. Letters from the Cambridge Residents Alliance and the current incarnation of the East Cambridge Planning Team seek delay solely for the sake of delay. We’ll see if the tail wags the dog on Monday evening. The petition expires Dec 22.

[Update: The petition to amend the Zoning Ordinance in the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan area (KSURP) and to amend the current zoning for the MXD District in Kendall Square both passed on 7-2 votes with Councillors Kelley and Toomey voting in the negative. There was also an additional commitment from Boston Properties to have a minimum of 20% of the housing be made available for homeownership.]

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Dec 1, 2015 to continue discussions on a petition by the Planning Board to amend Section 13.10 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance so as to change the development controls applicable in the Planned Unit Development at Kendall Square (PUD-KS) Overlay Zoning District. The majority of the PUD-KS District is occupied by the Volpe Transportation Systems Research Center operated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The zoning petition associated with the Volpe Center property seems not ready for prime time. The petition has a Feb 8 expiration date, so it could still be acted on during January or, more likely, be re-filed.


Manager’s Agenda #13. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 15-120, regarding a report on the Alewife Bridge/Platform project.

Manager’s Agenda #14. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to an appropriation of $190,000 from the Mitigation Revenue Stabilization Fund to the Public Investment Fund Community Development Department Other Ordinary Maintenance account which will be used to pay for completion of the feasibility study and preliminary design of a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Fitchburg Line commuter rail tracks to link the Alewife Triangle and the Alewife Quadrangle.

This would be a far better proposal if it allowed full vehicular access over the proposed bridge – not just bikes and pedestrians. Without a 2nd means of egress, the Alewife Triangle is just a giant cul-de-sac with insufficient means to enter and exit the area. A full-service bridge would unite the Triangle and Quadrangle as was originally proposed in the Fishbook (Alewife Urban Design Study, 1979). This would improve both areas significantly.


Unfinished Business #9. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Dec 1, 2015 to discuss the proposed Community Benefits Ordinance. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Dec 21, 2015.
[Update: This was ordained on an 8-1 vote with Councillor Kelley voting in the negative.]

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marc C. McGovern, Chair of the Finance Committee, for public hearing held on Dec 10, 2015 to discuss the financial aspects of Community Benefits.

Manager’s Agenda #15. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, the appropriation of $250,000 from the Mitigation Revenue Stabilization Fund to the Public Investment Fund Community Development Department Extraordinary Expenditures account which will be used for conceptual and schematic design for proposed improvements to Point Park, at the intersection of Broadway and Main Street in Kendall Square. The funds were given to the City as a part of a 2012 agreement between the City and Boston Properties, LP.

Manager’s Agenda #16. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of $2,000,000 from the Mitigation Revenue Stabilization Fund to the Public Investment Fund Community Development Department Extraordinary Expenditures account which will be used for the design and construction of a new public open space along Galileo Galilei Way and bounded by Binney Street, Broadway, and the Grand Junction railroad tracks, as part of a 2012 agreement with Boston Properties.

Manager’s Agenda #17. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of $8,336,980 from the Mitigation Revenue Stabilization Fund to the Public Investment Fund Community Development Department Extraordinary Expenditures account which will be used for the construction of two new public open spaces in the eastern Cambridge/Kendall Square area: Rogers Street Park on Rogers Street between Second Street and Third Street, and Triangle Park, between First Street, Binney Street, and Land Boulevard.

Manager’s Agenda #18. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a transfer in the amount of $3,728,500 associated with the MIT PUD-5 Zoning, Ordinance #1355 ($3,500,000) and Education First’s agreement for the North Point Building project, Ordinance #1337 ($228,500) from the Mitigation Revenue Stabilization Fund to the Community Benefits Stabilization Fund which will be used to provide financial support to non-profit charitable community benefits organizations serving Cambridge residents determined by a process established by the City.

Manager’s Agenda #19. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of $112,100 from the Mitigation Revenue Stabilization Fund to the Public Investment Fund Public Works Department Extraordinary Expenditures account which will be used to remove stormwater (inflow) from the sewer system to offset the new sewer flows associated with the development at 22 Water Street.

When it rains it pours. After being batted around for much of the last decade, the proposed Community Benefits Ordinance appears to be ready for ordination, and with it comes a flood of expenditures utilizing funds generated from a range of commercial developments. It’s interesting that this culmination comes at the last meeting of this City Council term.


Manager’s Agenda #22. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 15-138, regarding a report on the feasibility of having a comprehensive housing plan as part of an early action item of the citywide planning process.

The Housing Division of the Community Development and other parties have been involved in this issue for a long time and will continue to be very actively involved during the entirety of the upcoming citywide planning process. It was never clear what the expectations were as a "early action item" and it seems abundantly clear that this will be perhaps the single most dominant issue throughout the whole process.

Manager’s Agenda #26. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 15-32, regarding a report on the economic analysis for Central Square.

I don’t think there are any great revelations here. If anything, this report simply underscores many of the things said and learned during the Mass & Main petition process. Specifically, the Woodworth report emphasizes how difficult it is to get "family-size" affordable units into a project at an assumed height of about 12 floors. It also makes abundantly clear that building lab space or something comparably profitable is economically advantageous compared to residential projects, and that at 12 floors and a 4.0 FAR the only way to generate family-size affordable residential units is to have that profitable lab space subsidize it. Nobody ever claimed that the C2 recommendations got everything exactly correct. The whole purpose of analysis like this is to get a more accurate sense of the economic realities and necessary incentives to get the desirable outcomes outlined in the C2 report.

Put all this into the Mass & Main context. Mass & Main showed that you can get some of the desirable outcomes if you allow a little more height and density. Can anyone now reasonably question that the only way to get a workable residential project (no lab) with an acceptable number of affordable units was to allow a building greater than 12 stories? This also makes pretty clear that there really was an economic basis for wanting to build lab space and that there was great wisdom in taking the necessary votes to get a residential project instead.

I find most of the assumptions in this analysis to be reasonable. I might perhaps question the assumption that "family-size" (3 bedroom) requires an average of 1300 sq. ft. The floors of most Cambridge triple-deckers are less than 1300 sq. ft. and many families lived well within those apartments.

Personally, I have never bought into the argument that it is so vitally important to build many "family-size" apartments into new residential buildings in all locations. The most plentiful source of those family-size units has long been in existing multi-family housing much of which has been lost to overpriced condominium conversion over the last decade or so. One of the main arguments for building new housing – with or without a high fraction of "affordable units" or family-size units – is to absorb some of the demand that is otherwise removing existing housing units from affordability. That said, I understand that there actually is a demand for such family-size units in Kendall Square (Ames Street, for example) and there’s plenty of lab/office revenue to support its provision.


Unfinished Business #5. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to proposed amendment to the Living Wage Ordinance. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 16, 2015.

Committee Report #5. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan and Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Dec 14, 2015 to continue discussion on the proposed amendments to the Municipal Code Chapter 2.121 entitled "Living Wage Ordinance."

The proposed amendment to the Living Wage Ordinance still doesn’t seem ripe for ordination, but that won’t necessarily stop this City Council from once again ordaining something prematurely. The most telling statement in the committee report is this: "Mr. Rossi noted that it is his job to give his professional advice. He can do a better job for citizens and he disagrees with this proposal."
[Update: This was ordained unanimously.]


Unfinished Business #6. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Nov 18, 2015 to discuss a proposed amendment to the Zoning Ordinance to amend Article 6.000 to create a new Section 6.24 Car-sharing Provision that will create a definition and general provisions for Car-sharing and will allow the limited use of parking spaces. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Dec 28, 2015. Planning Board Hearing held Oct 27, 2015. Petition expires Feb 16, 2016.

Unfinished Business #7. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Vice Mayor Dennis A. Benzan and Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Nov 19, 2015 to discuss a petition filed by Patrick W. Barrett III, et al. to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance by amending Article 2.000 ("Definitions") and Article 4.000, Section 4.22 ("Accessory Apartment"). The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Dec 28, 2015. Planning Board Hearing held Oct 27, 2015. Petition expires Feb 17, 2016.

Either of these zoning petitions could be ordained with possible amendments at this meeting, but both petitions have expiration dates in mid-February and are not so time sensitive. [I believe that zoning petitions are governed by state law and do not expire at the end of a City Council term.] There is also still a report due from the Inspectional Services Dept. on some aspects of the Barrett Petition. [A brief preliminary report from Inspectional Services arrived as a late addition to the City Manager’s Agenda.]


Order #1. That all items pending before the City Council and not acted upon by the end of the 2014-2015 Legislative Session be placed in the files of the City Clerk, without prejudice provided that those proposed ordinances which have been passed to a second reading, advertised and listed on the Calendar under "Unfinished Business" during the 2014-2015 City Council term, along with any other pending matters on the Calendar listed as "Unfinished Business," shall be forwarded to the next City Council and further provided that any items pending in committee may, at the discretion of the committee, be forwarded to the next City Council.   Mayor Maher

This is the traditional "clean slate" order at the end of every City Council term that makes clear that most items still in committee, on the Calendar, and listed under Awaiting Report expire with the end of the Council term unless forwarded by the respective committee Chairs to the new City Council.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to direct Inspectional Services to work with businesses in Central Square to clean unwanted graffiti on area buildings.   Councillor McGovern

In truth, this problem goes well beyond just the graffiti, though some of the spectacular examples of negligent Central Square property owners should get special and immediate attention. I would also prefer that people refer to this as vandalism rather than suggest some inherent artistic value.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to coordinate with the appropriate departments to give recognized community groups the ability to present alongside or directly after city staff, on the record and as part of the presentation agenda during meetings of the Ordinance Committee.   Councillor Mazen

This is a spectacularly misguided order. Its intent appears to be to confer special standing upon specific self-proclaimed entities. There is absolutely nothing today that prevents any resident from testifying at an Ordinance Committee meeting and any group of residents can petition the Chair to present as a group if this makes the testimony more efficient. Who exactly is to decide what constitutes a "recognized community group?" Should this Order pass, I will personally start circulating petitions creating a half dozen "community groups" in order to reserve the right to have a place on the presentation agenda of every meeting of the Ordinance Committee. Perhaps the sponsor of this Order only means to reserve this privilege for organizations that have endorsed his candidacy.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Councillor E. Denise Simmons, regarding the work the Housing Committee has conducted throughout the course of the term and recommendations what the Housing Committee and the City Council will continue to work on in the coming term.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #2. A communication was received from Councillor E. Denise Simmons, to briefly reflect upon the work the Civic Unity Committee has conducted throughout the course of the term and issue some recommendations what the Civic Unity Committee, the City Council, and the City Administration will continue to work on in the coming term.

This is something new – a city councillor writing up summary statements at the end of a City Council term of the work of her committees. I think this should be standard procedure in the future. Way to go, Councillor Simmons! – Robert Winters

9 Comments

  1. The Woodworth report seems like rubbish to me. The assumption of $75/sqft of FAR seems laughably low. The suggestion that current zoning allows for meaningful residential development where C2 would not is a complete farce. The report imagines a 40k sqft parcel with an existing building that has an acquisition cost at land value only. Can you picture such a building? I cannot. You’d also have to take into consideration the current use, what the current NOI is against the risk/cost/value of whatever it is you’re trying to build. I have not seen anyone come in below $150/sqft for FAR. Also the first hypo is incorrect and assumes an FAR of 2.75 where the residential FAR is 3. I’d also like to see demo and site prep for a 40k sqft site done at $140k … I got a quote for over a million on my 9500sqft parcel alone. Given the weird secrecy, odd timeline, and seemingly total lack of leadership from the top down on C2, and the “masterplan” in general I have nothing positive to say about any of this, except Star Wars is terrific …and Merry Christmas Robert!

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — December 21, 2015 @ 8:59 am

  2. Patrick – Perhaps my reading comprehension skills are waning, but where exactly does the Woodworth report imply that the current zoning allows for meaningful residential development in Central Square? If that were true we would have residential buildings sprouting up all over, and that’s not happening.

    Comment by Robert Winters — December 21, 2015 @ 9:46 am

  3. It says that the margin of profit exists with the current zoning for residential development at 6.5% where the new zoning,if maxed, would yield 5.3% which is below the threshold deemed viable.

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — December 21, 2015 @ 10:32 am

  4. Here is the exact quote, “Given the assumptions, a residential project is feasible under existing zoning, but not feasible under the
    proposed zoning.” -pg 5

    Comment by Patrick Barrett — December 21, 2015 @ 10:37 am

  5. Patrick – In that case, I would have to start questioning a lot of the assumptions in the report. If the profit margin was as stated, then it seems certain that there would already have been some new residential development underway in Central Square besides Mass & Main. The proof is in the pudding, and there’s no pudding.

    Comment by Robert Winters — December 21, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  6. There are 89 Awaiting Reports (my count might be off by 1 or 2); 11 of them are from 2014. The highest number listed for 2014 is 14, for 2015 is 147 or a total of 293 (there might be a few more, but about 1/3 are unresolved.

    This is evidence that we don’t have a very good process for official communication between the Council and the City Manager.

    Comment by John Gintell — December 21, 2015 @ 10:50 am

  7. John – You’re quite right. One thing I always liked seeing was when Bob Healy would see to it that a bunch of the more frivolous requests on Awaiting Report were given pro forma brief responses of the “this is simply not feasible at this time” type. Councillors might complain, but they always had the capacity to ask that the matter be sent back to the manager. It did help to keep things moving along.

    This latest agenda has 90 items on Awaiting Report (11 from 2014 and 79 from 2015) with 9 of them given responses this week. (That 10% rate is significantly higher than usual.) Of the remaining 81 items, a quick perusal suggests that at least 75% of them could be disposed of with relative ease – either with a “not feasible” pro forma response or with a “we are continuing to work on this” response. There is nothing wrong with providing a relatively short response and having the councillors say that it’s inadequate and they want more. It’s far worse to give no response and leave the impression that the requests are being ignored.

    Comment by Robert Winters — December 21, 2015 @ 11:41 am

  8. In regards to your comments on Order #7 (and I know, even if you don’t have the bottle to say it, that you’re referring to Graffiti Alley opposite Pearl Street on Mass Av): If the property owner consents, who cares? It’s not the city’s business to go around deciding what can and can’t be kept based on someone’s view of artistic merit. This country has a wonderful tradition of street art, and those who practice that art form honestly have a pretty rigid code of ethics, one of which is asking for consent from a property owner beforehand. (Others include not making works on houses of worship, or intentionally covering up the work of others, for a few.) I’m all for blasting over punks who drop gang signs on any traffic light or post box they find, but your comments paint (pun absolutely intended) with an unduly broad brush.

    Comment by Haji Abdul-Malik Shabazz — December 24, 2015 @ 12:28 am

  9. Well, H.A-M..S, I have no idea what you mean by “have the bottle”, but you’re way off base. The reference was to the spectacular vandalism that covers the upper floors of the buildings – not “Graffiti Alley”. I also question your belief that there’s a rigid code of ethics among the practitioners of what you call “street art”. Public Works crews have to regularly clear vandalism off the mural opposite the graffiti wall in Central Square. Here’s a spectacular example of some of the vandalism to which I referred.

    Comment by Robert Winters — December 24, 2015 @ 9:24 am

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