Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

February 21, 2016

Back to Work (Really) – Monday, Feb 22, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 2:05 pm

Back to Work (Really) – Monday, Feb 22, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting

Committee Members
Ordinance Carlone (Co-Chair), Cheung (Co-Chair)
(committee of the whole)
Finance McGovern (Chair)
(committee of the whole)
Government Operations,
Rules, and Claims
Maher (Chair), Cheung,
Mazen, McGovern, Toomey
Housing Mayor Simmons (Co-Chair),
McGovern (Co-Chair),
Carlone, Devereux, Maher
Economic Development and
University Relations
Devereux (Chair), Carlone,
Cheung, Mazen, McGovern
Human Services & Veterans McGovern (Chair), Devereux,
Maher, Mazen, Toomey
Health & Environment Devereux (Chair), Carlone,
Kelley, McGovern, Toomey
Neighborhood and Long Term
Planning, Public Facilities,
Art, and Celebrations
Mazen (Chair), Carlone,
Cheung, Devereux, Maher
& Public Utilities
Toomey (Chair), Carlone,
Cheung, Kelley, Mazen
Civic Unity McGovern (Chair), Devereux, Kelley,
Mazen, Mayor Simmons
Public Safety Kelley (Chair), Maher, Mazen,
McGovern, Toomey

Back to WorkNote: Much of this meeting’s agenda was originally set for February 8, but all City of Cambridge offices were closed that day due to snow. All of those items were carried over to the February 22 agenda.

The 2016-2017 City Council committee assignments have been announced by Mayor Simmons. There are also proposed amended 2016-2017 City Council Rules on the agenda for this week’s meeting. The proposed changes include uniformizing most City Council committees at 5 members and allowing for the possibility that some Roundtable meetings may be televised. One curious departure from tradition is that Mayor Simmons will co-chair the Housing Committee and also be a regular member of the Civic Unity Committee. In all my year’s of Council-watching, I don’t recall the Mayor being anything other than an ex-officio member of any subcommittees (other than committees of the whole) and certainly never a co-chair. I have to interpret this a strong desire of Mayor Simmons to continue work begun on these committees during the last term.

I’m especially pleased by the appointments to the Government Operations, Rules, & Claims Committee – especially with the City Manager’s contract discussion coming up (very) soon. The City Council must give notice of its intentions no later than March 1.

Other interesting items on this coming Monday’s City Council agenda:

Manager’s Agenda #17. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointment of Sharlene Yang as the new STEAM Coordinator.

So much of the focus on STEM/STEAM has seemed like little more than political fashion, but if any of these efforts result in matching young people growing up in Cambridge with real opportunities in the local economy of today, it will all have been worth it. That said, a coordinator needs to have something to coordinate and it will be interesting to see if the required opportunities develop.

Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Sage Cannabis, Inc., to amend the provisions of the Medical Marijuana Overlay District Section 20.700 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance and Map.

Communications #8. A communication was received from Michael Dundas, Chief Executive Officer, Sage Cannabis, Inc., 13 Commercial Way, Milford, MA, regarding a status update on the zoning amendment petition APP 2015 #72 filed with the Cambridge City Clerk on Nov 9, 2015.

Order #3. That the zoning petition filed by Milford Medicinals, Inc. be placed on file.   Mayor Simmons

It’s hard to say where this matter is going to ultimately end up, but it’s important to note that the City Council and City staff spent a considerable amount of time on the current zoning that delineates two areas where medical marijuana dispensaries can operate. Has the case really been made that those districts are inadequate and that additional mini-districts have to be established whenever a medical marijuana dispensary wants to operate elsewhere? It’s also worth considering how the marijuana sales landscape will take shape in the event that the ballot question on legalization prevails later this year.

Resolution #18. Congratulations to the MIT-based members of the LIGO collaboration on their contributions to the observation of gravitational waves.   Councillor Cheung

Occasionally my worlds collide. The "chirp" of two black holes colliding was the talk in every corner of MIT on February 11. Even MIT President Rafael Reif was as excited as a kid at a carnival.

Order #5. That the amendment to the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge to amend the provisions of the PUD-KS District set forth in Section 13.10 of the Zoning Ordinances and which includes a majority of the Volpe Transportation Systems Center site, be refiled as of Feb 9, 2015.   Councillor Carlone

This re-filing has been anticipated for some time, and now there will be an Ordinance Committee to work on it.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department and other relevant City departments to study the benefits of a wellbeing index and plan for how it might be incorporated into various City planning processes, including the city wide Master Plan.   Councillor Carlone, Vice Mayor McGovern

Call me skeptical. I just read the following description of a wellbeing index: "The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index is designed to be the Dow Jones of health, giving a daily measure of people’s wellbeing at the close of every day. With a daily measure, determining the correlation between the places where people work and the communities in which they live, and how it impacts their wellbeing, is now possible. Additionally, the index will increase an understanding of how those factors impact the financial health of corporations and communities." This seems to be in part a continuation of the spectrum of policies that Cambridge planners have been using for years in promoting transportation alternatives and integrating passive and active recreational opportunities wherever possible. My skepticism comes from the potential subjectivity of such a measure. I’m reminded how when various measures of cycling safety led to inconclusive results, a new "comfort index" was invented in order to justify specific policies regarding road design that some planners wanted. How shall we measure "wellbeing"?

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council regarding how the decision to move these festivals out of Central Square was reached, what plans the City has to initiate other festivals in Central Square to replace these lost activities, and what can be done to return these festivals to Central Square.   Vice Mayor McGovern, Mayor Simmons

It would be great if the Central Square Worlds Fair could one day be revived, but these events don’t come cheap, and they don’t all yield benefits for the existing businesses in Central Square.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to consult with the Community Development Department, the Public Works Department, and any other relevant City department to level the sidewalks and add new lighting to Carl Barron Plaza prior to any renovations taking place.   Vice Mayor McGovern, Mayor Simmons

Any significant renovations to Carl Barron Plaza will likely be delayed until the River Street improvements happen a couple of years from now. That said, basic maintenance of the sidewalks and better lighting shouldn’t be delayed. One comprehensive improvement that could also be made now would be a jointly operated storefront abutting the plaza that would house a Cambridge Police substation, coordination of MBTA bus activities, an information kiosk, and the promised public restroom from the last Participatory Budget process. An outside public restroom (the Portland Loo) recently open in the Harvard Square area, but it would be so much better (and more secure) if such a facility in Central Square was done jointly with enhanced police presence. The plumbing will also be a lot simpler.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the progress made in acquiring the Vail Court property, including a financial impact statement and a plan to move forward in acquiring this property through eminent domain.   Vice Mayor McGovern, Mayor Simmons

The perennial sore thumb continues to throb. Non-friendly eminent domain takings are a huge hassle and don’t always end well, but this situation is ridiculous.

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the City Clerk to communicate the City Council’s strong support of Harvard’s graduate research and teaching assistants to choose collective bargaining to the Harvard University administration.   Councillor Cheung

Some form of collective bargaining may make sense here, but being a graduate student teaching assistant is not a career option and should not be categorized the same way as long-term jobs are – unionized or not. More than anything else, this is really a test of the ethical standards of universities like Harvard, and any discussion of what constitutes fairness should also be extended to adjunct faculty for whom this often does constitute a career choice.

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to seek permission from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for the use of two lanes (one in each direction) of Memorial Drive for non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians only and further to coordinate with the appropriate city departments to close two lanes to cars (one in each direction) on Memorial Drive on Apr 29, 2016, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Walk/Ride Days, and the kick-off of the 5th Annual Walk/Ride Day Corporate Challenge.   Councillor Mazen, Councillor Devereux, Mayor Simmons

Though there may be some popular appeal in doing something like this, the unfortunate reality is that the DCR "parkways" have become essential links between the urban core and major roads like the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 2. This includes the need for a through lane as well as a turning lane at numerous locations. Removing two travel lanes or even shutting these roads down altogether may be fine on weekends and holidays, but the road already operates at capacity during rush hour on working days. It is hard to imagine the DCR agreeing to such a road closure on a busy Friday. If so, perhaps the name should be changed from "Walk/Ride Day" to "Piss Off Thousands of Commuters Day." – Robert Winters


  1. Kind of a tangent, but you piqued my interest with the mention of the “comfort index” regarding biking, which I was not aware of.
    I filled out that survey and found the repeated focus on comfort a bit novel (or it had never occurred to me being a ballsy, aka stupid, biker.)
    I definitely think that the self-congratulation and focus on “novelty” vis a vis bike accommodation seems troubling.

    Comment by Tony Tauber — February 22, 2016 @ 8:29 am

  2. Re: the following: :It would be great if the Central Square Worlds Fair could one day be revived, but these events don’t come cheap, and they don’t all yield benefits for the existing businesses in Central Square.”

    Cost is certainly a factor, but so long as they don’t hurt local businesses, since when must festivals benefit local businesses? Isn’t it enough that they benefit the people who enjoy attending them? Aside from commercial implications, a World Fair is about people – from different cultures and backgrounds – coming together. Ethnic food, dance, and music, are part of that. Having part of Mass. blocked off for this event also returns the street to the people, cuts down on pollution, even if for a day, and gives Cambridge a diverse “town square” that yuppie “Abercrombie Fitch” Harvard Square will never be.

    Comment by Nick — February 22, 2016 @ 10:28 am

  3. The Central Square World’s Fair was an initiative of the International Restaurants Association (or a similar name) formed from various Central Square restaurants in conjunction with the Central Square Business Association. It received some assistance from the City of Cambridge (mainly in the form of police presence, street closures, and cleanup), but it was not a City event. Consequently, its effect on the local business community mattered a lot.

    If the City of Cambridge and its Arts Council want to organize and fund a revived Central Square World’s Fair, I think that would be just dandy, but these things tend to be public-private partnerships or completely independent of the City. For example, I believe every major event in Harvard Square is organized by the Harvard Square Business Association and not by the City of Cambridge.

    The really big City-sponsored and organized event has long been the Cambridge River Festival. The Jazz Festival for the last two years has been organized by others. The Taste of Cambridge is organized by others. Ditto for the Rib Fest in East Cambridge. Perhaps the time has come for a more general conversation about how the City can best partner with all of the parties who are involved in organizing and sponsoring all of these great events.

    Comment by Robert Winters — February 22, 2016 @ 10:51 am

  4. In response to Tony’s comment, my issue with the invented “comfort index” was that I believe it was designed to enforce a predetermined outcome – specifically the installation of cycle tracks (separate facilities for bicycles). It’s not that I’m opposed to such facilities where appropriate, e.g. such a facility would be a most welcome addition to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, and it’s obviously a good thing along any of the DCR “parkways”. In contrast, I think such a facility would be disastrous if installed through a place like Central Square (think of pedestrians getting on and off buses being creamed by cyclists). I also feel strongly that removing bicycles from roadways sends precisely the wrong message regarding rights to use the full road network.

    I am greatly concerned about the safety of cyclists at intersections and feel that cycle tracks can be a net negative in those places where crashes are most likely to occur. Do people feel greater “comfort” on a separate facility? Probably. Does that translate into greater safety? Well, if we’re talking about something like the Minuteman Bikeway apart from any intersections, sure it’s safe. But that’s not the issue when we’re taking about urban settings. Sometimes the separate facilities are safer and sometimes they’re not. It is pure dogma to believe that cycle tracks are always the best option.

    Comment by Robert Winters — February 22, 2016 @ 11:05 am

  5. Regarding biking, I’ve read with interest the explanation from you and others on this site about the pitfalls of separation and am with you. I kinda like the separate thing on Vassar but it’s not w/o issues, mostly clueless pedestrians wandering. Luckily there aren’t tons of pedestrians on Vassar. I know there’s a proposal (maybe already a done deal) for something “novel” on Pearl which is nearer and dearer. I think it involved time-based parking restrictions (no resident parking on the right side during daytime). We could probably live without as much resident parking during the daytime, but it’d take some getting used to and would probably result in some incremental towing revenue…

    Comment by Tony Tauber — February 22, 2016 @ 11:40 am

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