Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

April 4, 2016

No Foolin’ – Coming up at the April 4, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 12:48 am

No Foolin’ – Coming up at the April 4, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting

Every once in a while, reality can be like an April Fools joke on an April Fools joke. As I was preparing to post my annual April Fools Edition of the Cambridge Civic Journal, along came Order #1 on this agenda. See below.

Charter Right #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor and other relevant City departments to consider the pending State legislation and pending legislation in the City of Boston and any other actions that would allow Cambridge to institute municipal lobbying regulations. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Kelley on Mar 21, 2016.]

As I stated in advance of the previous meeting, this is a "solution" in search of a problem. Modeled on a similar proposal being explored in Boston, this Order would require that "lobbyists … file twice-yearly reports declaring campaign contributions, the names of their clients, policies that they tried to influence or that they advocated on behalf of, compensation received from clients, and dates of lobbying communications." Who exactly are we talking about here? Is this specifically targeting property owners and their representatives who bring forward zoning petitions or file Special Permit applications? Would this also apply to people employed by the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and the government relations people associated with the city’s major universities? Would representatives of hotel worker unions or the Sierra Club have to register and provide a log of all their activities? Why not also require anyone with a financial interest in the outcome of any City administration or City Council action to register and to provide detailed records of all of their interactions? What exactly is the problem that this measure seeks to cure? Should a residents organization registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit also then be required to divulge all of their contributions and expenditures if they exceed the minimum threshold?

Charter Right #3. That the City Manager is requested to update the City Council on the effects of the removal of sidewalk vaults in Central Square. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Kelley on Mar 21, 2016.]

Once again, this is just one of many things that continue to need attention in Central Square. See page 24 of the Central Square Action Plan (1987) which states; "Even upon completion of the MBTA project there will be many areas without trees or greenery because of the extensive vault and utility system that lies beneath the sidewalks. Improvement and maintenance of these improvements to Central Square’s physical image, both public and private, is essential to gain consumer confidence and interest." Next time you walk through Central Square, take note of the broken sidewalk pavement, the missing, sunken, or heaving bricks (especially neat the T entrances), the number of dead or dying trees, and the tree wells that serve little function other than trip hazards.

Applications & Petitions #2. A zoning petition has been received from the Riverside Neighborhood Protective Zoning Proposal to amend the Zoning Map and the Zoning Ordinance of the City of Cambridge by changing the current zoning designation for the parcels within the Putnam Avenue-Franklin Street and River Street boundaries from C-1 to C zoning.

Though I may need a registered municipal lobbyist to help me read and understand the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, as near as I can tell this would reduce the permitted Floor/Area Ratio (FAR) from 0.75 to 0.6 (compare to 0.5 for Res A districts), increase the minimum lot area from 1500 sq. ft. to 1800 sq. ft., and increase the minimum ratio of private open space from 30% to 36%. The biggest question I have is what fraction of residential properties in Riverside that might now be legally conforming to the Code would be made nonconforming. Would this change make it all but impossible for homeowners to make even modest changes to their buildings without have to expend a lot of time on money seeking a variance (that they might likely not even get)?

Resolution #7. Resolution on the death of Peter Sheinfeld.   Councillor Toomey, Councillor Maher, Mayor Simmons

Peter has been a friend for many years. This was an entirely unexpected death – here one day gone the next. Peter had a constellation of friends as eclectic as Peter’s many interests. I’ll have more to say elsewhere – especially when some of the people who have known Peter over the years get together soon to exchange recollections.

Order #1. That the City Council go on record asking the Massachusetts State Legislature to review the symbolism of the Official Seal of Massachusetts to determine whether it may be perpetuating or promoting hurtful symbolism.   Mayor Simmons

Great Seal of MassachusettsI had just put the finishing touches on an April Fools joke about the City of Cambridge changing its City seal to obliterate any and all references to anything more controversial than Winnie the Pooh when I saw this City Council order on this week’s agenda. Is this what the future holds – that every historical reference has to be sanitized? This has become ridiculous. I’m sure somebody will be offended no matter what.

In any case, here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject: "The seal was adopted by the Provincial Congress on Dec 13, 1780. The shield depicts an Algonquian Native American with bow and arrow; the arrow is pointed downward, signifying peace. A white star with five points appears next to the figure’s head. A blue ribbon (blue, signifying the Blue Hills of Quincy, Canton and Milton) surrounds the shield, bearing the state motto "Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem" This comes from the Book of Mottoes in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, Denmark; written about 1659 by Algernon Sydney, English soldier and politician. It was adopted in 1775 by the Provincial Congress and the literal translation is, "With a sword, she seeks quiet peace under liberty." Although the looser English translation more commonly used is, "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty." Above the shield is the state military crest: a bent arm holding a broadsword aloft. The sword has its blade up, to remind that it was through the American Revolution that independence was won."

Go ahead. Be offended. Get a life.

Order #3. That the amendment to the Zoning Ordinance in 5.23 Height Exceptions Proposal for Converting Flat Concave Roofs for Green Uses be referred to the Ordinance Committee and Planning Board for hearing and report.   Councillor Kelley, Vice Mayor McGovern

This seems to be a reintroduction of something Councillor Kelley had pushed in the last City Council term. There is certainly some merit in the goal.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to take steps necessary to impose a moratorium, to include the possibility of the City Council implementing a zoning change, on the permitting of all new restaurants where a wood-fired oven is used as a significant method of food preparation.   Councillor Kelley, Councillor Devereux, Councillor Carlone

I can’t say that a moratorium is warranted here, but one thing I will say is that in this age when "mixed-use districts" are being encouraged is that there doesn’t seem to nearly enough attention paid to what the reasonable standards and expectations should be for places (like mine) where businesses and residents are crowded together. Perhaps it’s not enough to just hope that the Cambridge License Commission will ensure that everyone gets along.

This specific Order is about emissions from restaurants (I’m interested in which ones in particular triggered the Order), but there’s not a whole lot to be found in the Zoning Ordinance addressing the reality that some businesses that might operate late into the night in the middle of Central Square or Harvard Square might not be a welcome addition to a more neighborhood-scale mixed use district. This is something I got to thinking about a few years ago during the MIT/Kendall rezoning. Many people came out advocating for more housing (generally a great thing) but there was little attention paid to whether that housing should be located in the busiest location in Kendall Square or perhaps, more appropriately, with at least some small separation from all the activity. I suppose you could argue that tall buildings provide such separation but maybe being a short walk away is preferred.

Sorry for the digression, but I do think that the issue of well-functioning mixed-use districts that don’t drive people crazy is a topic that needs more discussion.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to initiate a process to add high-capacity dedicated motor scooter and motorcycle on-street parking within dense commercial areas, taking care to coordinate with local residents, businesses, and business associations.   Councillor Mazen

The City already does this during the warmer weather months for bikes, so why not? If the City is already OK with removing a few parking spaces in favor of bike parking, allowing for scooters and maybe creating smaller spaces for motorcycles seems worth considering. We’re already seeing some of these scooters parked on sidewalks. On a related matter, we could really use a purge of all the derelict bicycles that are occupying the various bike posts and bike racks around the city.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to consult with the Department of Public Works, the City Arborist and any other relevant City departments to discuss the feasibility of an education campaign that would be available to all property owners through tax bills and other sources to educate residents about watering street trees near their property, refilling Gator Bags, and other tips for caring for street trees and the possibility of implementing an "Adopt-a-Tree" program.   Councillor Devereux, Councillor Carlone

There’s already a really good program in place for this. It’s called: "Just Do It." Seriously, if there’s a street tree near your house that needs a little love, just adopt it and start taking care of it. Nobody from the City is going to haul you into court for doing so, and the costs are small enough that you hardly need a tax abatement to cover them. I’ve been pruning and watering trees in my neighborhood for years. The core message in this Order is that people just need a little more information and initiative – and that’s worth it. If you do the math you’ll quickly realize that when it comes to basic neighborhood maintenance (including keeping storm drains clear), there’s no way it can get done if you expect others to do it. So….. Just Do It.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to investigate the possibility of allowing local businesses to voluntarily donate collected bag fees to non-profit organizations, the newly designed Community Benefits Fund, or the Cambridge Non-Profit Coalition.   Councillor Cheung

The language is curious, don’t you think? Do we really have to take legislative action to allow local businesses to make voluntary donations to non-profit organizations? Perhaps it would be appropriate to change "allow" to "encourage" and provide some suggestions for where the fees might be directed.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with the number of parking spaces in the City of Cambridge as well as the number of cars registered in the city.   Councillor Cheung

I would like to see this information, but the aggregate totals have little value. It would be much better if this could perhaps also be done by neighborhood or other some convenient divisions.

Order #16. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments to develop a timeline for the implementation of the C2 non-zoning recommendations.   Vice Mayor McGovern, Mayor Simmons

While many of us appreciate the intention here, it needs to be pointed out that those non-zoning recommendations are just recommendations and some of them are pretty general and not necessarily in a form that can or should be implemented. The C2 recommendations were to be further refined with the help of the Central Square Advisory Committee, but that process could use a little more attention (and a little spark).

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to ban all taxpayer-funded travel to North Carolina due to the recently passed discriminatory legislation against the LGBTQ community.   Councillor Toomey

The specific legislation is kind of backwards, but one core aspect of the North Carolina law is not so different than how we do things in Massachusetts. I’m not talking about bathrooms here, but rather the principle that some things are best done uniformly throughout a state and some things can and should be determined at the discretion of individual cities and towns. In Massachusetts there are many things that can only be enacted via Home Rule legislation.

Order #20. City Council support of State Senate Bill S. 1022 which would allow municipalities in Massachusetts to set their own minimum wage without contest.   Councillor Mazen, Vice Mayor McGovern

Here’s a perfect illustration of the dilemma of who should have authority in enacting a law – the city or the state. Personally, I feel that minimum wage laws are appropriately determined at the federal level and at the state level – and NOT at the municipal level. The same was true about the smoking ban and it’s also true for standards on voting. Uniformity across municipal boundaries is generally a good idea. If you want to adjust the minimum wage, talk to your state legislators and maybe suggest different zones in the state, but don’t have different standards in every city and town.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee, for a public hearing held on Mar 11, 2016 to discuss the continued employment of City Manager Richard Rossi beyond June 30, 2016 and to initiate negotiations for a successor employment contract and any other related business put forth.

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee, for a public hearing held on Mar 23, 2016 to discuss the development of the process for the selection of a new City Manager.

The process has begun and the next meeting is Wed, Apr 6. I just hope everyone can stay on task and not try to cure all ills when they should be focusing on hiring a person. I also really hope we can identify someone (soon) who can not only manager a city with a large budget but who also already has great familiarity with Cambridge and its people.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting the determination on an Open Meeting Law Complaint of Kim Courtney dated Oct 28, 2015, amended on Jan 5, 2016.

There really does come a point when the filing of complaints rises to the level of harassment. I’m glad this pointless complaint has been dismissed, but it’s a shame that time and money had to be wasted on the changing of these particular diapers.


  1. Robert,

    Apparently the DPW is making some small headway on the vaults. So far two have been addressed, with the YMCA and Teddy Shoes building up next with proposed mitigation plans. Its only been 30 years but I guess that the kind of attention we can expect in Central Square.

    The Riverside down zoning petition is in reaction to small developers building homes behind homes (see: 11-13 Kinnaird St and 24 Kelly Rd. as examples). C and C-1 zoning are very similar and most (I’d hazzard a guess up to 80%) are already non-conforming as to dimensional requirements. I have been by 11-13 Kinnaird multiple times and I am a little skeptical as to how they were able to pull that off without a variance. However, legal shenanigans shouldn’t result in a further down-zoning of an area that has already been the subject to multiple down-zoning. Yes, this will make even more parcel non-conforming. It shouldn’t pass and we instead should address the issue of “C” zoning classifications that focus on the undesired behavior.

    Lastly, I agree with you on the Non-Zoning recommendations. It had been so long (almost a year ago today!) since I last contemplated C2 at the ordinance committee hearing. Having read through the Non-Zoning stuff it is really non-specific and there is just a ton of stuff there. I think it is time to forward a petition, and I’m hoping the CSBA or some neighborhood group is up to the task of addressing some of the Zoning recommendations that helped protect the things we like about Central Square while giving existing property owners the abililty to revitalize their properties, many of which are on the national register. We have a Target coming in 2017 and we can’t even require them to make it look like it fits in the district… in fact we can’t require anything of them. We also can’t get anymore cheap eat style restaurants because of the fast food cap … its just ridiculous.

    Comment by patrick barrett — April 4, 2016 @ 9:01 am

  2. May the many pleasant acts, words and memories imparted by Peter Sheinfeld live eternally in the minds of those privileged to have known him.
    No one saw his death as imminent; treasure each day.
    Thanks Robert for remembering him on your site.


    Comment by Fred Baker — April 4, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

  3. Deeply saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of Peter Sheinfeld.

    I first met Mr. Sheinfeld at the 2006 GOP state convention in Lowell. I would later meet him at local gatherings of the Cambridge Republican City Committee and at caucuses of the MassGOP.

    Peter Sheinfeld shall be forever missed by all those who knew him.

    God bless.


    Comment by Phil Mitza — April 14, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

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