Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 7, 2019

Never Mind Choice – Let’s All Ban Together – Oct 7, 2019 City Council Highlights/Lowlights

Never Mind Choice – Let’s All Ban Together – Oct 7, 2019 City Council Highlights/Lowlights

Here’s this week’s sampler of things interesting and/or infuriating (grouped as appropriate):

Manager’s Agenda #2. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation not to adopt the City Council zoning petition to amend Article 19.000 of the Zoning Ordinance regarding utility and infrastructure impacts of large development projects that require a Project Review Special Permit.

Order #8. Public Utilities’ Planning and public meetings.   Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Carlone

The Planning Board basically said in recommending against this petition that though they would like Project Review Special Permit applicants to provide information about energy needs, etc., they don’t believe it’s in their purview "to make findings with regard to infrastructure that is managed by state-regulated public utilities over which neither the City nor the developer have control." They also expressed concern that the proposed changes might prevent development projects that could otherwise improve existing infrastructure (as mitigation). The Board did acknowledge the value of receiving information on the overall impact of a particular project on the energy system and the cumulative impacts of new development but did not support precluding projects strictly on the basis of such information.

The context of this proposal is the proposed Eversource substation on Fulkerson St. and the fact that with new development comes the need for such facilities – unless you are of the belief that all new buildings can be built honestly "net zero". The fact is that most, perhaps all, buildings that are advertised as "net zero" still require energy off the grid. The "net zero" identification is achieved by creative accounting, i.e. by purchasing energy from renewable sources and by buying of energy credits. This doesn’t eliminate the need for the infrastructure to deliver the energy.

Order #8 seeks "to institute regularly scheduled, public conversations between the Planning Board and public utility representatives from Eversource, the Water Department, Comcast, Verizon, and any other appropriate entities, in order to keep the City and the public informed." That’s a good idea regardless how one feels about this specific zoning petition.

Manager’s Agenda #6. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the votes necessary to seek approval from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue of the tax rate for FY2020.

Communications #1. A communication was received from Christopher Schmidt, regarding not using excess balances to lower the tax levy.

The FY20 property tax levy based on the approved FY20 Budget is $438,128,694, an increase of $28,318,833 or 6.9% from FY19. For comparison sake, the current national inflation rate is 1.7%. The FY20 Adopted Operating Budget increased by 5.7% over the FY19 Adjusted Budget. The FY19 levy was 5.3% over FY18.

The FY20 residential tax rate will be $5.75 per thousand dollars of value, subject to Department of Revenue approval – a decrease of $0.19 or -3.2% from FY19. The commercial tax rate will be $12.68 – a decrease of $1.03 or -7.5% from FY19. However, before you pop the champagne corks to celebrate the lower tax rate, note that assessed values continue to soar. Total residential property values increased by 9.9%, and total commercial property values increased by 15.6%, so the median tax bills (including the residential exemption) will all be jumping – 8.9% for single-family homes, 7.4% for two-families, 6.0% for three-families, and just the tiniest of increase of 2.8% for condominiums.

I find it interesting and somewhat alarming that at City Council candidate forums some incumbents and challengers continue to celebrate how flush with cash we are and that we should be substantially increasing spending. As the noted letter indicates this also appears to be the sentiment of the major players with endorsing organizations like ABC. There was even one candidate at a forum last night who proposed that the City simply buy up all residential housing in Cambridge and turn it into "social housing". At the signpost up ahead, The Twilight Zone.

Charter Right #6. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to work with the appropriate City departments to determine whether it would be possible to allow a permitted area for serving alcoholic beverages on Danehy Park property during special community-wide events.

As I said when this was introduced – great idea, and consistent with policies that the DCR has adopted for some of its parks.

Unfinished Business #12. A Zoning Petition has been received from Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. et al proposing a Grand Junction Pathway Overlay District [Ordination Comes on or after Oct 7, 2019]

Communications #39. A communication was received from Joseph T. Maguire, Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. regarding Amended Zoning Petition for Grand Junction Pathway Overlay District.

Alexandria is asking that the petition be allowed to expire so that it can be re-filed. This matter is also intertwined with the Eversource substation matter.

Applications & Petitions #2. An application was received from &Pizza, requesting permission for a sandwich board sign in front of the premises numbered 3 Brattle Street with a start date of Dec 1, 2019 thru Mar 31, 2020 and a start time of 11:00am and a end time of 11:00pm.

Applications & Petitions #5. A Zoning Petition has been received from Suzanne P. Blier regarding Harvard Square Zoning Petition.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, the Harvard Square Business Association and the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association to determine the feasibility of closing some portion of Harvard Square to vehicular traffic on a select number of days during the summer of 2020 to have open market-style events.   Councillor Mallon, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Siddiqui

It is worth noting (and celebrating) that the freshly introduced Harvard Square Zoning Petition is the result of collaboration among residents and property owners who haven’t always been on speaking terms. Kudos once again to future Nobel Peace Prize nominee Patrick Barrett for helping this process along. We all want to see a Harvard Square revival – and not just for occasional one-day events. As for the sandwich board sign in front of &Pizza, I thought having one of the most prominent locations in the heart of Harvard Square would speak for itself – no extra signage required. I’ll add that really good pizza also speaks for itself.

Communications #2-6,12. Sundry communications re: "Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay".

Is anyone listening? Or are 5 councillors still biding their time in the hope that they can inflict this or worse on the city after January 1?

Communications #10. A communication was received from Gregg Moree, 25 Fairfield Street, regarding State Senator Sal DiDomenico clear evidence of him going to Florida without permission.

Unbelievable. Sometimes I feel that the requirement for candidacy should be something other than just 50 signatures.

Communications #13-36. Sundry communications re: support for bike lanes.

Basically all the same letter saying the same thing about how the priorities of one group of stakeholders outweigh all other considerations and there is one and only one way to make cycling safer.

Order #3. That the full City Council ask the City Solicitor to report back on the legal authority of the City to ban the use of natural gas in newly constructed buildings.   Councillor Zondervan

Order #19. That the City Manager is requested to direct the City Solicitor, Community Development, Public Works, Inspectional Services and any other related departments to review the proposed amendments regarding the prohibition of Natural Gas Infrastructure in New Buildings.   Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Devereux

Committee Report #1. A report from Vice Mayor Jan Devereux and Councillor Quinton Zondervan, Co-Chairs of the Health and Environment Committee for a public hearing held on Sept 25, 2019 regarding banning natural (fracked) gas infrastructure in Cambridge.

As I wrote elsewhere regarding candidates, some want to mandate change and remove choice. The better candidates want to encourage change and provide incentives. It’s a big difference. Some candidates think primarily in terms of bans and reducing options. Others believe in expanding choice and providing good alternatives from which to choose. I personally prefer using a gas stove. I also believe my natural gas heat is considerably less expensive than the electric alternative.

Relic of the Washington Elm
Circular box carved from a
piece of the Washington Elm
Washington Elm postcard

Order #4. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to direct the Arts Council and the Department of Public Works, in conjunction with the Rindge School of Technical Arts, to determine the best re-use for the four honey locust logs from Inman Square to create public art for the community.   Councillor Zondervan

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Paula Crane, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Quinton Zondervan, Co-Chair and Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Co-Chair of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebration Committee, for a public hearing held on Sept 17, 2019 to discuss the preserved Inman Square tree trunks and receive input from the public on possible future uses of the wood, which is a public resource.

This is perhaps one of the tiniest of agenda items, but I really like the idea of using the wood from identified trees either as public art or as mementos. I have a little circular box made from the famous Washington Elm that once stood at Garden and Mason Streets. I have other pieces of that tree as well.

Order #5. That the City Manager have appropriate city staff review the proposed Welcoming Community Ordinance.   Councillor Kelley, Councillor Mallon, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Siddiqui

Committee Report #3. A report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Councillor Craig A. Kelley, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Oct 2, 2019 at 3pm to discuss the Welcoming Community Ordinance.

This is basically just an updated version of the existing Sanctuary City resolution but in the form of an ordinance that specifically addresses how the Cambridge Police and other City departments should interact with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The City Solicitor expressed that Council should be careful when limiting a police officer’s discretion to enforce laws, and I agree completely. I do find merit in Sanctuary City principles in that I certainly don’t want people to stop reporting crimes or contacting the Fire Dept. or other services out of fear of being nailed for their immigration status.

Order #7. Fuel pump warning labels.   Vice Mayor Devereux, Mayor McGovern, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Zondervan

Sign, sign everywhere a sign blocking out the scenery breakin my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Order #11. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to allocate more funds in the FY21 budget to Inspectional Services to help combat the city-wide rodent issue and report back on the feasibility of providing monetary compensation to homeowners who have had to self-finance traps and what funds could be allocated in the future to help homeowners buy traps.   Councillor Toomey

What about those of us who live next to a building where the property owner (and tenants) don’t properly address their rodent infestation even after the City has been contacted, fines have been issued, and the problems persist? Getting reimbursed for partially addressing problems on an adjacent property that spills over onto your own property hardly seems like a solution.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Budget Department, the Assessor’s Department and the Community Development Department to consider directing a portion of future PILOT funds into the Affordable Housing Trust starting in FY21.   Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Siddiqui, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Zondervan

Earmarking funds in this way is generally a bad idea. Same goes for previous notions of dedicating cannabis-related funds toward purposes unrelated to its impacts. Priorities and needs change and restricting in-lieu-of-tax funds from universities to one purpose is short-sighted.

Order #15. That the City Council go on record in support of House Bill 3116, Senate Bill 2034, and the establishment of Governor Baker’s Low-speed Mobility Device Advisory Working Group as part of the Safe Driving Legislation, Senate Bill 7.   Councillor Kelley, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Mallon, Councillor Siddiqui

This is a good idea and overdue. That said, if anyone thinks that electric scooters and skateboards are going to go a long way toward solving transportation needs, think again.

Order #16. Creating the Director of Arts and Culture Position.   Councillor Mallon, Mayor McGovern, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Simmons

I have to seriously question the motivation for this Order. If some councillors have questions about how the Cambridge Arts Council prioritizes arts and cultural matters in the city, that’s a totally reasonable inquiry. If they believe that additional staff may be required, that’s also a reasonable thing to ask of the City Manager in the next Budget cycle. However, asking to create a highly specific "Director of Arts and Culture" position seems like these councillors are stepping way over the line into city management. Should the whole universe of how the City supports arts and culture be reviewed periodically? Absolutely, and the City Manager should regularly challenge the Arts Council and other City-supported entities (like CMAC) to be the best they can be. We currently have an especially good Executive Director of the Arts Council in Jason Weeks, and I fail to see how creating a separate and parallel position will in any way further any goals that may have been expressed as part of the recent Arts Task Force.

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Economic Development division of the Community Development Department to retain a financial/economic analyst to conduct a confidential financial analysis of NED’s pro forma to inform the council in confidence on the value of the proposed upzoning.   Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Kelley, Vice Mayor Devereux

This may make sense in this specific case since the proponent has offered to provide this financial information, but I hope that we don’t go down the road of only approving projects after analyzing the books of the proponents. Ideally zoning should be about good planning and betterment for the city and not on how much profit is permissible in the long run.

Order #21. Proposed amendment to City Ordinance 1.12.040 regarding City Solicitor opinion on proposed ordinances.   Councillor Carlone, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Kelley, Councillor Siddiqui

I don’t know if an ordinance change is necessarily warranted in this case, but it probably is a good idea to get the City Solicitor involved earlier in some of these matters rather than head down some roads leading to a dead end. – Robert Winters


  1. Please , please can you print Gregg Moree’s letter for us to be amused Thanks

    Comment by Brendan Sullivan — October 7, 2019 @ 4:45 pm

  2. The Moree letter is linked in the above article. Apparently he’s upset by the fact that he’s not getting a piece of the action of the Encore casino revenue for the fictional role he imagines he played in it being located in the Boston area. I’m also a little perplexed by the notion that a State Senator needs anyone’s permission to go to Florida.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 7, 2019 @ 8:45 pm

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