Sept 27, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights
Perhaps the hottest item on tonight’s agenda is one that has received far more attention than it deserves. Earlier this year, staff at the Community Development Department suggested that changes might be in order for the current practice of seeking variances to the part of the Zoning Code relating to signage on buildings. This led to a City Council Petition that would regularize this process and shift things from seeking a zoning variance from the BZA to seeking a special permit from the Planning Board. Part of the logic was that the Planning Board and related staff were more attuned to design issues and that the mechanism might in this way be made more fair and consistent with citywide planning goals and standards. Then the excrement hit the blades.
This proposed zoning amendment should never have been a big deal, but this changed when inflammatory material showing the Charles River’s Cambridge shoreline lit up like Las Vegas with major corporate logos was circulated by opponents to the amendment. There were deficiencies in the original draft that could have led to unintended consequences around the city, and these were best illustrated by a spoken “virtual trip” through Cambridge by Kevin Crane (legal counsel for a major opponent of the proposed change) before the Planning Board during one of two summer meetings on this topic. However, the inflammatory rhetoric and graphics were never a realistic depiction of even the worst-case scenario of what could have happened as a result of the proposed changes. A series of amendments were proposed, the matter had its hearings before the Ordinance Committee, and it’s now ready for a City Council vote.
Whenever zoning controversies loom over the Cambridge City Council, they will often simply punt. That is, they will either re-file the petition under the hope that a settlement can be reached or that the controversy will die down. Either that or they will seek some kind of Solomonic compromise that averages the interests of both sides not necessarily to find the best solution but to get past the controversy. In the case of zoning petitions strategically filed so to come to a vote immediately before a municipal election, populism will often prevail. In the case of the sign ordinance changes, there is no municipal election in sight and it would seem that recent modifications to the original proposal should help grease its way to ordination. However, anything could happen. The relevant agenda items follow:
Unfinished Business #5. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 7, 2010 to consider a petition filed by the City Council to modify the Zoning Ordinance regulation of signs. the question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Sept 27, 2010. Planning Board hearing held July 6, 2010. Petition expires Oct 5, 2010.
City Manager’s Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the Zoning Petition to Revise the Sign Ordinance – Article 7.000. [The Planning Board recommends that the original Petition be approved with amendments. The changes recommended by the Board to the original Petition language of the Building ID Signs section are summarized below.]
- Establishment of a special permit process before the Planning Board.
- A narrowing of the zoning districts where such signs may be permitted, to areas of concentrated office development at the eastern and western ends of the city.
- Restriction of the signs to non-residential buildings only that are at least 100,000 square feet in size.
- Limiting the signs to identifying the whole building or an office tenant occupying a significant portion of the building. The Planning Board recommends that at least 25% of the leasable area of the building be presumed to be significant.
- Prohibition of such signs in local conservation and historic districts.
- Enumeration of the criteria for approval of the Building ID Signs, including: how the sign would be viewed from nearby residential districts, open space, historic districts, and the Charles River; light pollution.
- An articulation of the purpose of the provision.
- A relaxation of one standard in the current Sign Ordinance to allow the placement of an ID sign on the screening wall of mechanical equipment located above the building’s roof where that placement would better integrate the sign into the architecture of the building.
If this were the only item on the agenda, we might be treated to a hefty dose of public comment by those who choose to remain only partially informed, followed by a quick vote and the dismissal of otherwise routine matters. But, alas, there are a couple of other juicy items on tonight’s menu – specifically on the Reconsideration portion of the agenda.
Reconsideration #1. Reconsideration filed by Councillor Toomey on the affirmative vote taken on September 13, 2010 to refer to the Ordinance Committee and to pass to a second reading a proposed amendment to the Municipal code that would increase the residential parking sticker fee. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on City Manager Agenda Item Number Thirty-Six of August 2, 2010. On September 13, 2010 motion of Vice Mayor Davis to refer to Ordinance Committee and Passage to a second reading on roll call 7-1-1.]
After a summer committee meeting on this topic, I was inclined to believe that this would actually pass with only token opposition. After all, the current fee of $8 has been in place for nearly 20 years and it was stuck at $5 for long before that. There is an obvious logic to some kind of fee increase. However, besides the argument that these fees were never meant to be anything more than nominal fees, the matter is complicated by the fact that these fees are now embedded into an ordinance (the Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance) which restricts the uses for this revenue. Perhaps more significantly, the collection of fees for resident permit parking was established in a 1965 Special Act of the Legislature that specifies that this revenue may only be used for traffic & parking related matters.
Normally this would be fine, but it has been publicly stated now by the City Manager and others that one use of this proposed fee increase would be to “get the message out” about climate change in conjunction with the agenda of the recent “Climate Congress” of activists that took place in a series of City Hall meetings this past year. It is clear that some members of the public and some city councillors take issue with this earmarking of revenues for the benefit of one interest group. Some have argued that, despite the virtue of the proposed purpose, use of this revenue should be subject to the same budget processes as all other matters while remaining consistent with the uses specified under state law. Of course, the real bottom line is that there are political advantages to saying that you stood in opposition to a fee increase, and that inclination could prevail if the rhetoric starts to thicken. This could come to a vote as late as October 18 and still be viable for the 2011 calendar year.
Reconsideration #2. Reconsideration filed by Vice Mayor Davis on the vote taken failing to refer to the Ordinance Committee a response relative to Awaiting Report Item #10-116, regarding a report on the impact of decriminalization of marijuana possession. [Motion of Councillor Cheung to refer to Public Safety Committee failed 4-4-1. Motion of Vice Mayor Davis to refer to Ordinance Committee failed 4-4-1.]
Regrettably, I was gone by the time this vote was taken on Sept 13 (as was Councillor Decker – hence the tie vote). I believe the sole purpose of the Ordinance suggested by Police Commissioner Robert Haas in this report was to give Cambridge Police more tools for controlling public consumption of pot, including the ability of police to confiscate the dope. I would be curious to know who stood on either side of this issue as well as their reasons, but for that I may have to watch the video.
Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the planning process for the Concord Avenue redesign, the outreach efforts to inform the public of the project and how the planned changes in bike facilities in the project area were advertised in the outreach efforts. Councillor Kelley
Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Craig Kelley, Chair of the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee, for a meeting held on Aug 10, 2010 to discuss bike facilities including bike lanes, bike tracks and bike parking.
I was not a bystander in this matter. There does seem to be a growing trend within some City departments to treat cyclists as children and to move them onto the sidewalk along Concord Avenue and in some other locations. While it’s good to create this sidepath option for children along some roads with higher speeds and for most cyclists along highway-like throughfares such as Memorial Drive, it is a dreadful precedent to require most cyclists not to use the road along with all other vehicles. Besides the multiple inconveniences of these sidepaths, they often provide only a perception of enhanced safety when, in truth, they may actually be less safe. [Related article]
At issue in Councillor Kelley’s Order #2 is the especially annoying and very un-Cambridge recent practice of whisking some of these projects through with little opportunity for the public to respond until after the project is either under construction or out to bid.
Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to investigate the feasibility of adding historical sub-signs to street signs and replacing those sub-signs that were installed for the Bicentennial and commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 in 2012 with street sub-signs or some other method. Vice Mayor Davis
Though an excellent idea, one has to wonder how it can be that we are still permitted to have celebrations of any war in this ultra-politically-correct enclave. I’m sure there are those in Cambridge who would rename Hamilton Street as Karl Marx Avenue, Erie Street as Lenin Street, Perry Street as Fidel Castro Boulevard, Lawrence Street as Sisterhood Avenue, and Decatur Street as Obama Way. – Robert Winters