Coming up at the May 18, 2015 Cambridge City Council meeting
There are plenty of items from which to choose on this week’s agenda, but there’s really little doubt that the one to watch is the vote to ordain the Normandy/Twining petition that would allow a significant number of new apartments to be built at the eastern end of Central Square, a.k.a. Lafayette Square.
Manager’s Agenda #19. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the Normandy/Twining (Mass and Main) Zoning Petition. The Planning Board recommends adoption with suggested modifications.
Unfinished Business #2. 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 Apr 1, 2015 to continue discussions on the Normandy/Twining petition. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after May 11, 2015. Planning Board Hearing held Feb 24, 2015 and continued on Apr 28, 2015. Petition expires May 27, 2015.
Communications – 30 letters in support of Normandy/Twining Petition and 21 letters opposing Normandy/Twining Petition.
The necessary votes appear to be there to ordain this petition, but the real story is the political dynamics surrounding it. The Cambridge Residents Alliance (CResA), an unregistered political action committee disguised as a non-profit civic association, was born a few years back in response to the very things this petition would bring, i.e. additional height and residential density in Central Square. Back then it was the prospect of apartment buildings popping up on Prospect Street and Bishop Allen Drive and a residential tower behind the firehouse in Lafayette Square. Those ideas were either withdrawn or put on permanent hold. Other ideas were floated during the C2 process that helped to shape their recommendations, but the prospect of something actually being built only began to materialize at the end of the C2 process when the Quest properties in and around Lafayette Square were sold. There was little doubt that something would be done with these properties.
Objectively speaking, there’s a lot to be said for bringing significant new housing to this location, especially with a sizable number of units set aside for people with low/moderate income. There’s also some great possibilities in terms of ground floor retail and what people these days like to call "placemaking". It’s also very significant that a residential building is being proposed rather than an office or lab building.
On the other hand, this is also an opportunity for politics and we’ve seen a lot of that lately. There was an organized effort to turn an Ordinance Committee meeting on this petition into a tribunal directed at any city councillor who ever took a dollar from a property owner or developer. Poorly researched investigations into other Normandy-owned properties led to slanderous accusations propagated on various listservs. CResA activists and their scribes promoted conspiracy theories about City departments trying to work around the Zoning Ordinance and evade planning. A well-considered (and courageous) letter sent out by Councillor Kelley over the weekend has sparked some angry responses from the perpetually closed-minded. Through it all we’ve seen incumbent city councillors slandered while new candidates bulk up their campaign accounts and try to recruit feeder candidates for the November election – all of this over the building of new homes (near transit) where people can live.
It’s worth noting that a significant amount of public testimony on this matter has been in support of the Normandy/Twining petition, and many people who are not taking sides on the issue at least generally acknowledge that if there is to be residential density in Cambridge this is a pretty sensible place for it to be located.
Manager’s Agenda #20. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the Chestnut Hill Realty Zoning Petition. The Planning Board recommends adoption.
This appears to be just a technical improvement of a zoning change enacted a couple of years ago.
Order #4. Support of House Bill 340 that calls on the Department of Education to not approve PARCC for Massachusetts public schools; calls on the state to not require high-stakes standardized tests be used as a requirement for high school graduation for at least the next three years; and that the state establish an Educational Review Task Force to examine the effectiveness and impact of these high-stakes standardized tests. Councillor McGovern and Councillor Kelley
This is a matter that has lots of people pretty charged up. I teach mathematics primarily to university students, but I also have quite a few high school students in my Harvard Extension School classes. You’ll never hear me arguing against the need for better standards in mathematics education – especially when it comes to challenging students to aim higher. Part of that means having some standardized testing and I don’t especially care what form that testing takes as long as it’s fair. I also have never been of the "every kid gets a trophy" mindset, but I do think it’s important that every kid have a path to graduation even if it means adjusting the path. Not all kids are destined to win Nobel Prizes, but everyone deserves a chance to one day have a chance at economic opportunity – especially in a city like Cambridge. Minimal standards won’t help to achieve that goal. Is PARCC better than MCAS? I don’t know, but I sure wish people would just make a good decision and go with it.
Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to review the attached seven recommendations submitted as part of the Apr 30, 2015 Housing Committee hearing minutes and instruct the City Solicitor and the Acting Assistant City Manager of the Community Development Department to prepare appropriate zoning language to achieve these recommendations. Councillor Simmons
Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Paula Crane, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor E. Denise Simmons, Chair of the Housing Committee for a public hearing held on Apr 30, 2015 to continue the Apr 22, 2015 discussion on the incentive zoning study from the Community Development Department.
While the political people have been obsessing over Normandy/Twining, housing in the Alewife area, and the ultimate legal resolution of the Sullivan Courthouse, there has been an ongoing review and update to some of the financial mechanisms that help to fund various affordable housing initiatives via fees derived from new non-residential development. The recommendations contained in this Order are mostly timely and appropriate, but I’m skeptical about any effort to tie linkage fees to job training programs or the City’s living wage ordinance for reasons similar to why unionized labor requirements should not be written into the Zoning Ordinance. Not all good standards and practices should be bound into law. Some things, like lease covenants requiring tenants to not seek residential parking permits, are best left as agreements and understandings rather than governmental requirements.
Order #16. That the Cambridge City Council officially go on record supporting the efforts and progress of the Cambridge Community Development Department related to the C2 study and we look forward to considering the zoning and non-zoning recommendations when presented to the Council. Mayor Maher and Vice Mayor Benzan
Ideally, once the Normandy/Twining zoning petition is settled, there should be renewed interest and greater seriousness about the C2 study and its recommendations. Sometimes it takes a serious development proposal to motivate people to actually get serious. This isn’t the only example of that principle in action.
Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Chair of the Transportation and Public Utilities Committee for a public hearing held on Mar 25, 2015 to receive updates and to discuss next steps for the shared-use, rails-with-trail path along the City’s Grand Junction Corridor.
As I testified at the hearing, the most interesting parts of this proposal are how it will connect to places outside of Cambridge. It has the potential to create much better links between destinations at/near MIT to housing in Somerville and across the Charles River. At the Somerville end there are better and worse ways to align this route to the planned Somerville routes and the right-of-way being planned for the Green Line Extension. The primary bicycle facilities will always be the existing road network, but it’s great to make better use of abandoned and underutilized rail assets to create more and better connections. – Robert Winters