Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

January 29, 2011

Jan 31, 2011 City Council Agenda – The Joy of Zoning, The Agony of Street Cleaning, and The Evil Empire

Filed under: City Council,Comcast — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 11:58 pm

Jan 31, 2011 City Council Agenda – The Joy of Zoning, The Agony of Street Cleaning, and The Evil Empire

Coming up this Monday are the following items of interest (or objects of derision, depending on your point of view):

Zoning Petitions – We have one new one from Novartis and two old ones to be re-filed.

Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Chris Klee, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research and Seth D. Alexander, President, MIT Investment Management Company, requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map to allow for the creation of a new Special District 15 along a portion of Massachusetts Avenue between Albany Street and Windsor Street opposite the location of the Novartis main campus at the former Necco Building.

This petition has been anticipated for several months. Novartis wants to expand its presence on Mass. Ave. near MIT and consolidate its Cambridge operations into this area. Everybody loves Novartis, but will the City Council gladly accept the proposal to allow building heights up to 140 feet by Special Permit? That’s perhaps twice the height of anything there now and more like what might be seen in Kendall Square. The situation now with this City Council and zoning petitions from major players is that approval is almost guaranteed and the only issue is what "community benefits" can be extracted from the petitioner. I hope they do better with this one.

Order #8. That the City Council re-file the Chestnut Hill Reality zoning petition.   Mayor Maher and Councillor Seidel

Order #12. That the City Council re-file the petition by William H. Fox et al to amend the zoning in the area of Cottage Park Avenue on Feb 17, 2011 and refer it to the Ordinance Committee and Planning Board for hearing and report.   Councillor Seidel

The first of these had its Ordinance Committee hearing snowed out, so the re-filing is purely procedural. The Fox petition received a negative recommendation from the Planning Board in part because there are unresolved issues pertaining to yet another zoning petition – the City Council Petition to amend Section 5.28.2 of the Zoning Ordinance (conversion of nonresidential structures to residential use). The timing will now allow the City Council petition to be resolved before the Fox petition is considered for adoption.

Resolution #3. Retirement of Les Barber from the Community Development Department.   Vice Mayor Davis

Resolution #6. Retirement of Elaine Madden from the Community Development Department.   Mayor Maher

These are both significant exits from the Community Development Department. Elaine Madden has been a long-time Economic Development Project Planner, and Les Barber is Director of Zoning and the key person in all matters relating to zoning issues in Cambridge. The Community Development Department is currently headed by Acting Assistant City Manager Susan Glazer while the process of finding the permanent successor to former head Beth Rubenstein continues. This is undoubtedly a major transition time for the department.

Once upon a time, the primary mission of the Community Development Department was commercial development and growing the real estate tax base of the City. It was common back then for the department to publish major planning blueprint documents for developable parts of the city. Some of these plans became reality and others largely remained on the shelf as citizen downzoning movements cut back the plans. With the demise of rent control, the department’s emphasis shifted toward housing development, including "affordable housing" projects and inclusionary zoning. While this emphasis has clearly not disappeared, there has been an apparent shift toward economic development in the department. Major personnel changes could solidify this change in focus.

Order #1. The City Manager is requested to communicate with the Central Square Business Association and the Community Development Department to set up and design a competition to design the future of Cambridge.   Councillor Reeves

Order #2. The City Manager is requested to communicate with Eric Lander of the Broad Institute, The Kendall Square Business Association and the Community Development Department to set up and design a proactive science game.   Councillor Reeves

Reading these Orders leaves one with a view of Councillor Reeves as starstruck by Eric Lander of the Broad Institute. I’m sure everyone will welcome the idea of sponsoring design competitions for some of the major squares and thoroughfares of Cambridge. On the other hand, one might think that with a Community Development Department consisting of 44 people, the goal "to design the future of Cambridge" will be viewed as more than just a student design project.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on any foreseeable tax revenue implication of Vertex’s decision to leave Cambridge and the amount of office space potentially being vacated.   Councillor Toomey and Councillor Simmons

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to determine what incentives were given to Vertex as part of their relocation deal and evaluate how Cambridge could offer those same incentives to companies it is attempting to lure from out of state to the city.   Councillor Cheung

There have been indications that the City Manager did, in fact, offer such incentives to Vertex, but these were not the only factors in the decision by Vertex to relocate to Boston. There could be a significant short-term impact of Vertex leaving, especially in light of the fact that Vertex was the 6th largest employer in the city. On the other hand, by all accounts there is still significant and growing demand by life science companies to locate in Cambridge. One question that is not often asked, but perhaps should be asked, is whether it is healthy in the long term to have so much of the local economy dominated by the life sciences and any other single industry. It’s not quite the same as Detroit and the automobile industry, but it’s generally best to not balance your economic stability on too narrow a base. At least we’ll always have the universities.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to direct the appropriate departments to remove improperly placed furniture items that are reserving parking spaces.   Councillor Kelley

I know that Councillor Kelley hasn’t been around very long, but it has been standard practice for a long time for the Public Works Department to remove these objects after a few days grace period. Though I’m sure there are some exceptions here and there, reserving parking spaces is relatively rare in Cambridge. It’s probably fair to say that Public Works employees have been pretty busy in recent days and perhaps gathering up all the old chairs and buckets and other markers hasn’t been the top priority.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to evaluate the possibility of continuing street cleaning days through the winter for the purpose of using those days to clear non-arteries of snow.   Councillor Cheung

I believe I can speak for most Cambridge residents here and say that we’d like to keep those three months of relative peace without having to worry about whether you’re parked on the even or the odd side of the street on those two dreaded days out of each month. It was Councillor Davis who filed an Order a few years ago that resulted in December being added to the street cleaning schedule. Now Councillor Cheung wants to add the remaining three months to the schedule. Please don’t. If anything, give us back December. If any street has a special need for snow clearance, the street can be posted on a case-by-case basis. In fact, residents can always request Public Works to do this if staff and equipment are available after things have settled down after a big snow event.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to devise a way to publicize events happening in the community in a visible location at the Main Library.   Vice Mayor Davis

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to devise a method to publicize events that are taking place at the Main Library, both before events occur and as they are happening, so patrons visiting the library may attend.   Vice Mayor Davis

From the Department of Redundancy Department. One would think that councillors or their personal staff (a.k.a. campaign staff) would actually read their own Orders before submitting essentially duplicate Orders.

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department, the Cambridge Arts Council and other relevant entities to ensure that public art is taken into consideration during the planning processes of the Kendall and Central Square areas, as well as along Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard to Porter Squares.   Councillor Seidel

Of course I’m sure that Councillor Seidel is aware of the "One Percent for the Arts" requirement in all major City projects. This includes all of the areas he mentions in the Order. The problem is not so much whether the City integrates public art into major projects but rather if the City does it well. One aspect to this not often mentioned is that the architects who are involved in planning major projects often see themselves as artists, yet a separate process is undertaken for the "art" part of the project. This has not always yielded the best results.

Order #18. That this City Council go on record encouraging the City of Cambridge to strengthen the language of the Cable Television Renewal License.   Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung and Councillor Toomey

If you read this Order, you’ll see that Councillors Decker, Cheung, and Toomey want to take Comcast to task only over whether or not they will abide by the City’s smorgasbord of labor ordinances. Though current federal law severely restricts what issues can be negotiated by the City Manager in the relicensing (only public access, educational, and governmental programming), one might hope that city councillors would use their bully pulpits to pressure Comcast (a.k.a. The Evil Empire) to provide better service and better options to Cambridge residents. This is a City Council that does not hesitate to interject its views on foreign policy and a host of other matters unrelated to the City of Cambridge. Yet when it comes to something as simple as pressuring Comcast to offer an affordable Cable TV package for those who want a little more than broadcast TV that includes Red Sox games and maybe a movie channel or two, the City Council remains uncharacteristically silent. – Robert Winters

December 22, 2009

Talking with the Evil Empire

Filed under: Comcast — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 11:06 pm

Talking with the Evil Empire
On Dec 14, I commented on a City Council Order regarding a poll being conducted by Comcast. Here’s what I said:
I don’t know what the Evil Empire of Comcast is up to with this poll, but I’ll be happy to offer some feedback right here. It was not very nice to take away virtually all of the TV stations for Basic Analog Cable customers other than those that can be picked up off the air. Except for New England Cable News, CCTV, and the municipal stations, everything else recently vanished. Perhaps some stations would return if I got their digital service, but I expect that will require at least another $50 per month for the privilege of getting back some of these commercial-laden stations and it’s hard to justify this. I believe I’d have to pay close to $100 per month to see any Red Sox games. Meanwhile, Comcast is in the process of buying the National Broadcast Company (NBC) from General Electric for perhaps $35 billion. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when we need him to break up the trusts?

My inclination is to say good-bye to Comcast. I hope others in Cambridge feel the same way. Of course, I’m sure the Evil Empire will only try to find other ways to restrict access to television programs unless their trolls are paid handsomely in order to buy up even more media companies. Welcome to The World of More.

In response, Comcast’s Marc Goodman had this to say several days later:

I hope you would consider adding my comment to your recent blog post.

Hi, this is Marc from Comcast’s Boston office. Comcast and the City of Cambridge are negotiating a cable license renewal. Part of any cable license renewal is a process called ascertainment where the cable operator works with a third party to assess the interest of local residents in paying for access television and other cable-related needs that are outlined in an actual license. Comcast strongly supports access and CCTV. We look forward to coming to a mutually beneficial agreement for our customers, the city and the company in the months ahead.

And, just to be clear, the only channels that recently moved were from our Standard Cable package as part of our digital network enhancement. This digital upgrade allowed us to double the number of HD channels in Cambridge and introduce even faster Internet speeds of up to 50 Mbps. All current Standard Cable customers are eligible to obtain up to three pieces of complimentary digital equipment as part of this enhancement. And unlike our competitors, Comcast still chooses to provide an analog basic cable option.

As always, feel free to stop by our Cambridge service center at 88 Sherman Street or call us at 1-800-COMCAST or chat with us online at

After taking a few days to digest this, here’s my reply (Dec 22):
I don’t know why I’m even wasting my time responding to you. Comcast is a predatory company, plain and simple. How else can one describe the practice of restricting access to all stations other than broadcast stations unless one is forced to pay upwards of $70 per month? Comcast chooses to not even offer an affordable package to someone who wants only to add a few basic additions to the most basic lineup. It is now rarely possible to see an old movie on TV because they are only made available on channels in the higher-priced packages. Doesn’t it seem strange that the price jumps from $6.50 per month to about ten times that amount to go from Basic Cable to the next available option?

The truth is that the only reason the City of Cambridge negotiates with you is because they must – there is no competitor willing and able to build a parallel infrastructure. City officials were very eager to talk to RCN or another company the last time the license renewal came up, but the up-front costs kept all potential competitors out – to the eternal detriment of Cambridge residents.

And “just to be clear”, the channels that disappeared recently from Basic Cable customers were most of the stations we used to get. Comcast’s analog basic cable option provides essentially the same thing that anyone can pick up with an antenna, i.e. what you can otherwise get for free. If you want to do me a favor and possibly salvage the Comcast name to at least one customer who is on the verge of quitting you, here’s a request: Give me a package that includes just the broadcast stations and public access stations plus a few Cable news stations and Turner Classic Movies, AMC, and perhaps Comedy Central and a few others at a total cost of around $25-30 per month (and not just a bogus introductory rate that will soon double). Then give me a quote for an a la carte addition of Red Sox games during the baseball season.

If you have an offer like that, we’ll talk. Until then, you are just another employee of the Evil Empire.

Robert Winters
Cambridge Civic Journal

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