Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

March 26, 2018

Preview of Mar 26, 2018 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:33 pm

Preview of Mar 26, 2018 Cambridge City Council meeting

City Hall postcardHere’s my take on what looks interesting this week.

Manager’s Agenda #1. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following person as new members of the Planning Board for a term of three years, effective Apr 2, 2018: Nikolas Bowie and Corinne Espinoza

Though it doesn’t say it in the communication, both of these appointments are as Associate Members of the Planning Board replacing Ahmed Nur and Thacher Tiffany.

Manager’s Agenda #2. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 18-18, regarding a report on the success of the Polystyrene Ordinance.

Two notes:
(1) As Commissioner O’Riordan states: "We have heard from businesses concerning the cost of alternative products. For example; at a Harvard Square establishment, one service item increased in cost from $0.03/unit to $0.50/unit. In North Cambridge another retailer indicated that their new containers cost three times more after the ordinance went into effect."
(2) Plasticware that is marketed as "compostable" is, for all intents and purposes, not actually compostable (except under very specialized conditions).

Manager’s Agenda #4. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 18-19, regarding Central Square pedestrian signals.

The proposed modification seems like a good plan that will not unnecessarily add to traffic congestion while providing a degree of additional safety and clarity.

Manager’s Agenda #5. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to recommendations for the block rates for water consumption and sewer use for the period beginning Apr 1, 2018 and ending Mar 31, 2019.

The water rates are again held constant as the sewer rates continue to soar. The projections indicate that in the coming years the water rates will start to rise slightly and the sewer rates will moderate somewhat. It’s worth reminding everyone that most of these costs are fixed costs, so as people do a better job at conservation the rates inevitably have to rise to cover the fixed costs.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to explore the possibility of accepting the City of Boston’s invitation to join their intergenerational housing pilot program.   Councillor Mallon, Councillor Siddiqui, Councillor Simmons, Councillor Toomey

People have been doing this since the dawn of time – renting rooms to younger people who can lend a hand as they benefit from decent rents, but it’s definitely an idea that deserves promotion.

Order #2. That the City Manager conduct, compile, and publish an inventory of all City-owned vacant buildings and lots with the City’s plans for them, if any.   Councillor Mallon, Councillor Siddiqui, Councillor Simmons, Vice Mayor Devereux

Two words – Land Bank. This same concept was floated by then City Councillor Ed Cyr (and possibly others) about 25 years or so ago using the term "Land Bank". It inevitably led to a conflict among different priorities, esp. open space vs. "affordable housing", though there was at least one case in which a proposed site provided parking (and a turnaround) for a very congested dead end street. I’m sure there are some sites that should be made available for housing (whether "affordable" or just plain housing), but I’d hate to see the perception of "crisis" lead to the stifling of all other alternatives.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to appoint an appropriate City representative to work with the Historical Commission, the Veterans Services Department, representatives of the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail, Cambridge Historian Jon Hill, and any other appropriate parties in an effort to place markers on the graves of Mr. Cato Freeman and Mr. Neptune Frost at the Old Harvard Square Burial Ground, a marker for Mr. Agrippa Hull on the Cambridge Common, and markers for any other early unsung patriots of color that we may yet determine have been hidden in the shadows of history for far too long.   Councillor Simmons

This is a great idea. It’s probably also a good time to review and refurbish some of the historical markers all around Cambridge. We could also use an updated guide book for walking tours in both the Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Cambridge Cemetery highlighting the many significant people buried in these cemeteries.

Order #4. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to work with the Assistant City Manager for Community Development, the Executive Director of the Cambridge Arts Council, and the City Solicitor with a view in mind of drafting of an Arts Overlay District ordinance that would achieve the goals of creating and preserving spaces for the arts in the Central Square Cultural District.   Councillor Mallon, Vice Mayor Devereux, Mayor McGovern

While I think this is a good idea, I hasten to add that there are a lot of people who need or would want "live/work space" who you might not necessarily label as "artists".

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Community Development Department to compile a list of single family homes which could be purchased by the Affordable Housing Trust and converted to Single Room Occupancies or Housing Cooperatives.   Councillor Toomey, Mayor McGovern, Councillor Siddiqui

I think that the concept of Rooming Houses or Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residences is something that fell out of favor over the years but which might again make some sense in this age of micro-units, short-term rentals, and people choosing to live with relatively few possessions. That said, I’d hate to see this used as a pretext for the City to relentlessly buy up the city’s housing stock. The fact that this Order specifically asks to "compile a list of single-family homes available on the market in Residential A1, A2, and B zones" seems rather politically motivated. Wouldn’t it be better to simply provide some financial and other incentives to property owners to configure their properties so as to address current needs?

Order #9. City Council opposition to any legislation that would remove or limit the options of municipalities to pass local ordinances regulating short-term rentals to include accessing tax revenue similar to what is done with hotels and motels.   Councillor Kelley

This was at the center of the discussion at last week’s Public Safety Committee meeting on the subject of the City’s regulation of short-term rentals. Briefly, the industry people (AirBnB) wanted to influence legislation now on Beacon Hill to permit taxation on short-term rentals by amending it to remove local regulatory controls as a precondition for accepting the potential revenue. This crooked attempt was apparently thwarted in the House, though the bill is now before the Senate and will likely have to go through a conference committee prior to its final passage and, presumably, the Governor’s signature. – Robert Winters

Extra: Summary of what the House did last week on the AirBnB bill.
AirBnB is in favor of being taxed, but came out in opposition to the state registry where their hosts would have to share their personal information. The amendment referenced above in regard to Order #9 and referred to as amendment #11 in the House bill) was directed at the proposed (and now on hold) City of Boston regulations on short term rentals which would regulate them according to how many days a host rented out units. This amendment was apparently never seriously considered and will likely not have much support in the Senate either. It came from an industry lobbyist (possibly representing a short term rental group called StayAlfred).

Much of the work up to this point on other short term rental bills has been to tax them like hotels. This bill introduces a whole new tax structure for short term rentals and the Senate may return to that structure.

Summary of the current bill

  • The bill would require the Department of Revenue to maintain a short-term rental registry, record the name of each host and the address of each unit they offer, and give the department the authority to charge a "reasonable fee" for registration. An "easily searchable and regularly updated" list of unit addresses — without the host’s name — would be published online.
  • Rentals would be taxed at levels ranging from 4 percent to 8 percent, depending on how many units a host offers. Residential hosts renting two or fewer units would be taxed at 4 percent, investor hosts with three to five units would have a 5.7 percent tax, and professionally managed hosts renting six or more units would face an 8 percent tax per rental, under the bill.
  • Cities and towns would have the option to impose local excise taxes of up to 5 percent for residential hosts, 6 percent for investors, and 10 percent for professionally managed hosts. Communities that opt for the local tax would need to adopt ordinances or bylaws requiring any residential units offered as short-term rentals first undergo a safety inspection, the costs of which would be charged to the host.
  • Half of the local tax collected from professionally managed hosts would need to be dedicated to "programs addressing either local infrastructure needs or low- and moderate-income housing programs," according to the bill. A Rep. Kevin Honan amendment adopted Thurs, Mar 22 would require that at least 25 percent of that tax money be distributed to low- and moderate-income housing programs.
  • The taxes in the bill would kick in a year after the bill’s effective date and would not apply to units that rent for less than $15 a day.

Also, an amendment was adopted that provides:
“Any city or town that has a safety inspection program in place as of the effective date of this act may deem any previously completed inspections of residential units to be in compliance with this requirement.”

This should avoid the need for duplicative inspections for hosts who register with Cambridge and then must also register to comply with state law.

March 20, 2018

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 297-298: March 20, 2018

Episode 297 – Cambridge InsideOut: Mar 20, 2018 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on March 20, 2018 at 5:30pm. Patrick Barrett was the guest. Main Topics: Tenant Right of First Refusal, Envision Cambridge. Host: Robert Winters [On YouTube]


Episode 298 – Cambridge InsideOut: Mar 20, 2018 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on March 20, 2018 at 5:30pm. Patrick Barrett was the guest. Main Topics: Envision Cambridge, Central Square. Host: Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

February 6, 2018

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 289-290: Feb 6, 2018

Episode 289 – Cambridge InsideOut: Feb 6, 2018 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Feb 6, 2018 at 5:30pm. Topics: Jerry’s Pond, Central Square crosswalks, right of first refusal. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]


Episode 290 – Cambridge InsideOut: Feb 6, 2018 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Feb 6, 2018 at 6:00pm. The main topic was the proposed “Right of First Refusal” enabling legislation now at the State House. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

February 5, 2018

Coming up at the Feb 5, 2018 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , , , — Robert Winters @ 3:49 pm

Coming up at the Feb 5, 2018 Cambridge City Council meeting

City HallHere’s my first pass (and Gronkowski didn’t pull this one down either) at the interesting agenda items with the usual brilliant/annoying observations.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to inquire whether the Community Development Department will apply for the Targeted Brownfields Assessment Grant regarding Jerry’s Pond.   Councillor Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Kelley

Many people may have forgotten this by now but there were once plans to enhance that whole area – not only by making Jerry’s Pond an available resource but also doing, dare I say, some development in the vicinity of the MBTA headhouse east of the parkway and within the fenced-in area associated with the W.R. Grace site on the north side of the path. First it was the threat of naphthalene in the soil, and then asbestos. I will never believe that permanently fencing in a contaminated site near a T station is preferable to cleaning it up and turning it into a resource rather than a liability.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Community Development Department and any other relevant City Department to gain a sense of who is purchasing buildings in Cambridge.   Councillor Simmons

I think this will be very interesting information, and not only because I’d like to see just how much property Gerald Chan now owns in Cambridge. At least he lives nearby. The greater problem is that in an uncertain world there’s a lot more financial security in Cambridge real estate than in either pork bellies or Chinese financial markets. This reality is not always compatible with the quaint old notion of buying property either because you want a place to live or you need a place to operate your business. Cambridge property has in many ways become primarily a place to store wealth. Barring some new form of gold rush elsewhere I don’t see this changing any time soon.

Order #6. That the City Manager explore the possibility of an "ALL WALK" pedestrian signal at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Prospect Street, and River Street.   Councillor Mallon, Councillor Siddiqui

As appealing as this may seem, the traffic volumes on these streets may dictate otherwise. The greatest problem is the conflict between pedestrians crossing Mass. Ave. and right-turning vehicles from River Street onto Mass. Ave. There used to be a "slip lane" there, but that was even more hazardous for pedestrians. The real problem, in my opinion, is that many drivers and pedestrians don’t have a clue about how to balance assertiveness and courtesy. I’m reminded of a small book from about 35 years ago called "The Boston Driver’s Handbook: Wild in the Streets" that really said it all, especially the Cambridge tradition of acting aloof when crossing in Harvard Square.

I often think about writing a story on "How to Be a Pedestrian in Cambridge" complete with a guide to hand gestures and best ways to stop vehicles with just a look. These lessons will, of course, be lost on habitual cell phone users.

Order #7. City Council support of Representative Provost and the Cambridge Legislative Delegation’s efforts to pass a Right of First Refusal Bill, with an amendment for cities to provide final implementation modifications as needed.   Councillor Carlone, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Siddiqui

Please explain how this will apply to a multi-family homeowner who wishes to do a formal sale to family members or close friends for a price well below what is dictated by the market. – Robert Winters

January 30, 2018

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 287-288: Jan 30, 2018

Episode 287 – Cambridge InsideOut: Jan 30, 2018 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Jan 30, 2018 at 5:30pm. Topics: Jan 29 City Council meeting; electric vehicles; Mass Pike reconfiguration; committee appointments, and more. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]


Episode 288 – Cambridge InsideOut: Jan 30, 2018 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Jan 30, 2018 at 6:00pm. Topics: Central Square updates; Carl Barron Plaza charrette, and more. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

January 29, 2018

Featured Items on the Jan 29, 2018 Cambridge City Council Agenda

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

Featured Items on the Jan 29, 2018 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Mayor McGovern has appointed the City Council committees and their Chairs pending final adoption of the City Council Rules. In addition, here are just a few of the noteworthy agenda items:

Charter Right #1. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council regarding efforts to expand the number of electric vehicle charging stations, the feasibility of appropriately placing electric vehicle chargers on residential streets where there is need, the status of possible City fleet replacement to electric vehicles, expanded outreach and education on available rebates and incentive programs, and the feasibility of requiring developers to include a greater number of electric vehicle charging stations in new or substantially renovated multi-unit buildings. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Simmons on Jan 22, 2018.]
Approved as Amended, Add’l Order Approved to also refer to Health & Environment Committee

This Order from last week exposed a potentially pretty significant rift. It’s one thing to require electric vehicle charging capacity in new residential and commercial construction, but providing charging stations on public streets basically means that only those who can afford a $100,000+ Chevy Volt or comparable vehicle will be able to use those parking spaces. [Correction: It’s the Tesla Model S that went for ~$100K. The Chevy Volt apparently goes for ~$30K.] It’s understandable that people without driveways might want a mechanism for charging their cars (since running power cords across the sidewalk or down the street is not an option), but how will it go over with the neighbors if only some people are privileged to use these parking spaces?

Unfinished Business #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Vice Mayor Devereux, Chair of the Ad-Hoc Rules Committee, for a public hearing held on Tuesday, Jan 16, 2018 to discuss and suggest changes to the City Council Rules and transmitting recommended changes to the City Council Rules.
Approved – and copies of the amended Rules were made available at the meeting

I honestly don’t know what Rules Changes they finally settled on at last week’s meeting. The meeting materials only show the suggestions from the Ad-Hoc Committee and it’s simply not worth reviewing the video to find out what the Council decided on before referring the revised version to Unfinished Business. It’s primarily just nickel-and-dime stuff anyway.

Communications #16-25 and #27 transmitting written opposition to the Peter Kroon, et al. Harvard Square Overlay District Zoning Petition.
Referred to the Petition

In addition to these communications, most of the public comment at last week’s Ordinance Committee meeting was against the petition. I believe there may now be or will soon be expressed written opposition from more than 20% of the affected land ownership which means that a three-quarter super-majority vote would be needed to pass the Kroon Petition, i.e. 7 votes instead of 6 out of 9. I don’t think it had the votes anyway, but it apparently doesn’t matter because the Ordinance Committee failed to move it out of committee so it can’t be passed to a 2nd Reading on Monday and it therefore cannot be ordained prior to the expiration date. It seems likely that a revised version will be filed after the Feb 19 expiration.

One particularly offensive part of the Ordinance Committee discussion centered on term limits on membership on the Harvard Square Advisory Committee and the desire of the petitioners and some councillors to drive one particular person out of the Chair and maybe even off the advisory committee entirely. There is a notification in this week’s agenda for the reappointment of two 20+ year members to the Library Board of Trustees. Will the City Council now argue that they should be booted from the Board in the quest for "new blood"? City boards & commissions benefit greatly from having a mix of newer members and long-time members who carry a lot of institutional memory and skills. Having a good balance is what’s really important.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to direct the City Solicitor and any other appropriate City departments to report back to the City Council with an update on any work that is currently underway regarding regulating adult use marijuana and to suggest next steps to the Council.   Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Mallon, Councillor Siddiqui, Mayor McGovern
Approved

This is a timely order. The Trojan horse of medical marijuana facilities has already entered the city and it has the munchies.

Vision Central SquareOrder #4. That the City Manager is requested to explore funding options for the possibility of creating a Business Improvement District (BID) for Central Square.   Councillor Mallon, Councillor Simmons, Mayor McGovern
Approved

It is quite apparent that groups like the Harvard Square Business Association and the Central Square Business Association are already taking on some of the rules associated with a Business Improvement District. This may be the right time to make this official in Central Square. The benefits are many and the down sides are few.

PS – The Central Square Business Association and its most excellent Executive Director Michael Monastime hosted an especially good charrette on Saturday on the future of Carl Barron Plaza in the heart of Central Square. This was just the first of what will be many opportunities for public input on the upcoming River Street reconstruction project (from the river to Carl Barron Plaza) that will commence at some point in the next year or so.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department with the view in mind of creating a list of mitigated private spaces that are available to the public, what the exact eligibility of using these spaces is, and making the list available to the public.   Councillor Toomey
Approved

This is a welcome request. Most people have no idea what spaces are available for use and what rules govern the use of these open spaces and meeting spaces. It will be great if this information can be made available along with information on all City-owned resources that are available for public use. Ideally there should also be a list of all spaces in churches and other buildings that are available for use at modest cost for meetings and events.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Commissioner of Public Works and the City Engineer on the potential of utilizing trenchless technology, micro tunneling and/or pipe jacking to lessen the time and impact on the residents of Gore Street.   Councillor Toomey, Councillor Kelley, Councillor Mallon
Approved

Order #8. That the City Manager maximize the community benefits from and mitigating the impacts of the Cambridge Crossing sewer construction.   Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Siddiqui, Councillor Toomey
Approved

Suffice to say that if during the construction of that dedicated sewer line the century-old water mains and gas mains are replaced (which will have to occur at some point anyway), that is, in itself, significant mitigation. If some of the electrical infrastructure can also be renewed and moved from poles to underground that would be even better.

Order #7. Endorsing Requests for Action or Further Study for the I-90 Allston Interchange Project in Boston.   Mayor McGovern, Vice Mayor Devereux, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor Carlone
Approved

This is a complicated project with the potential for a lot of benefit and a fair amount of disruption during construction. I won’t offer any opinions just now, but there are plenty to go around. It’s worth the read.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #2. A communication was received from Mayor Marc C. McGovern, transmitting the City Council Committee Assignments for the Council Term 2018-2019 pending adoption of the Rules as amended.
Placed on File

There’s nothing particularly stunning about the appointments – mostly natural matches of function and interest. There are maybe three out of the 11 standing committees that could become cauldrons of controversy, but it’s probably best to wait and see. I’ll let you guess which three. – Robert Winters

January 24, 2018

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 285-286: Jan 23, 2018

Episode 285 – Cambridge InsideOut: Jan 23, 2018 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Jan 23, 2018 at 5:30pm. The main topics were some of the large transportation projects neighboring Cambridge. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]


Episode 286 – Cambridge InsideOut: Jan 23, 2018 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Jan 23, 2018 at 6:00pm. Topics included the Women’s March – one year later; the Kroon Petition and regulation of “formula businesses” in Harvard Square and elsewhere; and some news updates around Central Square. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

December 19, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 277-278: Dec 19, 2017

Episode 277 – Cambridge InsideOut: Dec 19, 2017 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Dec 19, 2017 at 5:30pm. The main topic was a recap of the Dec 18 City Council meeting – the last of the 2016-17 City Council term. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]


Episode 278 – Cambridge InsideOut: Dec 19, 2017 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Dec 19, 2017 at 6:00pm. The main topics were Harvard Square, Central Square, and news around town. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

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