Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 19, 2014

The Courthouse Debate and other Key Items on the May 19, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,East Cambridge — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 12:31 pm

The Courthouse Debate and other Key Items on the May 19, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Sullivan CourthousePerhaps the Really Big Item this week is the whole matter of how to proceed on the Sullivan Courthouse controversy. Two reports from the City Solicitor were tabled at the May 5 meeting and are scheduled to be discussed at this meeting. There is also an Order calling for the next Planning Board meeting on this matter to be held at a suitable space in East Cambridge.

On The Table #3. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the submission of two legal opinions as part of the City Manager’s Supplemental Agenda on Mon, May 5, 2014, regarding Awaiting Report Item Number 14-22 concerning the Sullivan Courthouse and Council Order Number 13 of Mar 17, 2014 concerning the First Street Garage. [City Manager Agenda Number Eleven of May 5, 2014 Placed on Table for further discussion at City Council Meeting of May 19, 2014.]

On The Table #4. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-22, regarding whether the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse qualifies as a pre-existing non-confirming structure. [City Manager Agenda Number Fifteen of May 5, 2014 Placed on Table.]

On The Table #5. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Council Order Number 13, dated Mar 17, 2014, which requested that city staff determine the relevant zoning requirements for the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse with respect to use of the First Street Garage. [City Manager Agenda Number Sixteen of May 5, 2014 Placed on Table.]

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to work with all relevant City staff and departments in an effort to move the Planning Board’s upcoming hearing on the Special Permit application for the Sullivan Courthouse redevelopment from the Citywide Senior Center to a gymnasium or auditorium-type location within or nearby the East Cambridge neighborhood and report back to the City Council on this matter.   Councillor Carlone

I attended a meeting on this topic yesterday organized by the new "Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge" (NAEC) that was spawned in response to the courthouse disposition. Leading the discussion were David de Swaan, Bethany Stevens, Seth Teller, and Ilan Levy. Mr. de Swaan made clear that the meeting was to be "about facts, not opinions" and this was largely true. There were, as expected, some rather strong opinions expressed by at least one of the presenters who said, "We have not been well-served by the City apparatus." He called the Planning Board a "rubber stamp board" and (incorrectly) asserted that Planning Board members whose terms had expired were serving illegally on the board. Massachusetts law says otherwise. Though this may be bad practice, any board member whose term has expired may legally serve until his replacement is appointed. The speaker also emphatically expressed his disappointment with the Community Development Department; the Department of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation; and Inspectional Services – suggesting that they were all "asleep at the switch" in regard to the disposition of the Courthouse building.

The Planning Board decision on whether to grant a Special Permit is, I believe, currently anticipated to occur at its June 17 meeting. If I understand this correctly, as long as the minimum parking requirements are met both on site together with leasing from either the nearby City garage or the Galleria, then the decision may hinge on whether the proposal will have a "significant detrimental impact" compared to the previous use of the property. The Planning Board may otherwise be required to issue the Special Permit. There are good arguments to be made on either side of this issue, but one has to believe that a change from a prison to a mixed office/residential use is certainly a net positive. Perhaps this is why so much of the rhetoric seems to be centered around potential changes in wind, reflected light, and the likelihood that the building may be intensely used during late hours. Traffic and parking concerns are also an issue, but it’s not so clear that these will be significantly different than how things were during the decades when the courthouse was in operation on the site.

There are some abutters who are likely to pursue a lawsuit arguing that the property is not legally a "pre-existing non-conforming structure." This conflicts with the opinion of the City Solicitor whose opinion was characterized by one of the NAEC presenters as simply "transferred from the developer." Others at this meeting apparently feel that the best strategy would be to create maximum delay so that further political avenues may be pursued after Gov. Patrick’s term is over and a new administration is in place.

Manager’s Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-25, regarding a report on the status of the Grand Junction Path project.

Order #17. The City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department regarding the feasibility of hiring a design consultant to design the rails-with-trail path along the Grand Junction corridor and to include money in next year’s budget for design funds for the Grand Junction Rails-with-Trails path.   Councillor Cheung

The report provides an excellent summary of the current situation and the history of the Grand Junction corridor over the years. This is, without a doubt, a project that needs to be pursued. If created in conjunction with new housing options in Somerville, Cambridge, and Allston, this could be a great accomplishment that everybody will one day celebrate.

Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a proposed ordinance concerning building energy use reporting and disclosure.

This is perhaps the one feature of last year’s "Net Zero petition" that had nearly unanimous support. As the Manager’s statement says, "The ordinance would also enable the City and the community to plan more effectively for energy efficiency and renewable energy."

Applications & Petitions #4. A zoning petition has been filed by Timothy R. Flaherty, et al. requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Map of the City of Cambridge to expand the Medical Marijuana Overlay District, MMD-1 to encompass 61 Mooney Street.

This would be a very minor alterarion to the existing district. I suppose we may presume from this petition that there is a state-sanctioned dispensary that wants to move to a Mooney Street location.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments as to whether it would be feasible to issue licenses/permits to push cart vendors and local artists, both at Carl Barron Plaza and similar spaces in Central Square.   Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor Cheung

When I served on a committee almost 20 years ago that made recommendations for streetscape and other improvements to the Central Square area, pushcart vendors were definitely a part of what was envisioned for the widened sidewalks and in places like Carl Barron Plaza. Some of the commercial establishments at that time had concerns about competition from vendors who did not have to pay property taxes, but the truth is that these kinds of uses can improve business for all parties if done well. I personally hope it’s not just pushcarts and artists. A hot dog stand would be great. I’m sure the vegan and gluten-free crowd will disagree.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to consult with the appropriate City personnel to determine the feasibility of taking the Vail Court lot by eminent domain for the good of the community.   Councillor Simmons

While there is nearly unanimous agreement that something should happen with the long-abandoned Vail Court property (where Temple Street meets Bishop Allen Drive), eminent domain seems like a bad road to go down – whether done by the City or by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority with the City’s blessing. On the other hand, perhaps the mere threat of eminent domain may lead to some positive action by the property owner.

Order #7. Urge the Cambridge Housing Authority to delay implementing the smoking ban until such time as the organization can identify a new source of funding to robustly initiate the various smoking cessation programs that will be necessary to assist its tenants in complying with this new policy.   Councillor Simmons

Don’t delay. Other than the courting of votes, there is no reason to grant exceptional status to CHA properties. Banning smoking in all of these properties is in the best interest of all and there’s no excuse for delay. People will adapt to the change.

Order #9. That without discounting the gravity of the crimes perpetrated against Yngve Raustein, the City Council does hereby go on record expressing support for Joseph Donovan’s application for parole, which will be reviewed on May 29, 2014.   Councillor Carlone, Councillor McGovern and Vice Mayor Benzan

This is a good action for the City Council to take. The site joedonovanproject.com provides the essential details of the case:

On Sept 18, 1992 at 9:45pm along Memorial Drive, three Cambridge teenagers – Joseph Donovan, Shon McHugh and Alfredo Velez – exchanged words with 21 year-old MIT student Yngve Raustein. This led to Joseph Donovan punching Raustein sending him to the ground, but it was McHugh who then pulled a knife and stabbed Raustein to death. Because McHugh was only 15 at the time, he was tried in juvenile court, received a 20 year sentence, served only 11 years for the murder, and has now been free for over a decade. Velez was sentenced to 20 years and served less than 10 years. Because Donovan was 17 at the time of the incident, he was tried as an adult for complicity with the murder and received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He has now served 22 years in prison while the actual murderer walks free. Both surviving members of Yngve Raustein’s immediate family, including his mother and his brother, support the application for Donovan’s release.

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the status of relocating the Department of Public Works and any plans for creating open space at the current location once DPW operations are moved.   Councillor Toomey

Having volunteered in numerous recycling and composting initiatives over the years, I have a certain fondness for 147 Hampshire St. (DPW Headquarters) and the Public Works Yard. That said, there are many better uses for that property as long as an appropriate alternative can be found for a new DPW yard. The current central location has been great for the Recycling Drop-off Center and other uses, but the surrounding neighborhood is quite dense and could benefit greatly from some well-planned open space on that site.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Law Department, the Election Commission, and the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to determine the feasibility of publicly funded elections for Cambridge, taking into account models for implementation from other municipalities as well as the exploration of new publicly funded models.   Councillor Mazen and Councillor Carlone

While I can certainly respect the sentiment espoused by this Order, I cannot imagine any reasonable way for such a proposal to be administered, and I’m not really convinced that it’s a good idea. Contrary to what is stated in the Order, public funding will likely not reduce the influence of private contributions unless there’s also a cap imposed on overall spending, and I don’t see that happening. If the receipt of public funds is made conditional on refusing many private sources, then most or all of the successful campaigns will likely not participate, and this may become little more than a financing plan for fringe candidates.

In matters such as this, perhaps we should all take a few lessons from Craig Kelley and Fred Fantini who consistently run successful municipal election campaigns on a shoestring budget. If they can do it, I’m sure other candidates can do it. That seems like the preferred course of action.

Order #16. That the City Manager is requested to detail how the non-zoning recommendations that have emerged from the K2C2 Report can and will be implemented in the months ahead.   Councillor Simmons

It is my understanding that the recently rejuvenated Central Square Advisory Committee will advise on these matters, but there have not yet been any solid plans put forward for either the non-zoning recommendations or possible zoning recommendations. Hopefully there will be some movement on both as this year progresses.

Committee Report #4. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk transmitting a report from Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Chair of the Government Operations, Rules and Claims Committee for a public meeting held on May 6, 2014 to discuss the effectiveness of the City Council Aide positions as well as procedural issues regarding the submission of policy orders and resolutions.

It’s unfortunate that this is cast as a question of the "effectiveness of the City Council Aide positions" when the real question is whether it’s appropriate that tax dollars should be given to what are undeniably political patronage jobs. If the City Council or its committees need enhanced staffing, there are far better and more legally defensible ways to provide such support. As I have stated before, political privilege is like entropy. It always increases. – Robert Winters

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