Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 24, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 265-266: Oct 24, 2017

Episode 265 – Cambridge InsideOut: Oct 24, 2017 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Oct 24, 2017 at 5:30pm. Our guest was Emily Dexter, candidate for re-election to the Cambridge School Committee. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

Emily Dexter’s Candidate Page


Episode 266 – Cambridge InsideOut: Oct 24, 2017 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Oct 24, 2017 at 6:00pm. Topics: Ordination of the MIT Volpe Petition, national party endorsements in nonpartisan municipal election. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

September 12, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 255-256: Sept 12, 2017

Episode 255 – Cambridge InsideOut: September 12, 2017 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Sept 12, 2017 at 5:30pm. Topics: Sept 11 City Council meeting, tax-financed municipal campaigns, Volpe Petition. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]


Episode 256 – Cambridge InsideOut: September 12, 2017 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Sept 12, 2017 at 6:00pm. Topics: Volpe Petition, MIT graduate housing, candidate forums, endorsements. Hosts: Judy Nathans, Robert Winters [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

September 11, 2017

Fall Semester at the Sullivan School – Sept 11, 2017 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,elections — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 2:41 am

Fall Semester at the Sullivan School – Sept 11, 2017 City Council Agenda Highlights

City HallThe City Council returns from Summer Vacation this week. In addition to appropriation requests for a wide range of essential programs, here’s a look at what seems interesting – at least to me.

Manager’s Agenda #15. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 17-45, regarding a report on formulating a plan that will provide relief and fair compensation to liquor license holders that have been impacted by dramatic devaluing of their liquor licenses, and Awaiting Report Item Number 17-72, regarding an update on the progress and plan to address the concerns relative to the sale of liquor licenses. [Reports from City Solicitor and License Commission Chair]

This City Solicitor’s response is pretty much what was logically expected. The final paragraph states: "Therefore, in my opinion, the License Commission has no legal obligation to provide compensation to alcohol license holders who may be experiencing a devaluation of their alcohol license on the private market. There may be ways that the License Commission could mitigate the devaluation of certain alcohol licenses, such as by exercising its discretion not to issue new alcohol licenses, but there is nothing of which we are aware that would require the License Commission to do so."

The true value of a liquor license is in the income it can generate in the normal course of business. It was never meant to be a retirement investment. Like taxi medallions and confederate currency, not all things were meant to have lasting value.

Manager’s Agenda #16. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following persons as members of the Harvard Square Conservation District Study Committee, effective Sept 1, 2017: Christopher Mackin, Jerry Murphy, Christopher Angelakis, Jessica Sculley, William Barry, Joseph Ferrara and Kyle Sheffield.

Manager’s Agenda #18. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following person as a member of the Central Square Advisory Committee for a term of three years, effective Sept 11, 2017: Tahir Kapoor

Never underestimate the value of our volunteer citizen boards and commissions. Congratulations and thank you to all the appointees.

Charter Right #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a Non-Binding Public Opinion Advisory Question Petition filed with the Election Commission on July 14, 2017. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Cheung on Aug 7, 2017]

It’s likely that we’ll have more posturing on this issue at this meeting. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the mailing address for the petitioners is the business address for Councillor Mazen.

There is a worthwhile conversation to be had regarding various ways to level the playing field for candidates, but this is not the way to do it. For starters, the statement of the petitioners reads more like an accusation than a proposal. More importantly, the proposal asks voters to "buy a pig in a poke". There are no specifics provided – only that public financing of political campaigns is to be supported like motherhood and apple pie. I will simply suggest that if a voter understood this to mean that new candidates would receive a small stipend to get their campaign started there might be a fair amount of support. On the other hand, if the goal is to grant $50,000 to every candidate to waste in any way they see fit, it’s almost certain that voters would not support this. The details matter. It also matters that we use PR elections in Cambridge, and slates would certainly be formed just to aggregate money to support the slate candidates.

It’s worth noting that Communication #12 comes from Adam Strich, the person who delivered the signatures to the Election Commission for this proposed ballot question. His words should make clear where these petitioners are coming from: "It’s hardly a secret that more than a few councillors are in the pocket of special interests, big developer in particular. I would imagine, however, that you didn’t enter into public service aspiring to become corporate stooges and shills. But whatever idealism you may have had was gradually eroded by the realities of local politics – in particular, by the need to maintain a war chest large enough to fund the practically endless campaigning required of you. All of that is completely understandable; I’m not here to judge. I would hope, though, that you retain some sense of unease regarding this state of affairs, and that such feelings would lead you to embrace the opportunity to provide public funding for municipal election campaigns, so that you can finally serve the hardworking residents of this great city, rather than your current robber baron overlords. Thank you."

Councillor Toomey has a somewhat different view. See Order #23. Perhaps throwing even more money into the furnace of municipal election campaigns isn’t really the answer.

Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Christopher D. Smith, et al., to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance by adding sections and provisions to Article 13.000 regarding Graduate Student Housing Production Requirements.

Some candidates and advocates have been referring to this as the MIT graduate student petition. However, it didn’t come from the MIT Graduate Student Union and, in fact, 4 of the 16 signers are new City Council candidates hoping to exploit the controversy. Most people will agree that MIT should be providing more housing for graduate students and possibly for post-docs. In fact, MIT agrees. How much graduate housing is appropriate is open to question and should not be prescribed in zoning. Most MIT graduates have preferred to live off-campus and generally choose to do so as long as they can find a place where they can afford the rent. Hopefully MIT can provide greater clarity regarding its plans to build more graduate (and undergraduate) student housing – both how much and where – between now and the vote on the Volpe Petition. Perhaps a Memorandum of Understanding can be signed with some commitments. That would be the better approach.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments to streamline recording and transcription requirements in line with those currently in place for the Planning Board for the Board of Zoning Appeal and the Historical Commission.   Councillor Devereux

There does come a point of diminishing returns. Is it really that important to have a play-by-play of every discussion regarding dormers, paint colors, and types of shingles?

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to update the City Council on a Police Substation in Central Square.   Mayor Simmons

I’ll once again say that a multi-service space for police, MBTA workers, and public information – with a public bathroom – would have been the right approach. Separate little huts for each of these purposes isn’t the best plan. We could, however, use a little more police presence in Central Square regardless.

Order #10. That the City Manager update the City Council on progress for the goal of 1,000 New Affordable Units by the end of the decade.   Mayor Simmons

If you factor in all the Inclusionary units in the pipeline we might actually be doing pretty well. However, the greater problem is not the number of regulated "affordable units" so much as the general loss of affordability in market housing, and that can only be solved regionally. I hate to break it to you Cambridge, but you cannot house the world unilaterally.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update on the Eastern Cambridge Kendall Square Open Space Planning Study.   Councillor Toomey

This is useful information in the ongoing discussion of the Volpe Petition. What will the Big Picture be for residents and workers navigating their way through the greater Kendall Square area when everything is built out?

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to confer with City staff to identify and share with the City Council possible solutions to regulatory or legislative gaps on the local or state level that would help clarify how emerging types of conveyances can most safely and effectively be incorporated into Cambridge’s Urban Mobility planning and infrastructure investments.   Councillor Kelley, Councillor Devereux, Councillor Cheung

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Police Commissioner and the Fire Chief with the view in mind of creating and developing city wide alternate routes for fire apparatus and emergency police vehicles in an emergency situation that would avoid travel routes where there is backed up traffic.   Councillor Toomey

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to determine the feasibility of procuring additional fire apparatus, especially rescue vehicles and ambulances, in the East Cambridge and the Port area.   Councillor Toomey

Every day I see how some of the City’s well-intentioned roadway reallocations effectively choke some roads, make it more difficult for buses and delivery vehicles to navigate, and make it virtually impossible to pause to pick up or drop off people or goods. Curb access is disappearing even as the need for improved curb access is increasing in a world of online shopping, Uber and Lyft vehicles, and a variety of new modes of transportation. The only thing the Traffic Department (a.k.a. the Department of Wishful Thinking) seems to prioritize is novice cyclists. I shudder to think what we’ll have to contend with when there’s either snow or a motor vehicle breakdown. The City is rapidly removing all flexibility in the roads. Pretty soon the only way a driver will be able to yield to an emergency service vehicle will be by running down some "flexi-posts".

Order #21. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor, the City Assessor and the Community Development Department to prepare a Municipal Transfer Fee Ordinance and, if required, an appropriate Home Rule Petition, to implement a municipal transfer fee on sale of all residential, commercial and institutional properties where the buyer pays 1% of purchase price on any amount in excess of $2.5 million and an additional 4% of the purchase price on any amount more than $5 million.   Councillor Toomey

Order #22. City Council support of H.3512 in the Massachusetts Legislature, allowing Massachusetts to obtain a fee on large real estate transactions that will be put towards affordable housing endeavors.   Councillor Mazen, Councillor Devereux, Councillor Carlone

There may be some merit in these proposals, but as long as the focus remains exclusively on raising more revenue to regulate even more housing while not solving the affordability question more generally, this is all just pissing in the wind.

Order #23. Establishment of a "Cambridge Municipal Election People’s Pledge" program.   Councillor Toomey

This "modest proposal" does manage to make a few interesting points – most significantly regarding the amount of money being spent this year and in recent years on some municipal election campaigns. While some candidates speak ill of money from "developers", some of these same candidates have a political base encompassing the loftier socio-economic classes and are graced with $500 and $1000 checks like the falling of autumn leaves. It’s also interesting how many candidates pay big money or campaign managers and even pay people to canvass for them. That’s not how things used to be done. Candidates had actual supporters for many of those tasks. Maybe the dirty little secret now is that some campaigns only have as much support as they can purchase.

I can’t say that I support all of Councillor Toomey’s proposals in this "People’s Pledge", but some of them do have some merit. In the meantime, we can settle on disclosure – making abundantly clear where campaign funds come from and how efficiently those funds are spent. Let the voters judge.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Councillor Leland Cheung, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Aug 2, 2017 to discuss a zoning petition by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a new Planning Unit Development Overlay District (PUD-7) over the area known as the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center site in Kendall Square.

I’ll simply say that if the current City Council cannot settle this with a good outcome by the Oct 31 expiration date, then perhaps they should be judged accordingly a week later. There are some great opportunities here if these nine councillors can earn their pay and create those good outcomes. – Robert Winters

August 1, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 245-246: Aug 1, 2017

Episode 245 – Cambridge InsideOut: Aug 1, 2017 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Aug 1, 2017 at 5:30pm. The main topic was the final list of candidates for the 2017 municipal election. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]


Episode 246 – Cambridge InsideOut: Aug 1, 2017 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Aug 1, 2017 at 6:00pm. Main topic: campaign finance, MIT/Volpe Petition. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

March 21, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 213-214: March 21, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episode 213 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast March 21, 2017 at 5:30pm. Topics included the State Championship victory of the CRLS Boys Basketball team, some upcoming civic events, design review of MIT-Kendall projects, and a curious zoning petition that appeared at the Mon, Mar 20 City Council meeting regarding short-term rentals. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]


Cambridge InsideOut Episode 214 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast March 21, 2017 at 6:00pm. Topics included zoning and short-term rentals, changes to the Smoking Ordinance, and the proposed changes to the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that was passed to a 2nd Reading at the Mon, Mar 20 City Council meeting. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]

[Materials used in this episode]

March 31, 2015

Web page includes two videos of Cambridge bicycle infrastructure

Please check out this Web page,with two of four videos illustrating exciting new developments in Cambridge bicycle infrastructure. Can you identify the locations?

Exciting new technology demonstrated at a Cambridge bicycle facility.

Exciting new technology demonstrated at a Cambridge bicycle facility.

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December 16, 2013

Update on the Copenhagen Wheel

In a post in this blog from 2011, I reported on a product under development at the MIT Senseable Cities Laboratory, the Copenhagen Wheel. It provides an electrical power assist to a bicyclist.

The motor and batteries are contained entirely in the rear wheel. The Wheel can be controlled through a Bluetooth connection from a smartphone on the handlebar, so there is no need for wiring. Various smartphone apps can report on speed, distance, state of battery charge, exposure to air pollution etc.

Copenhagen Wwheel promotional video shows bicyclists riding in the door zone

Clip from Copenhagen Wheel promotional video shows bicyclists riding in the door zone

I had a serious concern  in 2011, that the Wheel was designed to switch from motor mode to generator mode at 12 mph. In other words, if you tried to go faster, you couldn’t: it would feel as if you were pulling a huge trailer. 12 mph is slower than many bicyclists would usually ride and could be hazardous if there is a need to sprint across an intersection before the traffic signal changes, to outrun a chasing dog, etc.

Development of the Wheel has continued, and readers deserve an update. The Wheel is now going into a production, licensed to a company called Superpedestrian. Maximum power is now 250 watts, top speed 15 mph in Europe; power 350 watts, top speed 20 mph in the USA — reflecting legal limits. (15 mph, though, is still much lower than a desirable sprinting speed, and many bicyclists can easily sprint at more than 25 mph.) Pedal power is proportional to torque (whether cadence-sensing, I don’t know — torque sensing alone would favor slow cadence and hard pushing. There is a derailleur option which alters the relationship between pedaling torque and torque at the wheel, so this becomes a more serious issue.) Some technical specs are online on the manufacturer’ site.

Placing the entire power unit in the wheel makes retrofitting to an existing bicycle easy, but my friend Osman Isvan, who studies electrically assisted bicycle technology, questions the Wheel concept, or any electric motor in the wheel. He says that a mid-drive system with a small, high-speed motor powering through a reduction drive to the crankset is better, because then the motor can be lighter and more efficient. In case you would like to get technical, Osman has an article, “Power Optimization for the Propulsion of Lightweight Vehicles,” where he addresses this issue, among others. The Wheel’s motor may in fact use a gear reduction drive, unlike most in-wheel motors, though it almost certainly doesn’t benefit from the ability to maintain nearly constant motor speed with the motor (like the cyclist’s feet) ahead of derailleur gearing or an internal-gear rear hub.

One thing that really caught my eye was the disconnect from safe bicycling practice in the company’s promotional video.

The first photo (above) in this article is from the video and shows bicyclists riding in the door zone of parked cars, at speed. That occurs in the video at 0:45 and 1:45.

At at 0:21 and again at 1:39, the Wheel is demonstrated by a bicyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way street, and where a parked car could pull out, but the next parked vehicle hides the bicyclist from the driver, who is on the curb side.

Bicyclist riding wrong way in copenhagen Wheel promotional video

Bicyclist riding wrong way in Copenhagen Wheel promotional video

There’s this shot of unsecured baggage including a (virtual?) electric guitar which hangs way out past the end of the handlebar — a large virtual amplifier is on the rear rack.

Unsecured baggage..

Unsecured baggage..

And then there’s this shot of a man illegally carrying a (fortunately virtual) small child on his shoulders, and another child sitting facing backwards sitting crosslegged on some kind of platform. The law more or less everywhere in the USA says that children are to be carried only in seats designed for the purpose. Massachusetts law says that the children must wear helmets. Anyone familiar with Our Fair City will know that this clip, like many in the video, was shot on our own Paul Dudley White Bicycle Path.

Illegal if the kids weren't virtual...

Illegal if the kids weren’t virtual…

This carelessness in promotion sets me to musing about what we have ahead of us as the increased speed potential (even if only 20 mph) of electrically-assisted bicycles collides with the kind of underdesigned bicycle facilities — essentially sidewalks — which Cambridge is building — a trend now spreading to Somerville and Boston. We’re not talking superpedestrians here, we’re talking bionically enhanced — but not skills-enhanced — bicyclists on bikeways which could only be safe at pedestrian speeds.

Allow me to predict that over the next decade, the products of bikeway visionaries and bicycle technology visionaries are going to come together in some rather interesting but also disturbing ways!

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April 9, 2013

MIT/Kendall Night at City Hall – Apr 8, 2013 City Council meeting (updated)

Filed under: City Council,Kendall Square,MIT — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 9:40 am

MIT/Kendall Night at City Hall – Apr 8, 2013 City Council meeting

Though there are a few other items on the agenda, this meeting is clearly centered on the potential ordination of the MIT/Kendall zoning petition that was introduced in December 2012, but which has actually been around, debated, and refined since its original introduction over two years ago. There have been many meetings of the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board on the substance of this petition plus volumes of input from the public.

The central agenda item is this:

Unfinished Business #15. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public meeting held on Mar 7, 2013 to continue discussions on the petition by MIT to create a new Section 13.80 Planned Unit Development 5 (PUD-5) District; specifically to discuss Uses, Incentive Zoning, Community Fund, Housing and Sustainability. A presentation will be made by the Executive Director of Historical Commission on historic building. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Apr 1, 2013. Planning Board hearing held Jan 15, 2013. Petition expires Apr 15, 2013.

A related Order from Councillor Decker highlights one feature that is now part of the revised language of the petition:

Order #1. That the text of the MIT Zoning Petition be amended to increase the inclusionary housing from 15% to 18%.   Councillor Decker

The last Ordinance Committee report on this matter is this:

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public meeting held on Apr 2, 2013 to continue discussion on the petition by MIT to create a new Section 13.80 Planned Unit Development 5 (PUD-5) District; said report contains text of zoning language with changes since the Planning Board referral and a draft letter of commitment.

Though there may be other efforts to amend the proposed zoning amendment on the floor, the latest version as submitted is here:

Communications & Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Councillor David Maher transmitting additional information received from Steven C. Marsh, Managing Director, Real Estate MITIMCo., regarding the MIT revised draft zoning amendment, a revised commitment letter and a table providing an overview of the public benefits contained in the revised commitment letter and the revised draft zoning ordinance amendments. [HTML Version of Revised Petition & Letter of Commitment]

There is much that could be said at this point about the MIT/Kendall Petition. In spite of questionable claims of MIT faculty opposition to the proposal, most of the letters from the MIT faculty and administration have shown clear support. Many of the suggestions of the East Cambridge Planning Team have been incorporated into the proposal. There are legitimate arguments that can be made in favor of MIT providing additional housing for graduate students and post-docs, but there is no reason why that housing should be located in Kendall Square. There is also an ongoing analysis within MIT to determine the best ways to address these housing needs, and there is every reason to believe that MIT will act in good faith to ultimately do what’s in the best interest of its students. This may well mean that new housing will be constructed at the opposite end of the MIT campus.

The arguments of naysayers as this matter heads into its final stage have focused on two red herrings – graduate student housing and claims that the plan does not mandate sufficient "sustainability" requirements. When you consider the fact that none of the new buildings in this PUD-5 zone have actually yet been designed, it makes you wonder what blueprints these naysayers have been consulting. The misinformation has all the earmarks of political organizing during a municipal election year.

On balance, the MIT/Kendall Petition, as amended, is a good plan and it should be ordained. MIT has responded well to most of the requests of City staff and the elected officials. If two-thirds of the City Council see fit to pass the zoning amendment, they should be congratulated for keeping their eye on the many positive benefits of the plan and for navigating wisely through a sea of misinformation spread by reactionaries and political wannabes. There’s more to being a good elected official than just being able to say NO to everything. – Robert Winters


Apr 8 update on the MIT/Kendall Petition

The MIT/Kendall zoning petition was ordained as amended on a 7-1-1 vote with Councillor vanBeuzekom voting NO (as expected) and Vice Mayor Simmons voting PRESENT. The revised Letter of Commitment from MIT was approved unanimously.

Prior to final ordination a series of amendments were proposed by several councillors. Councillor Kelley objected strenuously to the late arrival of the proposed amendments and, in doing so, he came across as the smartest guy in the room. There were so many opportunities to propose amendments during the months, weeks, and days leading to this vote, that there was no excuse for trying to rush these amendments through. Nothing good came of it.

The late parade of amendments began with Councillor Cheung proposing some modifications of the percentages in section 13.83.2(d). This squeaked by on a 5-4 vote with Councillors Cheung, Decker, Reeves, Simmons, and vanBeuzekom voting in favor. Next came Councillor Cheung’s amendment to increase the maximum height of the proposed residential tower from 300 ft. to 350 ft. That failed on a 4-5 vote with Councillors Cheung, Reeves, Simmons, and vanBeuzekom voting in favor.

Then Councillor vanBeuzekom proposed a reduction in the maximum permissible nighttime noise levels from 65db to 55db. Councillor Kelley opined that this was a matter that should be viewed in a citywide context. The amendment failed 4-5 with Councillors Cheung, Simmons, vanBeuzekom, and Mayor Davis voting in favor. The next amendment by Councillor vanBeuzekom to require "net zero" energy standards enjoyed a temporary victory on a 5-3-1 vote with Councillors Cheung, Decker, Simmons, vanBeuzekom, and Mayor Davis voting YES; Councillors Kelley, Maher, and Toomey voting NO; and Councillor Reeves voting PRESENT. Later in the meeting, when informed that this burden could threaten MIT’s other commitments, Mayor Davis reluctantly asked to change her vote from YES to PRESENT which defeated the amendment 4-3-2. This was a vote change that Mayor Davis clearly did not relish, but she did it for the greater goal of passing the entire package.

The last amendment was from Councillor Decker and will likely be the one that brings some repercussions. She proposed that the $10 million that was to be dedicated to a Community Fund be transferred to a general mitigation fund not tied in any way to the K2C2 principles. It is my understanding that this has the effect of cutting out the role of people from the adjacent neighborhood organizations in the mitigation fund. The amendment passed on a 5-4 vote with Councillors Cheung, Decker, Reeves, Simmons, and vanBeuzekom voting in favor.

It was also revealed that Councillor Decker’s Order #1 to increase the Inclusionary Zoning percentage from 15% to 18% was meant to be a citywide proposal. She withdrew her Order and will resubmit it as a citywide proposal at a later date. – RW

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