City Council Agenda Highlights (5/9/16) (4 Responses)

The agenda for the Cambridge City Council meeting on Monday, May 9, is on the city’s Open Meeting Portal. The most noteworthy item on this relatively short agenda is the city manager’s request that we authorize a $25M pledge to help close the state’s budget gap on the Green Line Extension project. An explanatory letter from Mr. Rossi is CMA item #8 on the City Manager Agenda. The fate of the GLX still hangs in the balance, though, and more cuts, even the projects’s cancellation, could be announced at a public meeting on Monday, May 9 at 1:00pm at the State Transportation Building.

Another item (CMA #7) notifies us that Police Supt. Chris Burke has been named the interim Commissioner following Bob Haas’s retirement this week. At this week’s budget hearing we also learned that Fire Chief Gerald Reardon will reach the mandatory retirement age next year. Thus our new city manager will have two very important public safety positions to fill early in his/her term (best case scenario: we will vote on a successor to Mr. Rossi at the end of September).

This turnover in public safety also affects the city’s License Commission, as the police commissioner and fire chief are two of its three members. The License Commission is proposing changes to our alcohol licensing rules that would eliminate the “CAPS” system (quotas limiting the number of liquor licenses in certain zones) and would phase out “no-value, non-transferable” licenses. The License Commission will meet twice this month (May 10 and 24) to hear public comment on the proposed changes and is expected to vote on them on May 31. The City Council must approve any changes, and Councillor Leland Cheung has a policy order (#2) that asks us to reaffirm a vote in 2015, which stated that the License Commission should not propose any rule changes that could potentially undermine the Council’s policy goals of “community building efforts and street activation.” Restaurants that serve alcohol have helped transform Kendall Square into a vibrant “live/work/play” community (granted, the “work/play” component remains greater than the “live” but we hope that will change in the next wave of development).

Reconsiderations:

I filed to reconsider a positive recommendation for a sandwich board sign at the Mexicali restaurant on Main St in Kendall Square, following some procedural confusion over last week’s vote where it wasn’t clear to at least one of us what we were voting on. I will be soon scheduling an Economic Development Committee hearing to discuss the policy goals, criteria and process used to evaluate requests for sandwich board signs; until then I think Mexicali’s request should be left “on the table” with several other pending sidewalk A-frame sign requests.

City Manager Agenda:

#1 Conservation Commission: One new member will join the seven-member commission, which is tasked with administering the state’s Wetlands Protection Act. Two members were reappointed. I have asked that the CC’s webpage be updated; the most recent meeting minutes posted date back to July 2015. With the intense development continuing on the Alewife flood plain, the public must be kept better informed about decisions related to wetlands.

#2 Reappointments to the Fresh Pond Advisory Board: An open call went out last month for applications to join the Fresh Pond Advisory Board, but there are no new names on this list of appointments. Seven longtime members are being reappointed for two- and three-year terms. The board may have up to 15 members, but it currently includes only nine, and I believe (hope) applications are still being accepted and considered. In the interest of broadening civic engagement, I would like to see greater effort made to recruiting new members for all boards and commissions and to staggering, even limiting, terms on most of them. While maintaining some continuity is important, the city staff who oversee the boards can supply the institutional memory, and new members bring new perspectives and fresh energy. I hope that our new city manager will undertake a thorough review of all boards and commissions.

#3 Planning Board favors amended Stern Petition for north Mass Ave zoning change: This matter now comes before the Ordinance Committee on Wed., May 11 at 3:00pm. The most recent version of the Stern Petition seeks to eliminate the requirement for ground floor retail along a short stretch of north Mass Ave, where a developer has proposed a residential building at the site of the former Lapels dry cleaning store on the corner of Richard Ave. The base zoning would remain Business A-2, which allows commercial and residential uses. In general I favor encouraging neighborhood-serving ground floor retail along a major artery like Mass Ave, as it promotes walking and helps create a sense of place and community. In this case the neighbors strongly opposed the original “awkward” building design, which included the required retail component. They asserted that because prior attempts to maintain a retail presence along this side of north Mass Ave have failed this one would, too. Regardless of whether or not that should be the standard, they and the developer have reached consensus on a new design without retail and have won the Planning Board’s support for the zoning change to enable the project to go forward.

#8 $25M Contribution Proposed for the Green Line Extension: The manager makes a strong case for this extraordinary payment, even as he acknowledges that the state has shirked its responsibility to follow through with this long-promised, legally-mandated transit improvement, leaving Cambridge and Somerville no choice but to step up — or risk halting the entire project and losing hundreds of millions of federal funds. Still, $75M is a drop in the bucket, and it’s hard to believe that our contribution will tip the scale toward going forward with a $2-3B project. I have posted separately on this item, if you care to comment.

Policy Orders:

#1 Posting “advisory” speed limits of 20-25mph on city streets: I co-sponsored this order, along with Councillors Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen. Our desire to reduce legally enforceable speed limits have been stymied by state law, which requires cities wishing to reduce the default limit of 30mph to obtain state approval on a street-by-street basis. However, there is no reason the city can’t post signage that advises drivers to drive more slowly. Drivers exceeding the advisory limits would not receive tickets but could be warned.

#2 Changes to liquor license rules should not undermine Council goals for economic development: As noted above, Councillor Cheung is concerned that economic development may suffer if the License Commission changes its current policies on granting licenses (enabled in part by the ability to fairly liberally grant “no-value” licenses, which they propose to phase out). The Commissioner has stated that it is not their intent to restrict licenses, only to bring Cambridge into compliance with state law by eliminating our CAPS quota and phasing out no-value, non-transferable licenses. The draft changes propose that all licenses should have value and be transferable, but there would no longer be zones where the number of licenses are capped. There will doubtless be a vigorous debate about the potential impact on those holding licenses of all kinds as well as on the future ability of new applicants to receive them. Stay tuned!

#4 Don’t block bus stops: Mayor Simmons asks that state laws prohibiting blocking access to bus stops be more strictly enforced. I hope there will be more enforcement for cars blocking bus and bike lanes. Uber and other TNCs are chronic offenders, and their drivers need more training about finding safe, legal places to pull over to pick up riders.

#5 Name change to reduce confusion around Alewife station: It was standing room only at last week’s community meeting about Alewife traffic, and tempers were flaring, as well over 100 people gathered to complain about lengthy gridlock for commuters trying to exit Cambridgepark Drive onto Rt. 2 during the afternoon-evening rush. Pedestrians trying to cross the streets in that area often feel at risk of being hit by frustrated drivers; one woman tearfully recounted being struck by a car while in a crosswalk near the T station. Police details are said to help, but it has proved difficult to find police officers willing to take on this particular detail. It was suggested that having intersecting streets named Cambridgepark Drive and Cambridgepark Place may confuse some motorists, resulting in U-turns that needlessly add to congestion. Since CP Place has no known business or residents with addresses on it, I sponsored an order to consider re-naming it.

#7 Hearings on proposed inclusionary housing increase to be televised: The Housing Committee will hold two hearings this month on the inclusionary zoning study, which suggests increasing the percentage of affordable units in larger new developments to 20%. This order asks that the hearings be televised. The May 18 hearing will start at 6:30pm and will be held at the Citywide Senior Center; the May 31 hearing will be held at City Hall, starting at 6:00pm. The Planning Board discussed the study last week but the meeting minutes are not yet available.

Committee Reports:

#1 Ordinance Committee hearing on locking bikes to trees: Parking regulations already prohibit locking bikes to trees, but the ordinance related to what may not be tied to trees (horses!) doesn’t explicitly name bikes, so on the face of it this is a simple change intended to align the ordinance with existing regulations. Since there is no mechanism to fine bike owners such an infraction merely results in a warning tag placed on the bike. The broader intent here is to highlight the need for more bike parking, so that trees are no longer used because nothing else is readily available. The FY17 budget includes $70K for bike parking, and I and other councillors see increasing the amount of legal bike parking as an urgent need.

#2 Government Operations Committee hearing on city manger search process: I attended the May 3rd meeting, during which the committee continued to discuss the city manager search process. The proposed composition of the Preliminary Search Committee was the main topic — the committee, which will confidentially screen and interview applicants to narrow the field to the top three finalists, has now swelled to 19 members after Mayor Simmons suggested adding someone to represent the faith community. After a resident questioned the appropriateness (legality) of making faith a criterion for serving on any public committee, it was decided to include someone from the “interfaith” community. I pointed out that doubtless many of the members representing other constituencies also would belong to faith communities, but that carried no weight and I do not have a vote on this committee. The categories represented are intended to reflect a cross-section of the community: two from business (small and large), one each from non-profit, university, arts/open space, human services, municipal finance expert, urban planning, public safety, public schools, affordable housing, interfaith, along with three residents and four councillors.

Letters from City Officers:

#1 Random selection process for councillors to serve on Preliminary Screening Committee: I wrote a letter to my fellow councillors, suggesting that we draw straws to determine which four of us will sit on the Preliminary Screening Committee that will select the top three candidates for our next city manager. We have committed to following an open and transparent process for this search, but this screening committee must meet behind closed doors to protect the privacy of the applications. Given the intense scrutiny this process is under, I don’t want to give anyone any reason to think we somehow stacked the deck in the choice of the four councillors to serve on this important committee. Five votes are needed when the top three candidates come before the full Council, and any four who serve on the screening committee will have to take great care to dispel any suspicion that they have an unfair advantage or have formed a block.

Public Comment and Viewing Meetings:

Public comment begins at 5:30 pm. Each person is allowed to speak for 3 minutes on any agenda item except for communications from other members of the public. You may call 617-349-4280 on Monday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm to sign up to speak, or sign in when you arrive (before 6:00 pm). If you submit written public comments, please email council@cambridgema.gov and cc City Clerk Donna Lopez at dlopez@cambridgema.gov. Your comments will appear on the public record (under “Communications”) at the next regular Council meeting.

City Council meetings are televised on CCTV Channel 22 and live streamed on the City Council’s website. Recorded versions of all Council meetings may be found on the city’s Open Meeting Portal.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA