City Council Summer Meeting Recap

The Cambridge City Council’s special summer meeting on Aug. 1st clocked in at about 6 hours. The record of our votes and the video of the entire meeting may be seen on the Open Meeting Portal. The topics that elicited the most discussion were:

The future of the Harvard Sq. kiosk: The lack of transparency in planning the redesign and programming of this beloved and historic news kiosk has sparked strong emotions, especially the surprising revelation during the hearing that a $270K contract had been signed late last year with a local architect with a potential conflict of interest. The city manager assured us that there would be no more surprises, and that there will be more public input before any further design or programming decisions are made. Our job is to hold him — and his eventual successor — to that promise.

More police in public housing? Some residents do feel unsafe and have asked for more security. However this matter was referred to the mayor’s ad hoc “safe streets committee” for further discussion after testimony from a Black Lives Matter leader questioned whether additional police patrols in public housing are the appropriate tactic to address the situation. Providing CHA residents with a greater sense of security must include a range of short- and longer-term measures, not simply a greater police presence.

Medical marijuana zoning questions: The first approved dispensary will open this fall on Mass Ave., and applications for other locations are proliferating. Public hearings have already been scheduled to review an application for a dispensary in Harvard Sq., and now there are three more applications for dispensaries in the Alewife “Quad” (the evolving former industrial area off Concord Ave.). Three of these four applications are seeking zoning changes. Prior attempts to carve out distinct zoning districts where dispensaries are allowed have failed, and if we don’t want to spend the rest of our term holding hearings on these zoning amendments we will have to go back to the drawing board. There also remains the question of how many dispensaries local demand can support.

Watering street trees: The drought continues and many other communities have placed bans on outdoor watering. We are fortunate that we are allowed to continue watering our own gardens, but many of our public plantings are visibly in distress, so please help water the younger street trees near you. Members of the Committee on Public Planting are starting an e-newsletter to keep us apprised of their efforts. If interested, here’s the link to subscribe.

Meanwhile:

The Airbnb discussion continues: We held a second public hearing last week on how to regulate very short-term rentals like Airbnb. When Airbnb is used by residents on an occasional basis to host guests it can be a “win-win”, but the incursion of commercial operators is creating negative externalities. I’ve been working on a matrix that attempts to analyze Airbnb-type listings from the standpoint of their potential to distort the housing market, their potential for abuse by investors and commercial operators, and their potential to destabilize neighborhoods and annoy neighbors. Here is an article well worth reading to understand the complexity of the challenge cities are facing.

City manager search process in process: Applications to serve on the preliminary evaluation and screening committee for city manager candidates are due on Aug. 12. Please note that the committee will meet on Aug. 25, Sept. 12 and Sept. 13 and you must be able to attend those meetings. Technically applications for the city manager position itself were due on Aug. 1, but the GovHRUSA website site allows applications to be submitted. Once the field of candidates has been narrowed to the top three candidates, the Council will hold public interviews, make site visits and vote at a public meeting at the end of Sept.

Other major items on our late summer and early fall calendar:

Inclusionary housing requirement changes: The Housing Committee will hold its fourth public discussion on the study on Aug. 15, which recommends increasing the requirement percentage of low and moderate income housing in developments of 10 units and more to 20%. The Affordable Housing Trust has backed most of the suggested changes. There is some concern within the development community that some projects already in planning may no longer be feasible with the higher requirement, and the timing of when the changes would take effect has not been decided. Some are concerned that the higher percentage could incentivize commercial development over residential, but on the plus side it might serve to cool the run-up of land values, which make it harder to develop housing that is affordable to middle income people. A case in point: a 53,600sf site on Fawcett St with an older warehouse just sold for $10.7m. Its assessed value is $2.1m.

Urban agriculture: There will be a public hearing on Aug. 23 to discuss a proposed ordinance for allowing chickens and beekeepings and for encouraging other urban farming initiatives.

Volpe Center site rezoning: Bids from the development teams are due to the Federal General Services Administration on Sept. 8. The Council will take another crack at getting the zoning “right” for this Kendall Square anchor-site after the developer is selected and with the help of an urban design consultant and a to-be-appointed working group.

Municipal election reforms: There will be two hearings this month on matters related to local elections: strategies to increase voter turnout (Aug. 25) and campaign finance reform and public funding (Aug. 29). Requiring municipal lobbyists to register may be the topic of another hearing later in the fall.

Inman Square traffic safety: This fall we will continue our discussion of how to improve the safety for vulnerable users (pedestrians and cyclists) traveling through this difficult intersection, and as part of this and other conversations about safety we will have to confront the extent to which our parking policies are holding us back. The number of resident permits has fallen, even as our population has climbed in recent years, and there is reason to believe that trend will continue as younger residents choose to own — and park — fewer cars. We have the opportunity to reclaim some valuable real estate through policies that encourage mode shift.

The next City Council meeting will take place on Monday, Sept. 12 at 5:30pm and then we will resume our regular Monday meetings. The schedule for all our meetings and committee hearings is posted on the Open Meeting Portal.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA