As we mark the end of the calendar year and look ahead to the inauguration of a new City Council on New Year’s Day, I would like to reflect on some of the highlights of the 2016-17 term. Two-year terms go by fast, and the legislative process can seem to move slowly, yet we accomplished quite a bit this term. As important, we set in motion study groups and deepened public conversations on pressing issues like housing affordability, local retail preservation, climate change resiliency, and transportation safety that we will take up again in the coming term. Here is a snapshot.
One of the Council’s chief responsibilities is to hire the city manager. At the beginning of the term we conducted a thorough and very public search and interview process and hired Louis DePasquale to succeed Rich Rossi as manager in November 2016. Over the past year the city’s senior administration has welcomed several new department heads. “Louie” has appointed a new police commissioner (Branville Bard), and we have new directors of finance (David Kale), budget (Sarah Stanton), library (Maria Taesil Hudson McCauley) and purchasing (Elizabeth Unger). He appointed an acting fire chief (Gerard Mahoney), following the retirement of the Chief Gerry Reardon, who led the successful knockdown of the city’s largest fire in decades in December 2016. At the Council’s request the Manager also created the Commission on Immigrant Rights & Citizenship to help advise and protect our most vulnerable residents in these troubled and xenophobic times, and stood behind us as we reaffirmed our longstanding commitment to remaining a Sanctuary City.
While the Manager acts as the city’s chief executive officer, the Council holds the legislative power and we were busy on that front. The Ordinance Committee met 47 times this term. Housing dominated our legislative agenda. We voted to allow accessory dwelling units citywide, to restrict short-term rentals to owner-occupied or owner-adjacent units in smaller buildings, most significantly to raise the inclusionary zoning requirement to 20%. We rezoned Central Square to encourage housing development and revitalize streetfront activity along Mass Ave, and set the zoning framework for the redevelopment of the Volpe parcel in Kendall Square, while pressing MIT to build more graduate student housing. We created a zoning overlay on Mass Ave between Harvard and Porter Squares to require ground floor retail. We voted to take the blighted Vail Court buildings on Bishop Allen Drive by eminent domain and to redevelop the site as affordable housing, and we created a budget line item to fund affordable housing development.
We also passed zoning to permit beekeeping activity and medical marijuana dispensaries citywide, ban the retail sale of animals, and regulate the planting of invasive “running” bamboo. We debated, but did not pass, the Outdoor Lighting Ordinance and a fee on long-vacant buildings, but I am hopeful revised versions of both will be back on our agenda next term.
We committed to the internationally recognized Vision Zero policy to make our streets safer for all modes, reduced the citywide speed limit to 25 mph, and increased the budget for traffic enforcement. And we withstood the “bikelash” over the creation of safer bike infrastructure including parking protected lanes on Brattle and Cambridge Streets. We also made it legal to designate spaces in residential lots for car-sharing services.
The preservation of independent local retail especially in Harvard Square was the subject of much concern with high profile property sales and escalating rents, prominent storefront vacancies, and the prospect of major redevelopments. A retail strategy study highlighted areas of opportunity and challenge for business owners and policy makers. We landmarked the Harvard Square Kiosk and formed a working group to study its re-use and the plaza’s redesign. We also initiated a study of the effectiveness of the Harvard Square Conservation District and are currently considering the Kroon Petition to revitalize small retail in Harvard Square.
We significantly increased the funding for renovation of the Foundry building as a community-oriented STEAM center, and kept the Green Line Extension on track with a $12.5M commitment toward building the new Lechmere station. We held a Climate Congress and initiated a task force to protect and increase the urban tree canopy and develop a tree master plan. We also debated strengthening protections for trees on private property. We voted to create a daytime warming center for the homeless and advanced a set of recommendations for addressing the opioid crisis.
While a citizen petition to put public financing of elections up for a voter referendum was derailed, we tasked the Election Commission with publishing a Voter Guide for municipal elections and turnout rose by 16% in this year’s municipal election. Three councillors decided not to run for re-election, and three new members, two of them women, were elected from a competitive field of 26 candidates that included nine women.
In addition to our regular Monday meetings and a total of 116 committee hearings, we held several joint Roundtables with the School Committee to discuss progress on expanding early childhood education, setting budget and planning priorities, and collaborating with charter schools. We also held Council Roundtables to discuss the Envision Cambridge planning process, developing a comprehensive housing policy, and remaining a Sanctuary City.
All in all, we can be proud of our work last term, and with the addition of three new councillors and the partnership of a city manager with a year’s experience under his belt and a solid executive team, I am confident that the 2018-19 term will prove even more productive. Personally I’m excited to start my second term with a broader base of knowledge and experience to build on, and look forward to continuing to learn and improve in my service to you all.
Thank you for your support and Happy New Year to all —
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA