City Council Agenda Highlights (12/12/15)

Due to the 10-alarm fire that destroyed several buildings and displaced 37 families on Saturday, December 3, the City Council decided not to meet the following Monday (Dec. 5) out of consideration for the City staff, who were working overtime to coordinate the relief effort. Thus, all the items on the December 5th agenda were carried over to the December 12th agenda. This post only highlights this week’s noteworthy NEW items since last week’s post already covered the prior ones.

City Manager’s Agenda (items 1-9 were on the 12/5 agenda)

#10 Autonomous vehicle R&D: Research on AVs (a.k.a. self-driving cars) is taking place in Cambridge at the Volpe Center and at MIT, and our Traffic Department reports that we will collaborate with Boston and other cities to develop a regional strategy for safely testing AVs on public roads. Gov. Baker issued an Executive Order in October that creates a multi-disciplinary AV Working Group to promote the development of this technology and to recommend legislation to address safety and other issues related to piloting this technology. One plus: Any AVs traveling on city-owned streets presumably will be programmed to stay under the new 25mph limit — unlike those with a human foot on the accelerator.

#11 Outreach about housing discrimination and lead paint: The two often go hand in hand, as landlords of units that have not been de-leaded have been known to discriminate against prospective tenants with young children. A HUD grant of $5K will fund more outreach on this issue. The City website already has a lead paint resource page that includes a link to the state’s searchable database of properties that have had lead inspections and violations.

#12 Consumers’ Council Grant: The Cambridge Consumers’ Council has been awarded a supplemental $7K state grant to further its work mediating consumer complaints. I met recently with Laura Evans, who leads the CCC, to learn more about her work. Created in 1981 and funded by the Attorney General’s Office, our CCC is one of 18 statewide that mediates complaints about unfair or deceptive business practices affecting residents of Cambridge, Somerville and Waltham. If you ever need to visit the CCC office it is housed with the License Commission at 831 Mass Ave.

#13 YWCA Family Shelter to move into 859 Mass Ave: The City acquired 859 Mass Ave, formerly owned by the Chamber of Commerce, through a friendly eminent domain taking earlier this year. The building will be gut-renovated to house the YWCA’s Family Shelter, which is currently housed next door at 3 Bigelow St and which provides 10 bedrooms for women and their children. Both buildings need very substantial renovations; the Bigelow property will be repurposed for City staff offices. The City Manager reports here that 859 Mass Ave will become a Net Zero building with geothermal wells drilled for heating and solar panels on the roof. The manager will make a future request for $5M from Free Cash for construction expenses. (I assume that amount is for both buildings and not only 859 Mass Ave, but the report is not clear on this point.) A community meeting on the 859 Mass Ave project is scheduled for January 18 at 6:00pm at City Hall.

Policy Orders (items 1-3 were on the 12/5 agenda)

#4 Affordable housing on municipal parking lots: This renews the Council’s prior unanswered request for a report on the feasibility of building affordable housing on city-owned parking lots on Bishop Allen Drive (there are 3 of them: Lots 4, 5 and 6). Lot 6 is adjacent to the approved Mass + Main mixed use development. The order asks for a report by the end of January.

#5 & #9 Expediting rebuilding fire-damaged properties: Both Councillor Toomey and I sponsored orders to ask the Building Department to permit property owners to rebuild their older non-conforming properties that were damaged in the recent fire without having to go through time-consuming and costly hearings for variances. I expect the two orders can be combined and adopted as one.

#6 Mayor’s Fire Relief Fund accounting: As Friday afternoon, over $620K has been raised online for the victims of the Dec. 3rd fire, and donations are still pouring in. To date, the City has distributed over $184K to fire victims, and has placed 14 (of 37) families in new permanent housing. If you would like to contribute, here is the link. If you are property owner with a vacant unit, please contact the Mayor’s Office at 617-349-4321.

#7 Consider making Appleton St one-way from Highland to Huron: I sponsored this order after hearing concerns from residents and merchants that the newly narrowed opening of Appleton on the south side of Huron is making it difficult for two-way traffic to enter and exit. Snow may make the opening even narrower and more constricted so it seems worth discussing this idea before winter sets in. Appleton St resident Councillor Maher co-sponsored the order.

#8 Reducing speed limit to 25mph on Fresh Pond Parkway: On Thursday the speed limit on all city-owned roads was reduced to 25mph, but we can’t control the speed limit on DCR roads like Fresh Pond Parkway, so I sponsored this policy order to formally direct the City to ask DCR to lower the limit on the parkway. Reducing speed through road design and State Police enforcement will improve safety for all users and is especially important to the West Cambridge residents who live in the neighborhoods bisected by the parkway and any families who must cross the parkway en route to schools.

#10 Outreach on renters insurance: I sponsored this order after hearing reports that many of the residents displaced by the fire did not have renters’ insurance policies. In a city where two-thirds of all residents are tenants I wondered how we can encourage more people to carry renters insurance, especially those of modest means and without significant savings. I have since learned that this state law requires a multifamily property owner’s policy to include coverage for tenants in the event of a fire, but individual renters insurance remains important to cover property theft, damage and loss and liability for personal injury. I think insurance is something that many people (myself included) do not understand well. The City could provide a valuable service by better educating tenants.

#11 Responding to threats and hate speech in public schools: This order asks that we convene a special meeting of the City Council, the School Committee and others to discuss actions, including a potential school budget increase, to address various security concerns. The 2015-16 school year was disrupted by a string of fake bomb threats, and over the past few weeks swastikas and racist graffiti have been found in restrooms at CRLS and the Vassal Lane Upper School. The recent incidents must not be tolerated and are especially troubling in light of our president-elect’s pattern of abusive outbursts aimed at immigrants, Muslims, women, disabled persons, SNL comedians, and anyone who looks at him sideways.

#12 Honoring Rep. Toomey: This order asks that the City find a suitable place to recognize Councillor Toomey for his 24 years of service as a State Representative.

Public Comment and Viewing Meetings:

Public comment begins at 5:30 pm. Each person is allowed to speak for up to 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). To submit written comments, please email and cc City Clerk Donna Lopez at Your comments will appear on the public record (under “Communications”) at the next regular Council meeting.

City Council meetings are televised on Channel 22-CityView 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