City Council Agenda Highlights (2/27/17) (2 Responses)

The agenda for the Cambridge City Council meeting on Monday, February 27, 2017, is posted online. After a week’s meeting hiatus there are 20 policy orders. Please forgive the length of this summary.

City Manager’s Agenda

#2 AAA bond rating holds for 18th year: Once again, the City has achieved the highest rating by the three rating agencies. This announcement comes in advance of the spring bond sale ($59.4M). In related news, the City’s first “mini-bonds” sold out, with about 204 residents investing in the $2M sale.

#4 Police commissioner search (and soon a search for a new Fire Chief): This item allocates $48K from Free Cash to pay a search firm to assist with recruiting a new police commissioner. For any who wish to weigh in on the commissioner’s leadership profile, the search firm will facilitate two public forums next week (Thurs., 3/2, 6-8pm at CRLS and Sat., 3/4, 10am-12pm at the Citywide Senior Center). This memo does not say so, but we will soon begin a search for a new fire chef since Gerry Reardon has just announced he will retire as of March 4. This was expected since Chief Reardon will become “superannuated” this year due to his age.

#5 Central Square Restoration Petition: This petition to incentivize housing development along Mass Ave in the Central Sq Overlay District (between Inman St and Windsor St) comes up for a final vote on Monday. There is a memo from CDD that annotates a few tweaks to the final language of the ordinance. I expect this to pass.

Applications & Petitions

#3 Third and Cambridge re-zoning petition: This is a petition from a developer that seeks to re-zone a small section of Cambridge Street in order to convert the former’s Citizen’s Bank building and another historic structure into 45 units of housing with ground floor retail. Originally Mark Development had proposed a large CVS for the site and wanted to demolish both buildings (207 and 227 Cambridge St.), drawing strong opposition from the neighborhood, a demolition delay period and petitions to landmark the two buildings. Now, the idea is to change the zoning. There is too little information submitted with this petition (not even a map of the area that shows which other parcels would be re-zoned) to make any judgment, except to wonder if the Masse’s re-zoning has set a precedent that every developer will try to use to their advantage. This will be referred to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee.

Policy Orders

#1 Council goal-setting sessions: The Council has not updated its goals since the 2011-13 term. We started this process with a retreat last summer, but there was no follow through on continuing the discussion last fall. We held one four-hour session with a facilitator at the end of January and didn’t make any progress toward drafting new goals. Councillor Mazen and I tried to submit this request to hold weekly facilitated goals-setting sessions at our last hearing, but it was denied as a late order. In the meantime a follow-up goals-setting session has been scheduled for March 30 — eight weeks after our last session. The goals inform the budget process and any goals we set now will be too late to impact the FY18 budget, which will be voted on in May. Since this is an election year any goals we set will be inherited by the next Council as its debates the FY19 budget next spring.

#2 Food truck promotion: With all the attention focused on helping local retailers survive rising rents and online competition, I’m skeptical that we want the City to create a program to “encourage residents to explore the selection of food trucks the City has to offer,” as Councillor Cheung is asking here. While I appreciate the value of food trucks in activating public spaces, I think food trucks are doing just fine in drawing customers to places where there is a dearth of dining options (Harvard’s Science Center or Cambridgepark Dr at Alewife, for example). If the food trucks being promoted were required to be affiliated with Cambridge restaurants and to use only compostable plates, cups and utensils, I’d be more enthusiastic about this idea.

#4 Save the stained glass before the fire-damaged St Patrick’s is demolished: The church had been converted to affordable housing by Just-a-Start, and the building was a total loss in the December fire. I hope some of the salvaged stained glass can be used in the replacement building.

#5 Resources for undocumented immigrants: This order asks our staff to compile and share resources to help undocumented immigrants know their rights and to advise on what else the City can do to protect them.

#6 and #15 Requests for stop signs: The mayor has put in orders to add stop signs at two intersections (at Green and Hancock and along Cambridge Park Dr., where an access road leads to a construction site). I just finished reading “Streetfight” by NYC’s forward-thinking former traffic commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who stresses that “signs and signals on their own are bad at regulating anything other than right-of-way.” Signs are easy to ignore and speeding and crashes still occur. Our traffic director Joe Barr worked for Sadik-Khan in NYC, so I will be interested to hear what he suggests for making these crossings safer.

#7 Amending guidelines for Harvard Sq Conservation District: I sponsored this order with Councillors Carlone and Mazen to support a citizen petition that asks the Historical Commission to consider adopting a tiered system of protection for “significant” and “contributory” buildings in the Harvard Sq Conservation District, as is done in San Francisco. The impetus for this was the CHC’s refusal to even consider landmarking the Abbot building out of concern that it would make other buildings seem less worthy of protection. The petition also asks for a review of the District’s boundaries. We are still waiting for a response to the order I sponsored last fall, asking the CHC to do a thorough review of the Conservation District’s effectiveness since the last review was conducted in 2005.

#8 Diversity of boards, commissions and task forces: The mayor is asking that there be a requirement that all appointments to boards, commissions and task forces be scrutinized for “diversity” by the Council’s Civic Unity Committee, of which I am a member. Certainly the diversity (racial, ethnic, socio-economic, gender etc) of appointed groups is a very important, but I think this order oversteps the council’s statutory authority vis a vis the city manager’s powers to appoint. I would like to see term limits for all boards and commissions as well as stricter adherence to the residency requirement for all appointments. Requiring more turnover would ensure fresh perspectives and would promote greater civic engagement.

#10 Naming the Pemberton Sr dog in memory of Charlie Giacobbe: This is a nice way to honor the resident who lobbied for the creation of this new dog run. His daughter Christina happens to be the City’s director of emergency communications and 911.

#11 Municipal ID cards: A year ago we adopted an order to ask the City about the feasibility of issuing municipal ID cards. In September we had a response form the manager saying it would be feasible and suggesting a few options, but we did not settle on which option to pursue. A municipal ID would be most useful for people unable to obtain other forms of ID like the homeless and undocumented immigrants. Now, there is much more urgency to make this happen. Instead of creating a smart card with other features to make them attractive to all residents, let’s keep it simple and issue these cards to the people who need them most. On further reflection: If we issue IDs we would be creating a list of our most vulnerable people, many of whom would be the same undocumented immigrants that our new president would like to round up. The political landscape for this group has changed radically since the idea was first proposed a year ago. At this point would they even come forward to ask for an ID from the city? We may not have fully considered the unintended consequences of our good intentions here.

#12 Firehouse facility needs: This asks for an update on a study conducted last spring to assess the capital investments needed to maintain our aging firehouses. Now that the fire chief has announced his retirement, my guess is that this project will fall on his successor’s plate.

#13 Affordable housing creation goal: Two years ago the Council asked the City to commit to creating 1,000 units of affordable housing in five years (by 2020). The response from the staff the following fall (Sept. 2015) was that this goal was overly ambitious without new policies and funding sources, but this order asks for an update on progress toward the goal. Increasing the inclusionary requirement to 20% will help, but it would take building 5,000 units to achieve it, which still seems ambitious in a five-year period. HRI is planning 98 affordable units on Concord Ave, and if the massive redevelopment of the Abt site on Wheeler St is approved at 530 units and 20% inclusionary we would get 106 affordable units. For comparison, the North Point PUD promised a total of 3,177 units over 27 years, but has only produced 684 units in the first 13 years, of which fewer than 80 are affordable at 11.5%. If the remaining units in the PUD were subject to the 20% requirement we would get another 498 affordable units — but not until 2030 at the soonest. Volpe is our best opportunity for a substantial addition to our affordable inventory, but MIT is only proposing 1400 units total and that could take decades to come online.

#14 Next generation wireless service: This order, which I co-sponsored, asks for more information about the high-speed wireless transmitters that are being installed on poles all around town principally by a company called Mobilitie. The installations are approved pole-by-pole by the Pole and Conduit Commission with little guidance as to what benefits this 5G millimeter wave radio broadcasting service may offer. Our poles are already eyesores and once equipment is there it becomes almost impossible for the City to get it removed.

#16 Harvard Sq Movie Theater: The Church St theater has been vacant for about five years, after having been acquired in July 2012 by the Carpenter Company (owner/developer of the Charles Square hotel and condo complex) for $6.5M and then flipped in August 2014 for $17.5M to Hong Kong billionaire Gerald Chan. The lack of a theater to draw diners and shoppers is contributing to the Harvard Square’s problems and the shuttered street-front is becoming a blight. This order requests that the current owner provide an update on his redevelopment plans within 30 days. While Chan is only responsible for about half of the vacancy period, it’s time to fish or cut bait. I feel a theater and performance space must be included in any eventual re-development; the Square needs an active-use magnet to survive.

#17 Vacant and abandoned buildings: This is a proposal to create a municipal ordinance to require the owner of an abandoned or vacant building, whether commercial or residential, to register with the City and pay a monthly fee after 180 days of continuous vacancy. Commercial storefronts could not be left vacant for more than 30 days without registering with the City. Eminent domain could be commenced after two years of continuous vacancy. The suggested fee would be 4.17% of the building’s assessed value. The long-vacant Harvard Sq theater is assessed at $9,528,900. If this ordinance passed the monthly fee would be about $4K — chump change for a billionaire. I understand the desire to deter “land-banking” and there are some long-vacant buildings that are blight and public safety risks, but I worry that this goes too far especially for residential buildings. Six months (180 days) is not an unreasonable period of time to leave a home vacant, and I have seen no data to indicate that lengthy residential vacancies are a widespread problem. Our housing crisis is not because a few people take sabbaticals or spend part of the year elsewhere; we are not yet Manhattan, where billionaires buy luxury units to occupy only a few days a year. We do have speculators buying units to rent on Airbnb and will be addressing that problem through changes to the rules for short-term rentals. This will be referred to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee.

#18 Volpe site plan: This order asks the Volpe Working Group to consider how the federal government’s new transportation building (the first building to be constructed by MITIMCO under the terms of its deal with the GSA) will be integrated into the site plan. MIT recently presented conceptual site plans that show the only viable location for the new transportation building is at the NW corner of the 14-acre site (near Binney St and the Sixth St walkway) with some open space around it for security. The open space on the east side of the new transportation building potentially could connect with the public open space envisioned between Broadway and Binney along a new extension of Fifth St through the site. As federal land, this corner of the parcel would not be subject to any of the zoning we adopt for the rest of the site, and the Feds are not obligated to work with us to connect the open spaces for public use. There also is concern about the fate of the 100+ mature trees on the Volpe site, many of which form shaded allees along the Sixth St walkway and on Broadway.

#19 White Ribbon events next week: March 1 is White Ribbon Day, and there are various events next week to oppose gender-based violence. The main event on Tues., Feb. 28 at 2:45 at CRLS unfortunately conflicts with an Ordinance Committee hearing on inclusionary zoning at 3:00.

#20 Excluding rooftop open spaces from FAR: This would amend the zoning ordinance to exempt open-air rooftop spaces in Harvard Sq (and citywide? it’s unclear from the wording) from FAR with a special permit in exchange for giving the Planning Board the ability to restrict certain aspects of the rooftop programming and design. It is modeled on what’s being proposed in Central Sq as part of the “Restoration” petition. I’m not convinced it is a good idea to allow more density everywhere in the city unless these rooftop spaces are going to be open to the public. For example Equity One is proposing would be rooftop terrace in Harvard Square that would only be open to the patrons of a high-end restaurant; this is not a use we want to incentivize. This will be referred to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee.

Communications from City Officers

#1 Questions about applying inclusionary zoning to PUDs: We have been debating whether existing PUDs such as North Point will be subject to the proposed increase in the inclusionary zoning requirement. At North Point, whose PUD was granted in 2003, there are almost 2,500 units still to be constructed by 2030. The difference between 11.5% or 20% is an additional 212 affordable units at North Point alone, and if there is any legal way to apply the increase to the remaining units I feel we should leave no stone unturned in finding it. Joined by Councillors Mazen and Carlone, I submitted several questions to the city solicitor on PUDs and inclusionary. Going forward, we should not explicitly exempt PUDs from subsequent increases to the inclusionary requirement when they come for a major amendment as North Point did just last spring and we should hold PUD developers strictly accountable for meeting the construction schedule set in their special permit.


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