City Council Agenda Highlights (3/26/18)

The agenda for the Cambridge City Council meeting on Monday, March 26, 2018 is online. My summary of the highlights follows.

City Manager’s Agenda

#1 New Planning Board Members: Nikolas Bowie and Corinne Espinoza have been appointed to the Planning Board. Professor Bowie, who grew up in Cambridge, is an attorney who clerked at the Supreme Court. He is an assistant professor at Harvard Law School and a PhD candidate in history. Ms. Espinoza works as a senior administrator at Harvard and has been a volunteer leader at several community organizations. Each brings strong professional skills and a deep knowledge of the Cambridge community, but neither seems to offer any particular expertise in urban planning, architecture, development, or landscape design, which would be useful in reviewing the complex special permit projects and zoning amendments that come before the Planning Board for review. The vacancy notice stated this: “Ideal candidates would possess the ability to participate in a collaborative process, work with other Board members to consider diverse ideas, and reach a decision. Members should also have strong attentiveness and listening skills. While there is no requirement for a technical background, interest and understanding of development, architecture, urban design, and zoning is desirable.”

#2 Polystyrene Ordinance Report: This memo responds to my request for an update on the implementation of the City’s ban on polystyrene takeout food and beverage containers, which took effect in the fall of 2016. Though we have achieved a 90% compliance rate, some businesses still have having difficulty sourcing alternative products at affordable prices. DPW is continuing to work with these businesses and is performing spot checks to enforce the ban. 

#3 Electric Leaf Blower Pilot Report: Last term as chair of the Health and Environment committee, I held hearings to review scientific research on the negative effects that leaf blowers, especially commercial strength gas-powered blowers, have on the respiratory health and hearing of workers using them and on others enduring the excessive noise they generate, as well as the harm blowing causes to pollinators and the soil. The committee also discussed ways to improve compliance with seasonal restrictions on all types of leaf blowers and with the requirement that commercial landscapers register with the City. We also asked that City workers and commercial landscapers receive training in using blowers responsibly and safely. DPW and the License Commission worked together to create such new programs and to pilot the use of electric blowers and mowers in two parks. This report provides an update on their efforts. While DPW was reasonably satisfied with the performance of electric blowers for all but the heaviest cleanup tasks, the lack of charging infrastructure and short battery life made using electric blowers much less efficient. Switching from gas to electric lawn mowers went more smoothly since mowers have larger batteries that last much longer between charges. However the report offers no data on whether the number of complaints decreased or on the results of stricter enforcement, so it’s hard to say if the changes have improved compliance. The negative effects of blowing remain regardless of the type of power, and workers often decline to use the ear and lung protection offered to them.  

#4 Pedestrian Safety at Mass Ave and Prospect/River St Intersection: This memo comes in response to a request to consider adding an “all walk” signal cycle to this busy intersection to improve safety for pedestrians. After studying interactions between pedestrians and turning vehicles, the staff have determined that an “all walk” cycle is not the appropriate strategy. Instead they are recommending a “super LPI” (leading pedestrian interval), which would give pedestrians a 15-second head start before vehicles begin to turn right from a dedicated right-turn lane. Traffic in the through-lane would be able to proceed with less of a delay, since those vehicles would not have to wait for the current 5-second LPI.

#5 Water and Sewer Rates: The manager is proposing no increase in our water rate. Sewer rates, which account for about 75% of the total charges, would be raised 7.5%, so the combined rate would increase 5.6% for the year that begins on April 1. About 90% of the sewer rate is attributable to debt service for infrastructure projects and the MWRA assessment. This is the eighth straight year that the water rate has not changed. Homeowners would see an increase on their water and sewer bills of from about $50 to $90 on average. (About 2,650 homeowners claim the senior discount, and about 80 qualify for the low-income 30% discount.) The memo also includes projections for future rates and breaks out the rates by consumption block. 

Policy Orders

#1 Intergenerational Home-sharing Pilot: This order suggests joining Boston in piloting a program to match seniors who have spare rooms with graduate students and post-docs in need of affordable housing. The younger people would be able to rent a room at below market rates, sometimes in exchange for helping with household chores. Nesterly is a startup developed at MIT that is trying to popularize a dating app-type platform for home-sharing. Seniors who want to earn additional income can already use Airbnb to rent out extra bedrooms or in-law apartments on their own terms and many of those guests are younger people. Cambridge Neighbors (formerly Cambridge at Home) is a 10-year-old program that is helping almost 300 local seniors age in place by them offering services and social opportunities without taking on the responsibility of a tenant. Typically these sorts of intergenerational living arrangements develop organically through extended family or other mutual connections. I don’t know if cities should have a formal role in brokering such personal relationships.

#2 Inventory of Vacant City-Owned Properties: I co-sponsored this order to compile an inventory of vacant or undeveloped city properties including parking lots, so that we can explore future potential uses including for affordable housing. Last year we discussed fining owners of vacant or abandoned buildings and retail spaces to discourage land-banking, and we should know more about the City’s own real estate holdings.

#3 Grave Markers for Slaves: Recently it was brought to our attention that at least two slaves were laid to rest in unmarked graves in the Old Harvard Square Burial Ground. Both served this country as soldiers. Similarly other veterans of color who may have been enslaved have not been recognized with historical markers in Cambridge Common. This order seeks to identify and recognize the contributions of these and other patriots of color.

#4 Arts Overlay District in Central Square: I co-sponsored this order to explore creating a zoning overlay in Central Square that could help create and preserve affordable living and working spaces for artists and arts organizations. Recently we learned that the EMF building on Brookline St, which has long provided affordable studio spaces to many musicians and artists, is being redeveloped. All the tenants have been given notice to vacate by the end of April, and many are upset that the City cannot intervene to save their studio spaces.

#5 Declaring April 2 “Autism Awareness Day” City Hall and other prominent buildings will be have blue lights on the night of April 2. On a related note, there is an exhibit at the Lesley University Lunder Arts Center of artwork by autistic artists. The show is open through April 20 (see details).

#6 Converting Single Family Houses to Transitional Housing SROs or Housing Co-ops: This order asks the city solicitor to draft new zoning that would allow single family homes in 3 residential districts (Res A-1, A-2 and B) to be converted to single room occupancy or housing co-ops and directs the Affordable Housing Trust to “aggressively” bid to buy these properties. Before any zoning language is drafted this idea should first go to the Housing Committee for further explanation and discussion — along with several other ideas already under consideration by both the committee and the Envision Cambridge Housing Working Group that may be more effective at creating affordable housing in all areas of the city and less likely to put even more pressure on the market for single family housing. There are 6 such homes for sale as of today including 5 in West Cambridge.

#7 Protecting Immigrants with Temporary Protected Status: This order supports federal legislation granting permanent legal status to TPS visa holders.

#8 Naming 859 Mass Ave “Renae House”: The gut-renovation of this building on the corner of Clinton Street is nearing completion. It will become YWCA shelter housing for women with children. Renae Gray was a social justice advocate-activist, a former director of the Boston Women’s Fund and president of the African American Heritage Association, and a YWCA supporter, a longtime resident of The Port, and a good friend of Councillor Simmons, who is proposing this idea. Eight years ago the Government Operations Committee considered whether to establish criteria for naming public buildings and a nominating process (see committee report), but no formal policy was developed. Ms. Gray testified in support of a process. Certainly she is very worthy of recognition and naming the YWCA women’s home in her memory seems appropriate, but I don’t know if other names are under consideration. 

#9 Maintaining Local Control of Short-Term Rentals: During last Wednesday’s Public Safety Committee hearing we discussed the pending state debating legislation, which could prevent cities from passing local regulations on STRs like Cambridge’s short-term rental ordinance, which takes effect on April 1. Proposed amendments to the state legislation threaten our ability to tax STRs, which would penalize hotels and inns operating in Cambridge that are subject to the state’s 18% room tax. The confusion over what state lawmakers and Gov. Baker ultimately will decide is hindering our implementation of the local law.

School Committee Update

There is a memo from the mayor very briefly summarizing items considered at the past two School Committee hearings. The final workshop on the School Budget will be this Tuesday and the Committee is set to adopt the FY19 Budget on April 3. Read an article in Cambridge Day about what’s new in the School Budget. See schedule of hearings.

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. A new online system for signing up for public comment was recently launched, and it goes live on the Friday morning before the Monday meeting. Here is the link. You also may call 617-349-4280 on the Monday of the meeting from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm to sign up to speak, or sign up when you arrive at City Hall by going to the City Council office after 5:00pm and using the public computer terminal on the desk by the door. Regardless of how you sign up you should do so before 6:00 pm on Monday. 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