City Council Agenda Highlights (9/24/18)

The City Council will meet on Monday, September 24 at 5:30pm. The agenda is posted here. There are relatively few noteworthy new items, but at the last meeting Councilor Toomey exercised his charter right to postpone discussion of the bulk of the policy agenda, tabling more than a dozen items. Those items are “on the table” of this week’s agenda and may be brought forward for discussion,

City Manager’s Agenda

#6 Report on restoring the Sherman St RR Crossing Quiet Zone: As of Sept. 15, the train horns on the commuter rail line are no longer sounding at the Sherman St crossing except in exigent circumstances. This memo describes the next steps on more permanent changes to the crossing.

#7 City Joining Lawsuit against Opioid Manufacturers: The City has retained the law firms Scott+Scott and Anderson & Kreiger on a contingency fee basis to join the national law suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, seeking to recover damages for increased municipal costs as a result of the opioid addiction epidemic. I co-sponsored the policy order that encouraged this course of action.

Policy Orders & Resolutions

#1 Energy Efficiency Day on 10/5: I sponsored this order to recognize Oct. 5 as “Energy Efficiency Day” as part of National Energy Efficiency Month, and to redouble our efforts to encourage more rate-payers to choose the 100% Green Option in our Community Electricity Aggregation Plan.

#3 Restoring Linear Park and Preserving its Tree Canopy: I co-sponsored this order after visiting Linear Park in North Cambridge last weekend and seeing the alarming decline in the health of the mature trees that line this well-used path, especially in the section that runs between Harvey St and Mass Ave. It’s estimated that as many as a quarter of the mature trees (at least 20) are dead or dying; possible causes are lack of water (the irrigation system has not worked for years, and the maintenance contract is up for renewal this fall), over-salting, over-mulching, and inconsistent arboreal care to fertilizer and prevent root girdling and pests. A resident petition was submitted with actions suggested to save these trees.

#4 Freezing Gas Work performed by Feeney Brothers: Following the recent gas line explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, it was reported that Feeney Brothers, a utility contractor that was responsible for severing the roots of a century-old oak on Gore St that necessitated its removal, had been contracted by Columbia Gas to work in those towns prior to the explosions. This order asks the City to institute a freeze on Feeney Brothers working in Cambridge, pending the results of a federal investigation, and to re-inspect any work the firm has performed here. While I certainly share the concerns expressed in this order, I declined to co-sponsor it because a freeze may overstep the bounds of the Council’s authority to influence procurement decisions. I believe that in most cases contractors like Feeney Brothers are hired by the utility companies, not the City, so I don’t know if we have the ability to impose such a freeze. I have asked the city solicitor to clarify this at the meeting.

#5 Support for Transgender Rights (Yes on 3): I co-sponsored this resolution in support of upholding the existing legal rights of transgender people against discrimination in public accomodations, which are under threat on Ballot Question #3 this November. We stand with the Freedom for All Massachusetts campaign in advocating for a “Yes on 3” vote to protect all existing gender identity rights.

On the Table (charter-righted Items held over from last week’s meeting)

CMA #1 Report on Episcopal Divinity School land sale: When EDS put its Brattle Street campus on the market last year, some asked if the residential portion on St John’s Rd could be repurposed for affordable housing. (Lesley University, which was already a co-owner of several of the buildings on the site, acquired most of the historic campus including the Chapel and the Deanery for $25M.) City staff and Just-a-Start independently evaluated the potential of the 6 smaller buildings that had housed EDS students and faculty for redevelopment as affordable housing and ultimately decided against it: “The size and scale of development [at least 40 units] needed to support the value of the property would likely require significant zoning relief, demolition of historically significant structures, and an inordinate amount of City funds [more than $15M] when compared to other opportunities to create affordable housing.” The sale of this portion of the campus has not yet closed, however, and if the price were to be reduced the affordable housing option might be reconsidered.

PO #2 & #5 Future of the Sancta Maria site?: These 2 orders are now moot since it was announced last week that Advocate Healthcare Management will step in to continue Sancta Maria’s operations as a nursing facility. (See news story) On the heels of the sudden announcement that the 125-bed Sancta Maria Nursing Facility at 799 Concord Ave will cease operations at the end of this year, we will consider two suggestions for its future: either zone the site as a “senior living overlay” to encourage its use for continuum of care services for the elderly, or acquire it for affordable housing.

PO #6 Enforcing bike lane obstructions: I co-sponsored this order asking for more consistent enforcement of cars and trucks stopped in bike lanes especially on our most congested corridors. “Bike lane obstructions” are among the top complaints on SeeClickFix. I know some will say that there needs to be greater enforcement of people on bikes running red lights etc and I agree, but every urban cyclist quickly loses track of the number of times when a careless driver has stopped and blocked their path riding in a bike lane, often when there are safer, legal places to pull over to the curb nearby.

PO #7 Constellation Center sale report: Recently we learned that the long-vacant and increasingly valuable (and tax-exempt) site on Third St in Kendall Square that was to have been the home of the Constellation Center for the performing arts was sold for $50.5M to BioMed. The sale raises questions about the decades of lost tax revenue (was the promise of an arts center merely land-banking?) and about the future use of “Parcel C,” which is zoned to include a substantial arts component.

PO #9 Parking policy for blocking your own driveway: This order asks to allow property owners to park across the curb cut of their own driveway (but presumably not blocking the sidewalk or preventing emergency personnel from accessing the property in doing so) … People who do this sometimes leave a note on their dashboard to alert the parking officer that it’s “ok” to block the driveway. I don’t know how I feel about making this a “right” or how common a need it is. Does it have to be the resident’s own car or can it be used for a guest? Can a property owner offer this right to a tenant and charge them for parking?

PO #12 Retail vacancies report follow up: The Economic Development Committee held a hearing on Sept. 12 to discuss strategies to track and reduce retail vacancies. A video of the meeting is posted on the Open Meeting Portal. This order formalizes a request during the hearing to follow up on a number of items discussed. The Retail Strategy Report webpage has other documents.

PO #13 Leash law enforcement: This order suggests we hold a committee hearing to discuss ways to reduce violations of the leash law though both greater enforcement and outreach to people bringing dogs to public parks. This concern has come before prior councils and will likely evoke strong feelings on both sides. We have thousands of dogs in the city and open space, both public and private, is scarce. See Open Data resources on dogs in Cambridge.

CRT #14 Ordinance Committee Report: The Ordinance Committee discussed increasing the resident parking fee and the possibility of a means-tested discount should the fee be increased. The number of permits issued is gradually declining and thus the revenue from annual fees that support the cost of administering are also decreasing. There was no consensus and the fee will remain $25 per vehicle in 2019. Read the report.

Committee Reports

#1 Housing Committee Report: This is a report from a meeting held back on June 12. It includes a discussion of a potential affordable housing overlay, which has since been fleshed out in the zoning scenarios being discussed at a series of Envision Cambrdge community meetings this fall. (See Envision presentation on the affordable housing overlay). We also discussed the role of a Housing Ombudsman, a new position created in this year’s budget, and how the future ombudsman would balance case management for people seeking affordable housing or facing eviction with big-picture thinking along the lines of what is done in Boston’s Office of Housing Stability. It remains up to the City Manager to craft the job description and hire a person capable of straddling these functions.

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. There is an online system for signing up for public comment that goes live on the Friday morning before each 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 If received after Thursday at 3pm, your comments will appear on the public record (under “Communications”) at the next subsequent Council meeting.

City Council meetings are televised on Channel 22-CityView and live-streamed on the City’s Open Meeting Portal and on the City’s YouTube site. Recorded versions of all Council meetings may be found on the Open Meeting Portal.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA