City Council Agenda Highlights (3/25/19)

The City Council will meet on Monday, March 25, 2019, at 5:30pm. The agenda is posted here. My summary of the key items follows.

City Manager’s Agenda

#1 Signage for Two-Way Bike Lane on Brattle St: This memo explains the pavement markings and additional signage that is used to alerts both drivers and pedestrians that bikes travel in both directions along Brattle St in Harvard Sq. People seemed to have adjusted to the new configuration. The #1 problem facing Harvard Square right now is the number of vacant stores.

#2 Planning Board Supports Increasing FAR for Hotel Use in IB District: This zoning petition came from a developer who acquired a small parcel on the corner of Hampshire and Portland St that is zoned Industrial B. The current zoning allows an FAR of 2.75 for non-residential uses including hotels and the developer wishes to increase it to 4.0, which is the what is allowed for residential uses. The Planning Board supports the change since all the large parcels in the IB area (entirely located in Kendall Sq) that might have become residential have already been developed as labs or commercial, and there appears to be demand for another hotel in that area. The Ordinance Committee will hear this petition on Wed. 3/27 from 3pm.

#5 Refurbishing a Fire Truck: The manager is requesting we use $560K from Free Cash to refurbish a 2002 heavy duty aerial ladder fire truck so that it can serve as a reserve in the fleet.

#6 Radio Replacement Program: The manager is requesting we use $911K from Free Cash to replace radio equipment used for emergency communications and other critical departments. This is a multi-year program.

#7 New Emergency Communications Radio Site: The manager is requesting we use $250K from Free Cash to relocate critical emergency communications radio equipment to a new site in East Cambridge. For reasons of security, I don’t expect to learn where exactly this new installation will be but I am curious about the cost. This is not the radio antenna installation that sits on on top of the Sullivan Courthouse. The need to move this equipment was discussed last year and we appropriated $152K then. I don’t know if that has happened yet, though (it was still there a couple of months ago).

#11 Water and Sewer Rates for FY20 Slightly Lower than Estimated: The Council must vote to accept the water and sewer rates for the next fiscal year (the new rates actually take effect on April 1). The 5.2% increase in the combined water and sewer rate is slightly lower than what was projected last fall (5.7%). There will be no increase in the water rate (consumption is slightly higher so revenues are sufficient to offset increased operating and capital investments). The sewer rate will rise by 7%, owing to an increase in the MWRA rate and significant ongoing capital investments and debt service. For most residential property owners the annual increase on their bills will be about $46 to $85. A 15% discount is available for all seniors and income-eligible senior homeowners amy qualify for a 30% discount.


Last week Councilor Toomey exercised his charter right on all 5 items on the City Manager’s Agenda, blocking discussion without explanation so the items are back on this week’s agenda.

Charter Rights

#1 Resident Survey Report: Every other fall the City conducts a survey of residents by phone and online. The detailed results of the 2018 survey are linked in the summary memo. Overall, the majority of “good/excellent” ratings show that satisfaction continues to be high with most city services; the positive ratings for education/schools were up 20 points over the average of the past 9 surveys (since 2000).  A new set of questions about pedestrian and bike safety shows a majority feel there have been improvements for both modes, and that a majority (60%) want more protected bike lanes even though almost half (47%) have never ridden a bike in the city. As in prior years “affordable housing” was identified as the biggest challenge facing the city and access to affordable housing drew the lowest ratings (76% fair/poor). Despite the very positive ratings for quality of life (87%), quality of your neighborhood (88%), and Cambridge as a place to live (91%), ratings for the overall performance of city government continue to dip (down to 64% excellent/good).

#2 & #3 Cost of Snow Removal and Winter Road Repairs: An appropriation of $2.6M is requested for this winter’s snow removal and salting. We have had 41 inches of snow to date. An additional $400K will go to repair potholes and other road defects caused by winter weather.

#4 Report on Intensity of LED Streetlights: This memo comes in response to a 2018 policy order I co-sponsored that asked to consider replacing failed 4000K (kelvin) bulbs with less intense “warmer” bulbs. The memo avoids answering the question and instead describes the history of the LED conversion program. To recap, starting in 2014, we began replacing all streetlight fixtures with 4000K LED bulbs and lights in parks and on pedestrian paths with 3000K bulbs, changes that are saving us about $500K annually. The lights can be controlled wirelessly, and most are dimmed after 10pm to 35% of their intensity. Directional screens can be added to reduce light trespass and have been used on about 100 lights upon request of neighbors (you may request a shield if a streetlight is shining too brightly into your home). The response attaches a detailed memo from 2014 on how light intensity and controls. The 2014 fact sheet addressed questions about sleep disruption related to the “blueness” of the 4000k bulbs by stating that new LED lights have a 40% less stimulatory effect than the old ones once they are dimmed during the late night sleeping hours. This response begs the question posed: as the 4000K bulbs fail, can we replace them with less intense ones? Many cities currently converting their streetlights to LEDs are starting with 2500K or 3000K bulbs. They are slightly less energy efficient but many prefer the warmer light.

#5 Cycling Safely With Trucks: This memo comes in response to a 2019 policy order I co-sponsored that asked the City to develop targeted outreach to better educate people on bikes about the dangers that large trucks pose. It lists a number of public outreach campaigns to both cyclists and truck drivers on sharing the road safely. All to the good, but that fact remains that no amount of education will be as effective as implementing a network of protected bike lanes to physically separate cyclists and vehicles of all sizes and also requiring that trucks be equipped with side guards, better mirrors and other features to eliminate blind spots.

Applications and Petitions

#2 Ware Street “Innovation Space” Zoning Petition: Verizon, which owns 10 Ware Street, is asking to create an overlay district that includes only their property so that a portion of the building (up to 10K s.f.) can be used as a co-working space for start-ups. There is a parking lit behind the building but no parking would be provided to the co-working tenants except those with disabilities. The building is currently zoned Residential C-1 but has been used as a telephone switching station but the space needed for switching equipment has decreased. In 2017 a co-working business called Alley opened in a portion of the ground floor. This petition seeks to make the co-working a zoning-compliant use. The petition will be referred to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee.

Policy Orders

#2 Arts Liaison: Designating a staff member in the Economic Development Department as an arts liaison to other city departments is an idea that came out of a recent meeting of the arts task force (see the task force’s minutes under “Communications from City officers” below). The EDD is small (3 members) so capacity may be a concern.

#3 Arts-Friendly Webpage for One-Stop-Permitting: This is another idea that came out of the arts task force. The License Commission issues a range of permits for performers and arts events and the task force would like to streamline the experience of applying online. The City has been gradually redesigning and updating its website, department by department, since 2016. Many pages still have the old graphic design, but the License Commission site has the new look and feel. Adding a page dedicated to arts-related needs seems fairly simple.

#5 Accessibility for the Deaf: This order suggest additional accommodations for the deaf community including providing ASL interpreters at major city events and using an app called Language Line Solutions for first responders to communicate with the deaf.

#6 Roundtable for Affordable Overlay: This requests that we hold a roundtable working meeting meeting on Tues., April 9 to discuss the affordable housing overlay zoning. The two Housing Committee hearings this month on have offered the five members of the committee little to no opportunity to discuss the overlay in any depth. There will be a third Housing Committee meeting this week. It is unclear what new information will be presented and how much time public comment will take. Normally zoning amendments are discussed by the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board. Since no zoning language is yet available it’s hard to predict what direction a roundtable would take, but there would be no public comment and no votes.

#8 Earth Hour is March 30: The City will be marking the annual Earth Hour this Saturday. Please join us in turning off non-essential lights between 8:30-9:30pm.

#9 Increased State Funding for Healthy Incentives Program: The HIP helps families with SNAP benefits afford healthy food at farmer’s markets and CSAs by offering a dollar-for-dollar match. The HIP has proven very popular among SNAP recipients, and advocates are asking the state to increase its funding this year by $8.5M.

#11 Neighborhood Preference for New Affordable Housing: This policy order was on last week’s agenda but was charter-righted so it could be edited slightly. It asks that we look into creating a neighborhood preference system like Boston’s “Diversity Preservation Policy” to give the current residents of a neighborhood priority on up to 50% of new affordable units in their neighborhoods. The Boston program has a number of restrictions on who qualifies and which neighborhoods and communities are most vulnerable to displacement.

#12 Additional Spending on Top Goals: This order asks that the city manager increase the annual budget over the next 3-5 years to reach a minimum of $30M in capital spending for affordable housing, tree canopy, preschool, Central Sq revitalization, and arts and culture. This represents a very small percentage of our operating budget ($636M in FY 19) and our Free Cash reserves ($223.8M). These are all needs that the Council has identified as top priorities for additional funding.

Committee Reports

#1 Health and Human Services: This meeting brought together leaders of the Cambridge Health Alliance and the husband of the late Laura Levis who tragically died outside Somerville Hospital having dialed 9-1-1 while experiencing a severe asthma attack; hospital staff and first responders were unable to locate her even though she had called from right outside a hospital door. We discussed what steps are being taken to prevent this happening to another patient.

Communications from City Officers

#1 Arts Task Force minutes from the March 13th meeting on permitting and licensing. Two ideas for policy orders above came out of this.

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