City council meeting comments, Nov. 9

Here are my comments for tonight’s City Council agenda (Nov. 9):

Communications & Reports # 1, Kendall Square MXD Zoning Petition/Urban Renewal Plan Amendment. I write in strong support of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s Petition and Amendment.

The baseline development goals and programs are right for Cambridge and the region. A few things to consider with more rigor are: transit, the localized separated bike infrastructure plan, and parking.

Transit, particular Red Line capacity, may be somewhat adequately addressed in work presently taking place by the Kendall Square Mobility Task Force and others. However, if we are counting on the MBTA to resolve capacity, better connectivity, and last-mile issues, it’s not going to happen. Cambridge has to be more than a partner in this regard; we have to take the lead.

Biking. Most of greater Kendall Square should be vehicle-restricted, and oriented around walking, biking, and transit, and this means prescriptive design. Separated bicycle infrastructure is crucial, and while we are taking steps in the right direction there’s plenty that can be stepped up. This means additional streets and intersections within the district identified for specific bicycle infrastructure, or even complete “pedestrianizing.”

For parking, it would be useful for the district to have a fully comprehensive vehicle parking inventory, and a plan, e.g., there are x total parking spaces today, and we will reduce to y total parking spaces by a certain date. A moratorium on construction of new parking would be an important step in a district where it’s quite feasible, even with new development. Kendall Square is no longer a sea of parking lots, but a great many resources are still sunk into parking (physical space, opportunity costs, etc.). We should not be encouraging more parking and driving.

It is unclear in the Amendment why the most compelling reason for continuing to require new vehicle parking space construction is “concerns.”

It is important that Kendall Square sets clear, data-driven, and sustainability-oriented standards; the CRA Amendment is likely to greatly inform and influence the upcoming citywide plan, and has the potential to impact urban planning throughout the nation.

Petition and amendment here. (large pdf)

City Manager’s agenda item #14, regarding enforcement and data collection at high-crash intersections. The nature of the data collected is core to a successful and perhaps actionable outcome.

First, this effort can help identify failures of present design to ensure comfort and safety for people walking and biking. Specifically recording the context of crashes, perhaps overlaid on detailed drawings of the intersections, could help inform future road redesigns.

Second, data on general non-crash volumes/movement patterns is always relevant and if feasible should be incorporated in some way.

Third, near-hits/near-misses, in addition to actual crashes, are crucial data to have as we evaluate general comfort of walking/biking in the city—only with comfortable non-automobile transportation can we achieve our sustainability goals.

Overall, this effort could be envisioned as leading to a pilot program of “protected intersections” which more equitably prioritize walking/biking, and which have only very recently trickled into the American street design vocabulary. Cambridge should be the leader on this, and data from problem intersections is central to this effort.

I write in opposition to Application & Petition item #1, concerning a marijuana dispensary at 1001 Mass. Ave. Two issues here: questionable “medicinal” marijuana policy in general, and the zoning precedent that would be set by legitimizing this petition.

It’s hard to reconcile Cambridge’s fight against opioid use, cigarette smoking/tobacco use, and alcohol abuse, with the incremental introduction of legal marijuana in the city. Whatever your opinion on this broader issue, it’s underhanded not to call it what it is: an explicit political stepping stone to the legal sale of this and other controlled substances.

The other prevailing issue, obviously, is that this organization secured a space, and are then asking for what’s either spot zoning or borderline spot zoning, for a grossly nonconforming use.

Forwarding this petition is deeply problematic in the context of both Cambridge’s health goals and the potential implications on zoning precedent.

Context here. (pdf)

Stern petition. I write in firm opposition to the Stern petition.

It is troubling that we are all for affordable housing, active ground floors in commercial districts, and density where appropriate, but we are giving consideration to highly restrictive suburban zoning standards—in a Mass. Ave. mixed-use district. If anything, we should be upzoning the front parcel to minimize vehicle parking requirements, encourage a dense residential program, and require active ground floor uses. Where are active ground floors and more housing going, if not in the most obvious places they should go? This is simple urban planning stuff.

There is nothing special about the area context that suggests the restrictions desired in the Stern petition are appropriate. There is, however, something special about this context (for one, it’s Mass. Ave.) that compels smart growth standards, i.e., dense, mixed-use development on the front parcel on this site (with appropriate step-downs/open space on the rear parcel, etc.).

Context here (pdf).

City council meeting comments, Nov. 9