Why suburbia sucks

Moreover, what to not do anymore or anywhere.

Far from posing a mere logistical or aesthetic problem, it shapes–or perhaps more accurately, it circumscribes–our experience of life and our social relationships in insidious ways. The destruction of the pedestrian public realm is not merely an economic or ecological absurdity; it has real deleterious effects.

Why suburbia sucks

Opening of the first phase of the Grand Junction Path

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On June 9, 2016, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the first phase of the Grand Junction Path, including a pocket park at the corner of Main Street & Galileo Way.

Grand Junction first section context

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority led and executed the project, along with the Department of Public Works and significant support from CDD (planning and coordination) and MIT ($$$).

This is a major step toward building momentum for the overall Grand Junction Path, which will ultimately link with the Charles River Paths, the future multiuse path in Allston, and the future extension of the Somerville Community Path.

Grand Junction Path, zoomed map, intersections

As Cambridge City Manager Rich Rossi pointed out at the ribbon-cutting, the Grand Junction Path is always an uncontroversial 9-0 proposition at City Council with support throughout the community. As I pointed out, it still took 15 years to get this one small section built, with some planning progress made on the rest, but a long way to go. Since most of the path will be on property owned by either MassDOT or MIT, continuous engagement must take place with those entities. Agreements with developers to construct abutting path sections should be made, and the $10M request from the City Manager toward designing and construction the path north of Binney Street must be followed through proactively.

The Main Street to Broadway section now serves as a “demonstration piece” of what we could have along the entire Grand Junction corridor, and furthers the demand for making this critical walk/bike link between Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Urban pathways are central to shifting the mobility paradigm away from cars, complementing transit, and reshaping one’s everyday interaction with the urban environment. The Grand Junction Path is a unique opportunity that’s been studied in depth since 2001, gains universal support, and has momentum, yet it’s taken this long to do the smallest, easiest section. As I said in my remarks at the ribbon-cutting, it’s all about showing up: we have to keep showing up.

Friends of the Grand Junction Path on facebook

Opening of the first phase of the Grand Junction Path

Statement on the end of my campaign

I have ended my campaign for Cambridge City Council.

Recently, horrible things I said and posted online from my younger days have come into the spotlight and there is simply no political way forward for me as a candidate. [On Sunday], I was leaving a slate of great candidates who didn’t want me to leave, in order to join a slate of candidates who wanted me to join. By late Monday morning, I was political anathema. I am not a racist, nor homophobic, and am in fact firmly progressive and take these issues very personally and aim for a city government that takes them very politically. However, the revelations of these confused, misguided, nonsensical writings from my past—which I wholeheartedly own up to, and condemn—have made me untouchable.

I believe I had a great deal to offer this city in a great many ways, and would have been a passionate voice at the table for sustainability, livability, and equity, largely through the lens of transportation and socioeconomic justice. I would have worked tirelessly to craft meaningful, thoughtful policy for the city I have come to love deeply and intimately.

I am withdrawing completely from Cambridge public life, with a great deal of regret, because I truly feel I could have been a respectable public servant long into the future and helped create a truly special Cambridge. This is painful. There is much in my life that I wish I could undo, but alas even the pointless, terrible, and obscure can come back and wrench your very purpose of being. Over the last few years, I made Cambridge my everything, and whatever I was in my younger days has nothing to do with who I am today. I’m sorry I was not a better person.

(Originally released Oct. 27, 2015)

More information: https://www.facebook.com/votesanzone/posts/387079548168102

Statement on the end of my campaign

A Better Cambridge Forum: housing and development

I participated in three forums this week: Green Cambridge, A Better Cambridge, and Black Lives Matter in Cambridge.

Some thoughts after the A Better Cambridge forum.

On housing

Affordable housing, fundamentally. First, we need to be clear about what we are talking about. Generally these discussions focus specifically on public housing, subsidies, and other bureaucratic programs like inclusionary zoning. Frankly, though, I think the real theme, as it were, that concerns Cantabridgians, is the affordability of housing. That is, the cost of housing (buy or rent), at market rates (or otherwise).

That is, for the most part and for most people, the prevailing issue is that the market has appreciated at a dramatic pace and has hit levels that are unaffordable to a great deal of the economic spectrum.

Then there is affordable housing per se: agency owned/facilitated, subsidized units, etc.

Which means we’re talking about two general areas. One, affordability of housing in the market.* Two, publicly operated, or otherwise controlled, influenced, created, or managed, income-restricted housing units.

On the former, market-rate. Cambridge is a unique market in any global/national/regional market condition. This is acute and particular. Obviously, Harvard, MIT, and Industry (biotech plus), are the main reasons for this. A secondary reason, I suspect, is the unique interrelation with the Boston urban core, geographically — being a blurred yet distinct city, urban but suburban-ish.

Residential prices have kept a pace of at least +10 to +15% per season (Fall to Spring to Fall to Spring etc.) consistently since at least 2012, with the feeling of a slight (and quite high) plateau only very recently.

Obviously, it’s great to be in a position of investment, to the tune of hundreds of millions in residential real estate transactions (and the same for commercial), much of it in cash, and much of it foreign or corporate. I.e., Cambridge is a “good” investment. It is a seller’s market (Cambridge is great for sellers) and a successful buyer is a lucky buyer (Cambridge is a great, top choice for real estate buyers). We are a premier city. The name “Kendall Square” carries heft. Thousands of tourists, commuters, residents, workers, are coming and exploring and investing (in real property if they’re so lucky), every day. Our problem (too much investment) is a good one to have in many ways.

The problems do begin to unfold, however. 

(Note: I will avoid charged terms like “gentrification” and “luxury” but I will use others like “displacement” because it is descriptive and not incredibly charged.)

Displacement is a direct problem, particularly when it is on a dramatic scale.

Acute displacement is not happening because home sellers or the real estate market is inherently malicious or evil, but it is nevertheless an important problem because 1. It creates the immediate crises of upheavel, economic instability for lower socioeconomic status families, homelessness, etc., and 2. It can rapidly lead to the loss of something we should all value (and that I value as a person and candidate): inclusive, socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods and communities, by design.

We cannot let the market completely decide, nor have we. We also cannot ignore market forces, just as we cannot ignore the worthy goal of keeping people here, and even inviting new people in, from across the socioeconomic spectrum.

And a lot of the answer, I believe, lies in what we think of as housing, and the expectations and requirements we impart on the built and to-be-built stock.

A great deal of the answer lies in density. Smart density.

I consider the failure to build at Alewife/Cambridge Highlands at even greater heights and densities, virtually car-free, and with the Damn Overpass Already, is baffling. It’s a worthy enough failing to spur the citywide planning process along, and I think rightfully so.

We next look to e.g., Volpe, where we haven’t yet had real vision and thus are taking a back seat to the theoretical bureaucratic monster before we even have to yet. I want the wetland and the tower/s and the eloquent contribution to the Binney Street “biotech Champs-Elysées.”

We have many more areas that we might regrettably throw away to poor design, poor functionality, and if done badly, which will very poorly address our housing issues.

Addressing the housing affordability issue means, first, more units and smaller units.

Zoning reform and a predictable, cohesive special permitting/variance process has to be accomplished in these regards, because the immediate and long-term housing goals, and the grand vision for Cambridge, are more important than whatever sluggishness we are about to get thrown in the face with over the Barrett Petition (for instance). The Barrett Petition is the type of work our city councillors/working groups, and city staff, should be doing already, in overdrive. Capturing usability, value (financial and spatial), and general opportunity in our as-built environment and through appropriate infill, is plain and obvious.

Then we get into the managed stuff. We need Affordable Housing (as opposed to affordable housing), because there is indeed instance of crisis, because there is a worthy social goal of lifting people out of poverty and other circumstances that require stable housing, and because we indeed want diversity and the market isn’t perfect enough to meaningfully deliver it in an integrated way.

We need inclusionary zoning and it needs to be stronger. I see a great logic in tying it to zoning limits, like height.

Inclusionary percentages should be better reflective of context and density. They should be cognizant and have a great interplay with, again, unit sizes. We still build too big in a lot of ways, and have a late-century suburban attitude at what a “family” is and needs space-wise in order to live.

The linkage fee, CPA funds, etc. to fund the Affordable Housing Trust. I have generally supported the increase of these measures – fees and taxes – at a rate that outpaces the incumbent Council majority’s preferences, because I think we are under-recognizing our unique market position (“golden age” as Councilor Carlone puts it) and our unique and acute crisis. However, I have serious doubts about this being the Ultimate Achievement (getting more money to the AHT). That doesn’t mean I don’t think it should be basically doubled at all levels right now, because the market can take it (I disagree that a $24 linkage fee, a modest residential property tax increase, and other ideas like a sliding transfer tax, would kill Cambridge) and because there is indeed a significant wealth and opportunity gap chasm-ing open in Cambridge, whether it’s visible all the time or not. The least we can do is get a quick $50M to affordable housing which beside, isn’t a drain or outright cost, but an investment in less- or disadvantaged people.

However, I do think many of the the programs as they exist now are tactics and not strategies.

The citywide plan must (and certainly will) address the qualitative and statistical aspects of our housing issues. But it must have actionable outcomes, like inclusion by design – clear, and transparent. Incentives are a top-off and not a strategy. Zoning is a tool and so is visionary planning. Get buy-in via a great vision for Cambridge – evolve from extortion-style politics to a shareable set of goals.

Other items to go through, for another time

  • Graduate student housing, particularly at MIT
  • More attention to city-owned property (e.g., parking lots)
  • Contextual infill
  • Historic preservation and neighborhood conservation
  • Mixed-use density in commercial corridors (e.g., Mass. Ave.)
  • Regional planning – very important topic, worth its own series of articles (check out MAPC’s work)
  • Height, density
  • Traffic and parking (a favorite topic of those who show up to things)

*Affordability means other things too, like milk and sneakers, but that’s a less pressing and less politically prevailing issue. How much does gas cost these days? I have no idea.

A Better Cambridge Forum: housing and development

Green Cambridge forum

TONIGHT (Weds., Oct. 14)

 Green Cambridge Candidates Forum
YMCA, 820 Massachusetts Ave. (across from City Hall)
7:00PM
RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/1635785430025963/

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I hope to touch on a few topics:

Net Zero Transportation Task Force. Building on the success of the Net Zero Task Force’s Action Plan, which was adopted this year by City Council, the aim of the Net Zero Transportation Task Force concept is to identify how the city will reduce harmful emissions from transportation sources. I am fully on board with this Task Force and hope to help drive its formation, ensure that it’s fully-resourced, and that its Action Plan is adopted and implemented.

The vision: A ‘complete streets’ design standard & transportation network plan that prioritizes healthy, safe, active, and sustainable transportation; a system that achieves Transportation Justice.

The toolbox: 1. a complete transit network that integrates and enhances all bus and shuttle services within our city (integration of access to transit routes, bus priority signalization, rapid bus infrastructure including dedicated bus lanes and platform stations, 10 minutes to a transit seat), 2. implementation of a complete, protected bicycle network that allows all potential users of all ages and abilities to bike anywhere in the city, 3. aggressive and visionary regional planning (Red Line extension, Green Line extension, Indigo Line creation, Grand Junction Path, Cambridge-Watertown Greenway, Prospect Street Awesomecorridor, etc.), 4. electrical vehicle charging network.

Net Zero from buildings. This means continually furthering our building standards and an integrative approach to energy, waste, etc. The Net Zero Action Plan’s adoption signals a real political willingness to get out in front of building standards, but it must be followed with meaningful actions–even when it’s tough–and continued review to ensure we are ahead of every curve. There is no excuse in our investment boom to not have the finest net zero buildings in the world. Additionally (and this is the hard part) we have to think about energy priorities for existing buildings, which is the vast majority of our challenge…and it doesn’t just mean weatherstripping and blown insulation.

Toolbox: 1. progressive smart monitoring/metering, 2. solar panel standards, 3. heat island reduction via tree canopy, better paving materials, and green roofs, 4. integrated energy distribution, 5. programs to reduce perception of need for large amounts of energy consumption (temperature tolerance, for instance). Many more.

Zero Waste. The curbside compost collection rollout can’t come sooner. We need to continue to push the shift from waste to reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting. This means bans and penalties. We need to continually phase out wasteful and harmful packaging and throwaway materials like polystyrene foam/styrofoam, single-use plastics, harmful chemicals, etc.

Better building and transportation standards lead to vastly better externalities. The more we shift away from the domination of single-occupancy vehicles, the more the city grows in health and sociability, too. Reduction of space used for driving and storing vehicles means more space and money (private and public) that can go to better uses, like housing and open space. The subsidy given to driving, via space in particular, is inarguable, and comes with a laundry list of harmful externalities: unsafe and unwelcoming streets for all users, social draining, detraction from family time and active-recreational time, negative impact on personal and public health, incidental limitations on other activities, etc.

Cars and trucks aren’t going to be, and shouldn’t be, ‘banned.’ However, the paradigm as it’s been implemented over the past several decades, and as it exists now, is ~99% vehicle-oriented. Everything else gets a margin, everything else functions around vehicle Level of Service which dictates the highest possible volume and speed of vehicle movement on every street and at every intersection. We must fundamentally reclaim the public way. Anyway, as you know, I’ve talked about this to death.

Ecology. Often lost in the “but how does it reduce our costs?” conversation is the earth generally. Our citywide plan must include a comprehensive ecological rating system and a plan to achieve ecological health—meaning a vision of integrated, everyday ecology. Obviously, it’s tough in a city like ours that’s virtually completely built, but the necessity of the goal outweighs the hurdles to achieve it. I view the Volpe wetland, for instance, as a necessity for our resiliency and ecological and human health, not as a cute idea. Generally speaking, there is much more we can do with street and open space design standards.

Toolbox. 1. proactively unasphalting the city, 2. stormwater retention via bioswales, rain gardens, green roofs, etc. 3. wild species count/species diversity goals, 4. aggressive non-native removal and native restoration, 5. restoration of natural places and corridors, particularly wetlands, and comprehensive integration with the urban landscape (see e.g. Connect Kendall Square Open Space), 5. active and passive open space network connected by healthy and sustainable modes of mobility. Many more.

I recently read Pope Francis’ Encyclical, LAUDATO SI’ which advances the inherent purpose of creation as cause enough for conservation, care, and human action to reverse climate change.

Green Cambridge forum