Homelessness, Protected Bike Lanes in Cambridge

Cambridge Charrette on Homelessness

The City of Cambridge hosted a Charrette on Homelessness over a two day period last week. I attended part of the second day’s talk. Here are a few takeaways:

  1. The issue of homelessness is multi-faceted, and not limited to the unsheltered; in fact that’s only a small part of a broad and structural issue.
  2. We have great regional and local resources to address the three main areas (homelessness, those at-risk of homelessness, and substance abuse) with an array of dedicated, engaged, often overburdened, and often under-resourced public and non-profit service providers.
  3. This gives us a sprawling bureaucracy, which has two natural solutions to “deal with” the persistent problems of homelessness: more funding and more coordination.

More funding and more coordination are reasonable suggestions in a system rife with inefficiency, contradictions, and natural limitations. We can probably get guy A to talk to guy B, we can incrementally increase budgets here and there, and do the old pat on the back for achieving something on paper. However, this is deferring the maintenance (so to speak).

Substance abuse is a major contributor to homelessness and to general urban unpleasantness. It takes more than adding resource coordinators to solve addiction and abuse, not to mention when mental health is a critical factor. Most of the individuals we see around the clock in Central and Harvard Squares who are clearly intoxicated are in environments and social situations that provide neither stability nor hope—whether that’s a decent bed or bathroom, healthy peers, or gainful activities; these environments are the opposite. We’ve become accustomed to panhandling, public bodily fluid issues, street violence, intoxication, etc.—things which should never be normalized or acceptable in our city.

Maybe there isn’t a “magic bullet.” Nevertheless, I wonder if there is indeed a cartridge of magic bullet solutions to the general problem of people with nowhere to go and/or who face cycles of poverty, displacement, and addiction.

What about adding a certain quantity of housing units as a baseline? Open question: if the money and coordination could fall out of the sky and lead to 500 decent units tomorrow in Central Square (studio through 3 bedroom), for the homeless or otherwise, would that quantity-of-housing-units approach actually alleviate some substantial part of this problem?

Recognizing that this is not immediately feasible financially, and that it’s fraught with issues related to the concentration of poverty (e.g., the old and broken “project” approach), as well as various mental health and safety concerns, and further, that it’s not a comprehensive, long-term approach to a structural socioeconomic challenge…

…I look to additional tools, like planning/zoning reforms. We could better incentivize e.g., affordable and accessory units. From an urban planning perspective, I celebrate and guard contextual form and massing, but I also believe it’s worth challenging the notion that we continue to constrain and limit the number of dwelling units per building or parcel based on outdated standards concerning the appropriate size of a dwelling unit/family. There is a place for new/tall/dense construction; we also have many places in Cambridge where there isn’t that place. There is a place (and urgency) in our neighborhoods for this fundamental rethink of how we use our built spaces, and particularly to allow and encourage accessory uses and small/dense configurations. For one very intriguing solution, see this recently filed zoning petition.

We are indeed in a new era of tolerance for—and even preference for—small/tiny living, with rising generations that largely favor walkability, dense neighborhoods, simplicity, social engagement, and productivity, over arbitrary largeness and largesse, which are hallmarks of a quickly fading era of suburban preferences. We even have new ideas of what a “family” is; we cannot continue planning around the faux suburban ideal that was propagandized on network TV shows a few decades ago.

All in all, we have a responsibility to the least among us. In many ways, it’s our first responsibility before we get to other, preference-oriented questions in our city.

It’s not simply about fixing and expanding the bureaucracy; this is a social and moral ill. Our solution may be partly bureaucratic, but, we need look no further than the Cambridge Public School system where throwing more money and more jobs hasn’t led to proportional positive outcomes. It’s not just about smart spending either.

There is a fundamental problem: we separate homelessness from our everyday social responsibility by compartmentalizing it into bureaucracy. We don’t need to think much about it or do much about it, because there’s someone out there dealing with it.

This is an issue that requires confrontation and proactivity; it’s too easy to sideline this as an “icky” problem—metaphorically and literally—and thus to be passive in our “actionable” solutions and say, well, the same, but more.

Adding Outreach Coordinators and Program Administrators and ACRONYMS sound nice, but without direct social, economic, and environmental action, it is derelict.

Central Square, physically, is depressing even for the privileged. How can we expect anyone to be uplifted in this setting? Cleaning and maintenance matter. So does good, useful, attractive design of the public way. We fail badly in Central Square on all these fronts. We must provide hope for those among us, especially the least among us, and in many ways it starts with the physical environment we create and keep.

Protected bike lanes in Cambridge

Breaking this week: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announces that Boston will design Complete Streets by default everywhere in the city. This is huge. Cambridge does not do this, but must.

The Participatory Budgeting process (wherein citizens get to suggest and then vote on ideas for how to spend a chunk of the city’s budget, this year $600,000) once again features a great deal of suggestions for bicycle infrastructure. In fact, 6 of this year’s top 20 ideas (by # of support votes) are specifically for protected bicycle lanes/cycle tracks, and 15 of the top 20 deal with transit and/or bike infrastructure. Like last year, many of these highly favored ideas are not likely to make it into the actual voting rounds, because they are (1) outside of the budget limits, and (2) improvements that the city would/should do in theory anyway.

What’s most important here, though, is that we recognize this as yet another call for action, which falls on a city government that says, maybe/keep waiting.

We have heard that the reason we can’t have protected bike lanes is (if not free & unlimited street parking) that we have to wait for some unknowable and unknown future conditions–particularly when it comes to a road like Mass. Ave. (several of the most popular Participatory Budgeting suggestions specifically call for bicycle infrastructure on Mass. Ave.). Meanwhile street designs, street reconstructions, and major developments come and pass, yet these potential pieces of our ultimate network are not created.

My position is that this is a top issue with urgency that the city should be proactive about, starting with the many, many opportunities which exist that we don’t capitalize on.

Case in point: two major development parcels between MIT and Central Square are nearing completion. As part of those developments, the sidewalks and surrounding street infrastructure have been/will be extensively or totally reconstructed. No protected bike lanes on Mass. Ave., though, in either case, despite the fact that:

  • A private developer could build the protected bike lanes in these locations, integrated for the time being with “regular” bike lanes on either end, with negligible additional design or cost.
  • Utilities and e.g. water treatment were being dealt with anyway.

The reasons are simple: no specific policy and no real will. It’s not actually city policy to build protected bike lanes whenever possible, even in cases where it doesn’t get any easier to do so. Even when could potentially come at close to zero cost to the city. Even when it’s the city’s own policy to reduce vehicle miles traveled by increasing the usefulness of “alternative” transportation. Even when a street has been identified as in need of bike infrastructure treatment by the Cambridge Bicycle Network Plan. (This goes in many ways for transit as well: we don’t do nearly enough with the bus stops in our control, and we do virtually nothing for bus priority.)

This year on Main Street, major utility infrastructure was dug up cut-and-cover style along two blocks (specifically, between Windsor and Albany; the Kendall Square area is another story). The most thought given to bike infrastructure was…none at all. This, again, is an easily identifiable opportunity where we could have built protected bike lanes with immediate impact and as part of a future complete network, but we’re doing none.

These opportunities do not arise frequently. We must take them when they do, and it shouldn’t be a great effort. It should simply be default.

So often we don’t even study it or think about it. While there is some support from city councillors for progressive bicycle infrastructure design, there’s no proactive effort to create protected bike lanes—even when there is a simple path of no resistance, when they can be virtually fait accompli by simply asking for them, or even mentioning them. In the aforementioned cases, it’s not even a tough fight like it is in other areas. It’s only a matter of will and choice.

If there are more involved issues to consider case-by-case—and there will be—so be it. Today, though, in many, many cases, we aren’t even trying. Why did the city start with a watered-down temporary parking lane as a “bike lane” on Pearl Street? (No real bus infrastructure either, though there is an opportunity to build bus stop platforms and waiting areas. Nothing significantly ecological though the street will be comprehensively reconstructed).

The Participatory Budgeting process highlights the desperate appetite the public has for bicycle infrastructure. The public should know that the city is throwing away opportunities to get it.

Homelessness, Protected Bike Lanes in Cambridge

Policy updates, August 14

A solution – click through for more details

Cambridge woman killed at Mass. ave./Beacon St. in Boston


  • Harvard Bridge needs a multi-modal design fix
  • Cambridge should take a leadership role among the stakeholders
  • Design solution are evident, so this is about political will

Anita Kurmann, age 38.

First, obviously, this campaign expresses our condolences. Moreover, we are moved to action because this a place where design failure, in the context of high travel demand, is extraordinarily pointed and obvious.

While the specific intersection is more of a Boston issue, the Harvard Bridge (aka “Mass Ave Bridge”) is a highly visible and high-demand corridor for biking, walking, and transit serving both Cambridge and Boston. Today, it is engineered for one use only: driving, with everything else getting marginal design treatment. The landings and intersections on both the Boston and Cambridge sides are tangled messes. Users—residents, workers, students, and visitors—deserve better than bureaucratic carelessness.

If I’m elected to City Council, I will raise the City of Cambridge to a leadership role when it comes to improved design of places like this in our city that are caught in these bureaucratic tangles.

  1. Immediate Action. We should employ temporary, emergency safety measures for biking within the Harvard Bridge corridor within the next month, e.g. barriers, cones, lighting, and signage, to achieve real safety benefits right away and to send a strong message.
  2. Vision Zero model corridor. The Harvard Bridge between and including the Beacon Street intersection in Boston and the Memorial Drive intersection in Cambridge should be established as a Regional Vision Zero model corridor, where walking, biking, and transit are safe and encouraged.
  3. Accelerated longer-term plan. The City of Boston, the City of Cambridge, MassDOT, and DCR must coalesce behind an executable design and commit to implementing it within two years. The City of Cambridge can take the lead on this, and if we are waiting for someone else to, hint: they’re not going to.

This is not Big Dig stuff. This is not enormously difficult. Every day we don’t take action, we encourage more traffic and less biking, walking, and transit use, and we deprive people of a safe, healthy, and sustainable experience. The above image, a design proposed by The Amateur Planner, is bold and doable. It’s a matter of choice.

  • Better biking, walking, and transit infrastructure means a safer and better experience for all, including those driving.
  • More people biking and safer biking comes 95% from infrastructure and design, with enforcement and education being small factors, often within an already failed paradigm.
  • This anti-infrastructure strain has an influential voice in policy despite overwhelming data showing the primacy of design to accomplish safety and mode shift goals (lowering the %age of trips by car => reducing traffic loads), and the overwhelming preference of users and potential users for dedicated design.
  • Most people would bike (or use other non-automobile modes more consistently) if the infrastructure were comfortable and safe.

We failed on Pearl Street. When there was an opportunity for the Cambridge City Council to champion a protected bikeway on Pearl Street* several city councilors deferred to the status quo interests of maximized street parking. We heard (from city councilors) that bikes can go somewhere else, that nobody bikes on Pearl Street anyway (somewhat true, because it’s horrible), and “do you expect the handicapped and elderly to just hop on a bike?” as though the proposal were to ban cars and driving and parking from the city.

It’s a paradigm question. The mantra of better enforcement and better education is fundamentally a pretend solution, but even if we take it seriously, it’s a solution after the wrong problem. It reinforces the paradigm of streets existing for one purpose, and that there’s only one legitimate form of transportation: driving a car. In this stale view of mobility and spatial appropriation, everything else is secondary or marginal.

Enforcement helps tilt toward safer streets in theory, but even simple design fixes are massively more effective. When it comes to enforcement, nobody, including and especially the police, has put together a credible case for even prolonged and intense speed/rulebreaking stings to provide anywhere close to the safety and comfort that walk/bike infrastructure—even modest and temporary protections—can. After a recent death and serious injury at Memorial Drive near the MIT Sailing Pavilion, a police officer in a discussion with stakeholders offered a rather obvious logic about the ineffectiveness of enforcement: traffic is too varied, voluminous, and unpredictable for even a massive and highly visible enforcement effort to have any long-term effect, or to prevent someone driving Memorial Drive, for the first time, from out of the area, to have any idea what the appropriate and safe practices are. Design can make expectations of speed and yielding plain and be self-enforcing.

However, creating more and better complete streets and safe intersections is NOT a given: the incumbent elected leadership in Cambridge tilts AGAINST expanding this network of complete streets.

Case in point: recent grumbles over the barely-finished Western Ave.

We must decide and be explicit: are transit and biking novelties?

*A temporary or permanent protected bikeway, and bus stop platforms, were favored by the neighborhood on and surrounding Pearl Street by a substantial margin according to a public record request for emails and public comment statistics. The repurposing of one of the two parking lanes for a bike lane was also supported by a city-commissioned parking data study.

Policy updates, August 14

Facebook Questions: Western Ave & Affordable Housing, August 10

***Link to comment: http://on.fb.me/1IyDsfN
***Questions in italics; my replies in bold

Hello John,

Im interested in hearing what ideas you are bringing to thd table for this great city so i have a couple questions below.

The “Complete Street” idea is great, but Western Ave has been a disaster for the past 3 years, especially for those of us driving on it everyday.  The street is always under construction.  Many cyclists still ride in the street instead of the bike lane that was created for them. Because of thr reduction in road space, in the winter with all the snow it is even more difficult to get through.  What would be your plan or idea to correct those problems and improve the design before going foward with “complete streets” on a wider scale throughout the city?

It’s important to consider the alternatives for Western Ave — (1) the street designed the way it was before, which was totally unacceptable for all modes of travel; and (2) not doing the major utility work (which accounts for much of the construction time – trying to keep traffic moving while digging and performing difficult utility work under the road) and waiting for a utility failure or catastrophe which would be far worse for everyone, and take much longer to fix than a managed construction process.

Additionally, Western Ave’s final paving was just yesterday and as recently as two days ago parts of the bike lane were blocked off, as lanes and areas have been throughout the construction process. The state of the road during construction is not a fair measure. Snow will be dealt with, presumably the way it always has been, via snow emergency regulations and the constantly improving work by the great DPW.

Narrower lanes to reduce speeding and reckless driving, problems that the neighborhood demanded be resolved, are worth the inconvenience of construction—construction which, due to needed utility work, was largely unavoidable anyway. That is, we should be happy that after three years of construction we don’t have the status quo, and instead a street that is now safer to cross, safe and comfortable to bike on, and has better bus stops that give transit a small boost in priority, while providing a safe and calm atmosphere for driving (instead of non-designed highway-scale lanes).

Is Western Ave the absolute most perfect it could be? Perhaps not. But, it’s barely one day old in its completed form (not even yet – it’s waiting on final striping). The state of any infrastructure during construction is not a measure of a final design’s merit, and I suspect people will come to love and treasure and show off the new Western Ave. The positives — for the protection of life and for quality of life — vastly outweigh the status quo that only prioritized driving and did so recklessly. I certainly want more streets in Cambridge to look like the new Western Ave. Its previous state is everything we don’t want a city street to be — a haphazard paved surface that gives little or no thought to modes of travel we want to encourage like walking, running, biking, or taking the bus.

The new Western Ave is a model I will champion for more of our corridors toward the goal of a complete, sustainable, healthy network that helps reduce reliance on automobiles, reduce traffic, and create a safer operating environment for all users. I also want to throw in a word for environmental and transportation justice. Western Ave and the surrounding neighborhood is historically underserved and contains concentrations of affording housing; it deserves better than unsafe and unattractive streets — for so many, crossing or biking or taking the bus is a daily routine and it should be safe and fun and interesting. Furthermore, the new and better sidewalks and trees and planters are functionally people’s front yards. 

Regarding bikes in the street – some people will bike in the travel lane, regardless of separate bike facilities, for one reason or another, and that is their right under state law. However, the point is that everyone of all ages and abilities can now safely and comfortably bike in the protected bike lane. This directly leads to reduced trips by other modes, especially driving, thus contributing to a reduction in automobile traffic and contributing to the social benefits of sustainability, public health, and personal interactions. 

Also, I am curious to hear your ideas regarding affordable housing.  It is extremely frustrating when many of us of who were born and raised here in Cambridge and would like to raise our own families here are pushed out due to the sky rocketing rents, high market values, and lack of affordable homes for middle class incomes which help makes Cambridge the diverse place that it is.  What would be your plan to keep Cambridge a home not only for transplants but for home grown Cantabrigians?

On the one hand, it is great that so many people want to live in Cambridge. Cambridge’s high price points and intense demand is certainly unique — many other towns suffer the problems of disinvestment or stagnation. However, we certainly can do more than is done today regarding affordable housing.

First, build more housing and negotiate openly and toward a balanced result with developers: maximize affordable housing ratios and community benefits like child care centers and ground floor retail. This is something the city already does with new development and must continue and must do even more and better.

Second, explore ways to maximize specific leverage like the linkage fee, to fund and preserve a wide range of existing affordable housing programs like rehabilitation, and better utilizing publicly owned lots.

We must give credit to our government and especially our planning staff — Cambridge actually does a lot toward affordable housing and even leads the way, but because the gap is so huge, it’s unacceptable to not be much more concerted and wide-ranged.

We must get buy-in across the board and continue to show why a diverse and mixed-income Cambridge is so much better for everyone. Additionally, ensuring a good, inclusive citywide planning process will help put us on the path to being that long-term and sustainable mixed-income community. 

Thank you!


Facebook Questions: Western Ave & Affordable Housing, August 10

Policy updates, August 4

2015-08-03 11.43.04

Taxi protest

Some open questions and thoughts on the Taxi-Uber issue:

  1. The customer experience offered by Uber/Lyft is superior to that of taxis in almost every measurable way.
  2. Are we witnessing the last throes of the taxi industry? How much should this all-but-accepted inevitability play a role in our choice to allocate public effort and resources?
  3. What about the human impact on laborers in the taxi industry and their families? This must be factored into conversations, and may result in actions like facilitating a move for drivers out of the industry, or better leveling the regulatory playing field.
  4. What would deregulation of taxis look like in the short and long terms? What would increased regulation on Uber and Lyft look like?
  5. We must keep in mind that beyond the impact on industry workers, there is an impact on those who rely on or use car services; for many, small differences in cost or convenience can have enormous impact.
  6. Many poor and working class people use taxi services for everyday needs, like getting to the grocery store or medical appointments. An expanding and more reliable T/transit network, a complete bike network, and smarter, denser planning with useful walkability, would provide more, cheaper, and holistic options for these users. We can go a long way toward addressing these basic mobility needs and fixing this gaping justice issue outside of the taxi-Uber debate. Getting to a low-paying job, or to school, or home from the grocery store shouldn’t be an expensive and unreliable prospect in any system.
  7. There is serious concern about nondiscrimination in the livery industry, particularly when it comes to access for the mobility impaired, and factors that could theoretically underserve certain neighborhoods or areas, like the rider rating system, and the ability of drivers to self-select rides and geographies.
  8. All about medallions: they were expensive and are rapidly losing value, and they create a debt-fueled indenture-style labor system. Perhaps medallions made sense in a different time (perhaps); it’s hard to justify their necessity at all today.
  9. What responsibility, if any, does Uber have to ensure its drivers (who have a contractor relationship with the service) have traditional and basic labor protections?—a difficult question given the very nontraditional relationship.
  10. What about the taxi industry is worth preserving, anyway?  On one hand, it’s a tired monopolistic business model with poor customer service that has been subject to a convoluted protectionist regulatory scheme largely of its own creation. On the other, it has long been a part of the urban landscape and has been the source of a livelihood for many, especially groups like working-class immigrants.
  11. Is there anything that’s especially different in Cambridge when it comes to taxis and on-demand car services? Is there anything that should be especially different in Cambridge?

The city government doesn’t totally lack culpability for this boiling point being reached with the taxi industry. With the medallion system, and regulations that have expanded over the decades, the taxi industry finds itself suddenly at an extreme disadvantage. Services like Uber and Lyft bring an efficiency to the marketplace that’s exciting and hugely popular. The era of the taxi is coming to an end.

I personally have no use for taxis because (1) I get around by other means for almost all trips, (2) they’re inconvenient, and (3) a positive customer experience is hard to come by. I use Uber when that quick point-to-point need arises, but generally prefer biking, walking, or taking the T whenever possible.

Regardless of what led to this point in the car service industry, we do need to account for the human impact that will come with the decline and inevitable death of the taxi industry as we know it today.

Cambridge Citywide Planning Process

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I borrow one of my several campaign mantras from the city’s citywide planning RFQ: sustainability + livability + equity

Last week, the three finalist consultants to take on Cambridge’s citywide planning process presented to the public, and later met with city staff. Sasaki, Perkins + Will, and Utile all gave compelling presentations. I don’t think any of the three would drop the ball on a good community engagement and planning process. However, if asked, I have a preference for Utile. I found their proposal to be the most exciting and potentially useful: of all the firms, I believe they would have the most robust engagement process, and be the most bold when it comes to an actual plan. Otherwise, I heard a lot of great ideas and perspectives from all the firms, including some inspiring “plan”-medicine on transportation: sure it might hurt or feel like an imposition in some areas to improve transit, walkability, and bikeability, and to get away from automobile-oriented non-planning of the past, but we must view it in the context of a complete network, or plan. This is something that’s been lost in recent street reconstruction and site/area planning debates: the necessity of building pieces of a network toward a complete plan.

Utile not only showed a propensity for promising human-scale engagement—for both feedback methods and digital visioning—but they were unafraid of specifics. It’s one thing if our citywide planning process is a feedback loop and lists a thousand bullet points of the preferences and concerns of those who choose to participate, but it’s another thing if it’s an actual plan. The other two presentations seemed heavy on the engagement and “listening” and light on the “stuff.” We need both. So, considering ONLY the presentations and prior materials submitted to the city for the RFQ, Utile seems best equipped and most able (and importantly, willing) to deliver both.

View more at the city’s website.

Update: Cambridge has selected Utile’s team to lead the citywide planning process.

Policy updates, August 4

Affordable Housing Matters

Recent news about the Cambridge plan to raise the “linkage fee” from $4.58 to $12, and then $15 over three years: http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/07/23/cambridge-set-triple-fees-for-affordable-housing/TUpiACk2dAc8CZRGFz7t0H/story.html

On affordable housing, I think we can:

  • Increase the linkage fee more aggressively ($20-24 instead of $10-12), to the number that would healthily fund the mission of the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust (CAHT), according to the consultant report.
  • At the same time, put more rigor into the standards, benchmarks, and tools expected of the CAHT and other city-funded affordability programs.
  • Ensure that we create diverse and inclusive communities, while taking opportunities to improve the site planning and design of city-owned or sponsored properties, and not perpetuate segregated “projects.”
  • Continue to include transportation access, open space access, economic mobility, educational opportunities, and general quality of life factors, as important tools to confront affordability issues.

I’m not an affordable housing expert, and while I recognize and agree that we face an affordability crisis today, our approach cannot be to throw money at said crisis and hope it works. Consider, for instance, the state’s crisis- and justice-driven 40B policy (it allows developers to skip virtually all meaningful local regulation if they agree to return a certain %age of affordable units in towns that lack a significant number of affordable units). Its potential application at e.g., a wetland site in East Arlington, highlights the fact that 40B, ostensibly a win-win affordable housing creation tool, can be used as a mechanism for developers to maximize returns on difficult properties with potentially grave implications for communities. This is an important precedent to consider as we look at local zoning reform that would address affordability. We must keep context in mind, and in fact, make it central to the conversation.

A budget alone isn’t the answer. As I stated at last week’s ordinance committee meeting on raising the linkage fee, we need to look no further than our public schools for the failure of more money to deliver results. Our school budget is the healthiest in the Commonwealth, and we spend more per pupil than any other school system, but deliver at best mediocre benchmark results. Similarly, we actually do spend healthily and regulate progressively on affordable housing. We have inclusionary zoning that beats most municipalities. A massive majority of Cantabridgians view affordable housing/affordability as the number one issue in the city. In that context, the easy thing is to increase funding for things with Affordable Housing in their names, but that’s not good enough.

Market conditions change and shift. We can’t lose sight of the dynamics that once kept prices low in Cambridge; essentially, that the job base disappeared and parts of the city fell into urban decay. Purposeful devaluation of our city is not something to work toward. We can and must continue to increase the attractiveness of living in the city, livability standards, quality of life—and at the same time, purposefully plan for our city to be inclusive.

Some of the solution to affordable housing comes from increased density. Mass + Main, despite some drawbacks, provides residential units to help meet some market demand. Importantly, though, it contributes to the “place” of Lafayette/Central Square. We must be placemakers and we must celebrate (and require) good design at the same time we push for a greater quantity of overall, and particularly affordable, housing units.

That’s because it’s not about the numbers alone. Sure, we can meet the demand for number of units the old urban renewal way, and demolish a few blocks of some neighborhood or another and build Soviet dormitories. Putting aside the motivations of context, preservation, direct displacement, mixed use, lifestyle, planning, design, etc., it would indeed be physically possible to “house” 10,000 or 20,000 more people, and we could do it in 18 months. But it would be a disaster with a reverse result: a devaluing of and disinvestment from, our city. A poorly planned coagulation of housing may meet the numbers requirement, but if nobody wants to live here, then what would we be doing it for? If nobody who brings a tax base wants to be here—e.g., middle and upper class property owners, institutions, employers—then the system is unsustainable.

Bishop Allen Apartments, a multi-faceted success

2015-07-21 15.05.09
Work in progress at 62 Norfolk Street

We must pursue affordable housing in context.

One of my favorite projects is that of the Bishop Allen Apartments, a historic rehabilitation project by the Just-a-Start corporation under the preservation incentives of 40T, with funding from a wide variety of partners like the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust, and even a grant from the Cambridge Historical Commission. Just-a-Start managed to preserve housing units (32 family-sized units), while restoring the historic envelope of four quad-deckers set just off of Central Square. Cast off is the atrocious vinyl, and returned to the neighborhood and city are affordable units that keep people here, and good historic restoration work that enhances the built story of Central Square and Cambridge. We need more of this.

Bishop Allen Apartments “before” photos on the lower right
2015-07-21 15.03.00
One of the completed Bishop Allen Apartments renovations

A radical idea would be to take a look at poorly treated properties, especially those with historic value, and consider takings and conversion to city-owned affordable units, or, depending on the costs involved, partnering with e.g. Just-a-Start, or even a private developer, to convert and produce housing with a high ratio of affordable units. Maybe that’s not realistic, or a solution to the problems of displacement in the current market, but I think it’s worth exploring. It’s a shame to see so much of our historic envelope fall into dilapidation (and remain entombed in asbestos or vinyl)—similarly, it’s a shame to see so much unused space vis a vis our city’s many surface parking lots and poorly-planned large sites—while demand for housing overall, and particularly affordable housing, is so massive. We must be progressive and active in building coalitions to deliver results. We must also be comprehensive, and plan, beyond being reactive to a crisis.

Will raising the linkage fee drive away development, leaving less overall for affordable housing?

Maybe. However, there are a few thing to consider:

  • The crisis is in affordable housing, not in lack of commercial construction.
  • There is no evidence that this or any type of fee/cost has been a major factor driving commercial development from the city.
  • We can be less extractive and more collaborative, which could change the entire conversation and win buy-in.
  • If cost to construct or develop commercial properties was a primary rationale for development decisions, there are suburbs nearby with much more, and much cheaper land. Cambridge is attractive for many reasons—especially our city’s diversity and other context—but certainly not the cheap cost of development.
  • The difference between $12 per sq. ft. and $24 per sq. ft. is similar to minor, routine fluctuations in construction materials and labor costs. Of course, this is a different type of economic/cost factor (being fixed).

There is important perspective to keep in mind, that this baseline linkage fee is not insignificant but it’s also not enormous. The need outweighs the modest burden, and if we are serious about the City being better for everyone by having a diverse socioeconomic community, than we can focus on context and buy-in, instead of playing a balancing act around how much to extract/extort without making developers too upset. That’s the wrong approach. Imagine a program where developers are excited to contribute to affordable housing programs, and eager to be involved, instead of merely tolerating a nuisance fee. We can get closer to the former, and away from the latter, with the right attitude, and by taking a truly careful look at the comprehensiveness of our policies, our approach to communication, and working to build buy-in. Filling budget holes is neither exciting nor progressive, even if it’s necessary. We must aim for an exciting program that fits seamlessly within our wider goals.

Affordable Housing Matters

City Council comments regarding Huron Ave., June 22

I’m speaking on Policy Order 6, concerning Huron Ave between roughly Fresh Pond Pkwy and the Youth Center.

It’s a little odd that we have a policy order asking for ADA-compliant sidewalks on a major road, because it’s absurd that we don’t have them already. There are particular concerns and constraints here, but we have to put an effort into developing proper designs. 

Many Cambridge residents have a really positive vision for this section of Huron Ave. It, too, can be a complete street that considers, and moreover encourages, healthy and active transportation choices, especially with such close proximity to Fresh Pond. It can be ecologically conscious in material choice, location of paths and sidewalks, drainage, native plantings, etc. Today, crossing the street isn’t good enough. Biking isn’t good. Traveling by foot, not to mention if you’re mobility impaired, lacks infrastructure altogether along stretches of this road. The human experience of the street simply isn’t good enough.

If we put some rejuvenated effort into it, we can create a street that makes people happy and comfortable to come out and walk, run, bike, both on the street, and to cross from their neighborhood to Fresh Pond, or to connect to other parts of the city and region. 

It’s a good time to put in a word for finding a funding source to complete the Cambridge-Watertown Greenway, with robust designs and good connections to the neighborhood and to Fresh Pond. We hope that a connection can be made from the repurposed rail corridor up to Huron Ave at grade, which makes a complete street at Huron Ave all the more important. 

Relatedly, the Net Zero Action Plan means action. Passing the order is the very, very first step and for the council tonight, and a really easy step. We should be looking forward to the really hard decisions we are going to have to make if this is truly going to be an action plan.

City Council comments regarding Huron Ave., June 22

The Foundry and More: June 22 Policy Update

2015-06-22 16.11.04

The Foundry

On Wednesday, I attended the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s tour of the Foundry building. Community stakeholders and prospective developers got a feel for the physical layout of the building, and some of its challenges and opportunities. I agree with others on the tour that the 1980s buildout is limiting and disrespectful of the Foundry’s unique and interesting architecture. It will require vision to accomplish a useful and interesting space, but it’s certainly possible to deliver an adaptive reuse that’s on the cutting edge, both architecturally and programmatically.

Here are the main points I see as essential for the Foundry redevelopment:

  • Careful and respectful restoration of the historic envelope of the building, and its intact historic elements.
  • An interior redesign that actively facilitates an environment of collaboration, innovation, and inclusiveness.
  • A program that integrates rich educational opportunities, entrepreneurialism, and equity of access across the socioeconomic spectrum.
  • Avoid enclosed, bureaucratic office uses, and encourage the flow of people through as much of the building as possible.

In any case, it’s important to recognize that the ideal physical layout changes may dramatically alter the current square footage assumptions, and thus I anticipate that the original calculations concerning the proportional division of space will become less useful. Moreover, I believe it would be wise not to preemptively limit the vision of a redeveloping entity by prescribing this square footage division, and instead review proposals through the spirit of the city’s goals for the building. The Foundry wants to be a cathedral-like, large, open space. The vision of a collaborative, inclusive working environment would flourish from a thoughtful restoration on this scale. The concealed, historic structural elements of the building do not belong behind partitions, and the added floor plates were for a different time and for a wholly different, almost opposite, vision for the use of the building. There’s a lot of hard thinking ahead, but for now I’m pulling for some great architectural concepts that “get it” when it comes to uniting the goals of historic restoration of the Foundry with the vision of a collaborative, interesting, and open workspace.


Wednesday’s City Council ordinance committee meeting was on the topic of new proposed car-sharing zoning. Car-sharing (e.g., Zipcar) is already integrated into our urban and regional landscape, and continues to increase. A new frontier—which so far lacks meaningful regulation—is that of private residences and small condo associations hosting car-share vehicles on their property in residential neighborhoods. Concerns from residents were expressed about noise and stranger activity taking place on nearby properties. While there is some theoretical legitimacy to these concerns, the data does not bear out that users accessing car-shared vehicles (even on private residential lots) has substantially disturbed neighbors or caused significant problems.

However, the broader point is that the city ought to be proactively encouraging the expansion of car-sharing—whose use increases with close and easy access—and whose use tends to limit not only the number of privately owned vehicles driving or parking on the streets, but also the number of vehicle trips taken, as users become more acutely aware of the cost of driving and seek alternatives. I, and some others, expressed concerns at the ordinance committee meeting that suggested car-sharing language from the planning board, in this and another recent zoning proposal, appears to be conflicting and punitive: on the one hand, car-sharing is explicitly encouraged, but on the other hand, it’s given oddly severe, and even arbitrary, restrictions.

Monday’s regular City Council meeting considered several interesting policy orders.

  • Policy order #5, to explore private sponsorship of Hubway in Cambridge. As long as the advertisements/sponsorships are tasteful and aesthetically consistent with that of Hubway and a station’s physical surroundings, it’s worth the benefit of expanding (and healthily maintaining) the system. Proactive expansion is critical: one could easily rattle off a dozen new locations in Cambridge that could use a Hubway station. While something with such a direct public benefit shouldn’t need to turn a profit, the mission of expansion—the proliferation of access to healthy transportation options, to everyone in every part of the city—is worth some sacrifice of the all-publicly-funded ideal. I trust our city staff to be discerning and thoughtful with this.
  • Policy order #7, to allow bicycles to ride with concurrent walk signals a few seconds before the automobile green light. I do this anyway, and I think it’s a no-brainer as long as proper bicycle infrastructure continues to exist mostly in our dreams. While someone riding a bicycle is not on equal footing with someone walking/using a wheelchair, neither are they on equal footing with someone driving. However, they’re much closer to the former group as far as maneuverability, vulnerability, and their environmental experience (to the city; not through the city). I ride with the early walk phase to help avoid right-hook or fast straight-acceleration conflict with vehicles. This policy allows us protection of an already common practice. It ultimately can help us more acutely concentrate enforcement efforts.
  • Policy order #3, on beekeeping. This is a great step toward a better urbanism. Bees are essential and neighborly. I look forward to the chicken-keeping ordinance.

Coming up this week

Regular city council meeting, Monday, June 22, 2015, 5:30pm at City Hall.

  • Policy order #6, to create sidewalks and protected bike lanes on Huron Ave. The stretch of road in question is embarrassing. It’s unreal that it exists this way, in Cambridge. Every passing day should be a deadline to design and implement a complete Huron Ave., and beyond that, we should make it great. It’s totally unacceptable that lack of action has persisted this long. The planned Cambridge-Watertown Greenway, depending on how the plans progress, may involve an access point at Huron Ave., which along with interim, necessary improvements, could transform this stretch of road to one of the worst for walking and biking, to an exemplary multi-modal juncture.
  • Policy order #2, adopting the Net Zero Action Plan. This falls into the “urgent” category.
    • That the City Council go on record adopting the Net Zero Action Plan which includes key actions to reduce emissions as follows:
      • Retrofits to existing buildings
      • Net Zero new construction
      • Energy supply
      • Local carbon fund
      • Engagement and capacity building and endorsing the recommended process that engages stakeholders. 

Kendall Square Mobility Task Force meeting, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, 4:00-6:00pm at the Cambridge Innovation Center (1 Broadway). Bring photo ID to get into the building.

I’m on the task force, and look forward to promoting Kendall Square as a model for paradigm shift: a realignment of our mobility and placemaking priorities; allowing automobiles in Kendall Square only when absolutely needed; doing everything possible to make transit effective and ubiquitous–ten minutes to a bus or train seat, tops; and making the neighborhood the most walkable and bikeable live-and work-place in the nation. Ambitious, sure. But, if there’s anywhere in the country that can do it, it’s here, and it’s urgent that we make an enormous effort to do so.

The Foundry and More: June 22 Policy Update