March 21, 2016 city council items

City Manager’s agenda items 2016 #10 and #11, regarding Complete Streets and Vision Zero policy. These are easy to support for obvious reasons. The unequivocal focus going forward must be robust street design standards for all reconstructions, and network implementation.

Vision Zero: no other effort to reduce injury/death really matters if we don’t take bold action with robust street design standards, and it’s not a great mystery what those designs should and can be.

Complete Streets: we don’t get the urban look, feel, and function that we desire as a livable community if we don’t get street design right.

When it comes to transit/walking/biking we are ahead of most of the U.S. (sadly) but we are about to fall quickly behind many American cities that are implementing ambitious transit and bike network plans. Our bicycle network plan is fairly ambitious, but our implementation is often timid and piecemeal. We don’t really have a transit plan per se. (Where are the streetcar lines, bro?)

We are already behind many of the world’s great cities when it comes to street design and transportation systems that prioritize biking, walking, buses, and trains.

Complete streets were “my” issue in the city council campaign. I would have loved to have spent a few decades on this.

(Also ref policy order resolutions 2016 #80 & #81.)

Policy Order 2015 #501, regarding renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This should be dealt with carefully and with substantial context. I understand the impulse to dismantle western civilization, but this is not as simplistic as the political movement would have it be.

Multiple communications regarding divesting city investments related to nuclear weapons production. Of all the military and terroristic evils across the world today, the United States nuclear arsenal doesn’t anywhere close to the top. A world with nuclear weapons is indeed frightening and terrible, but a world without nuclear weapons, particularly in the hands of states that invest enormously into peace and human progress, is much more frightening. (ref: conventional war)

Relatedly, policy order 2016 #68 was adopted unanimously, indicating the city council is in support of divestment from any investments related to nuclear weapons. I suppose I would have been the lone vote in opposition. Yes, I support the United States nuclear arsenal. Nuclear power plants, too, while we’re at it. The actual question, though, is whether the city’s investments ought to be divested from investments related to nuclear weapons – whether, I suppose, that the institutions and companies involved in developing, securing, storing, etc. the arsenal, rise to this particular immoral level.

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March 21, 2016 city council items

Cambridge carsharing ordinance

The previously-passed Cambridge carsharing ordinance vote is up for reconsideration at the Monday, January 25, 2016 City Council meeting. I support the carsharing ordinance as written (though it could be even stronger*). Public comment begins at 5:30pm at City Hall.

zipcar
+ The ordinance allows for the legal expansion of carsharing to less-dense residential areas in Cambridge.
+ Easier access to carsharing vehicles (e.g., Zipcar) leads to more widespread use.
+ Studies have shown that each carshare vehicle contributes to replacing up to 13 privately owned vehicles.
+ Carshare users are likely to rely on walking, biking, and transit for most trips. People are more likely to choose not to own, store, and maintain vehicles, if carshare vehicles are easily and readily accessed.
+ With fewer overall vehicles in the city, and changing habits around vehicle use, there is less demand on traffic and parking.
+ Sharing promotes community.
+ Cambridge is a leader in good sustainable transportation policy, and getting our policies right means other cities and towns may follow suit.

*The ordinance is in some ways written to be rather restrictive, only allowing a low maximum %age of spaces to be used for carsharing, and not allowing carsharing vehicles in single family home driveways—usually the most overbuilt and underutilized areas of asphalt in the city. Additionally (and this is not totally objectionable), prior notification must be sent to all residents within 100 foot of new carsharing spaces. Opposition to the ordinance has revolved around this community notification piece, suggesting that there needs to be extra layers of approval by neighbors/abutters.

The restrictive clauses seem to be the result of theoretical fear of carsharing being a nuisance or dangerous, which is not borne out in any data or even anecdotally. Nevertheless, several comments have been made at city council meetings to this effect. While it’s great that Cambridge in many ways already promotes carsharing, the places that need it most (less dense/more car-oriented residential areas) are the most negatively impacted by these restrictive rules. We should better envelop carsharing into our comprehensive transportation picture, promote it, and push the limits. Carsharing is a crucial part of our transformational mobility paradigm, giving thousands the option to never have to buy a car. Again, we don’t treat normal parking—which is more collectively detrimental than carsharing—with these kinds of restrictions (low maximum %age of driveway area, disallowing on single family lots, and sending notification to neighbors).

In this case, I’m more in the camp of asking for forgiveness instead of permission, because a radical rethink of transportation really can’t keep waiting.

ALSO: newly elected City Councillor Jan Devereux’s blog post on the reconsideration vote.

Cambridge carsharing ordinance

City Council agenda comments, January 11, 2016

City Manager’s Agenda Item #9, regarding rent and eviction protections. This is a tough subject. There is of course a practicality question, how our local bureaucracy could intervene in any meaningful way in thousands of landlord-tenant relationships. Additionally, we are in Massachusetts, which has one of the most tenant-favoring systems this side of Bolivia. There are legitimate concerns about the human impact of a market that has risen rapidly in the past few years, but we should be careful not to simply add layers of bureaucracy in the pursuit of equitable and diverse housing.
City Manager’s Agenda Item #10, regarding the Barrett Petition. I support the aims and goals of the Barrett Petition, and contrary to some of my good friends, I think not only is the petition 95% ready for primetime, but it’s high time to take this zoning action. I share the heavy concern with Carole Perrault that historic envelopes could be impacted by code requirements and renovations that would come with basement and accessory development, but I think the procedural protections are sufficient even with the petition as-is. However, it would be prudent to be more explicit about the preservation of historic envelopes, especially since the zoning amendment would widely impact some of our most historically significant neighborhoods.
Charter Right #1, regarding the Central Square economic study. The future, like the past, is mixed-use. The public realm—sidewalks, plazas, and the transportation system—are directly correlative with the economic vitality and vibrancy of the Square, and fundamental transformation of the public way must come simultaneous with, if not before, any expectation of the highest and best programmatic uses and public enjoyment of Central Square.
Unfinished business item #8, regarding car-sharing zoning. It is dismaying that we continue to treat car-sharing as a nuisance, and justify its expansion by talking about how limiting the new zoning rules are. This is another area where Cambridge should be taking the progressive lead, so other cities that are more apprehensive can follow. If every shared car took just 2 privately owned vehicles off the roads and out of parking spots, that would be sufficient enough to justify an aggressive expansion regime; however, we know from the data that the impact of shared vehicles on the overall vehicle load is vastly more substantial. It is great to see this new zoning text go forward, as it surely will pass, but again, we’re treating something we should be celebrating as some kind of nuisance.
Application #2, regarding Mike’s Pastry signs. The petitioners were respectful of the process with the Historical Commission and their signs evolved into something compatible with the the building and the district. This should pass uncontroversially.
Policy Order #3, regarding an amendment to the tree fastening ordinance. This is very important. On the one hand, every time I see a bicycle/moped fastened to either a tree or a handicapped pole or some other inappropriate place, it highlights a desire point for appropriate bike parking facilities. We should, however, aggressively remove anything that damages our street trees, which belong to everyone, and whose health and growth are in everyone’s interest.
Policy Order #4, regarding smoke-free unenclosed workplaces. This is an important policy to continue on the path to the removal of tobacco use from our culture. Cambridge is a place that can and should take the lead. Smoke Free Cambridge 2025?
Policy Order #5, regarding solar panels by right. One concern is that the placement/style of solar panels may be inappropriate in certain contexts, so some kind of permitting process is certainly appropriate. This could be treated like any structural addition, with the aim of ensuring compatibility and thoughtfulness.
Policy Order #6, regarding the Grand Junction overlay district. This is a hugely important tool in the toolbox as we look forward to constructing the Grand Junction Path as quickly as possible. We can’t wait for millions of square feet of new development in places like Kendall Square, Somerville, Downtown Boston, and Allston, to further overload our road and transit systems before we try to offset this impact with walk/bike infrastructure. Instead, we should be planning all these areas around walk/bike infrastructure like the Grand Junction Path. We should be adopting a proactive approach within Cambridge to construct additional sections of path as soon as possible and strongly focus on making the critical connections at either end of the city.
Policy Order #7, regarding Gore Street traffic issues. This is actually related to the Grand Junction Path, as one possible route of linking the Grand Junction Path with the Somerville Community Path and by proxy, access to Lechmere Station and Boston, would follow Gore Street. We should be careful to consider this possible protected path alignment along Gore Street. Several pieces of material have been produced regarding this possible connection, including a joint Cambridge Redevelopment Authority/LivableStreets Alliance/Toole Design Group study that will be public soon. In the meantime, we have a great toolbox for traffic calming that we can take advantage of to prevent unnecessary injuries or fatalities at the subject intersection.
City Council agenda comments, January 11, 2016

City council comments, December 21, 2015

Policy Order #7, regarding unwanted graffiti in Central Square. This is a very significant and growing problem in Central Square, and it affects greater Central Square broadly. I might suggest a program for those who would volunteer to actively clean up/paint over graffiti around the square. Private property owners who agree to have volunteers/the city remove graffiti from private buildings could be put on a registry——there are many who seem to paint over graffiti on a regular basis but can’t keep up with how quickly it reappears. There is sound theory that constant (almost desperate) action to remove graffiti and other physical detriments is the best way to prevent them from becoming more widespread or leading to worse problems. Of course, the links between certain types of tagging and violence/intimidation are well documented, and something we should combat at every level in Cambridge.

City Manager’s Agenda Item #5, for funding part-time archives assistants at the Historical Commission. This is a modest sum very well spent.

City Manager’s Agenda Item #11, on constantly-flashing pedestrian crossing signs. The data aligns with the general gist of Joseph Barr’s letter, that too many visual inputs eventually cease to be effective for road safety. On the other hand, we should be moving away from push-button crossings in general wherever possible, instead opting for regular crossings on a cycle, and/or utilizing raised intersections, so as to better normalize and prioritize walking around the city.

City Manager’s Agenda Item #12, on Hubway funding. This is another area of money well spent. The continued expansion of Hubway along with protected/separated bicycle infrastructure will continue yielding rewards for our local economy and equity of transportation access. It’s hard to say whether Hubway will ever be financially self-sufficient, but we have plain evidence that continued expansion, good infrastructure, and proactive operations/maintenance leads to continued growth and user satisfaction. The rewards compound across the community and local economy.

City Manager’s Agenda Items #13 and #14, on the Alewife Bridge/Platform project. This is a long overdue project, which should have been done in tandem with, or before, much of the development of this area. Projects permitted in the “quadrangle” are fully outfitted with parking, with little to no good walking options or bicycle infrastructure. This is an ongoing failure of coordination, considering the large amount of development that has taken place in this area in recent years, and the large amount of built parking. If parking could have been constructed (and required) on the large scale it was in the new developments, then a common sense, desperately needed walk/bike crossing of the railroad tracks could have been done, too, and done first.

City Manager’s Agenda Item #16, on the public open space along Galileo Way between Binney and Broadway. This promises to be one of the hallmark public spaces in greater Kendall Square, and will carry one of the next sections of the Grand Junction Path as part of its design. This is a big step for both our transportation and open space networks.

City Manager’s Agenda Item #21, regarding building potential along Cambridge & Gore between 2nd & 3rd. The structure at 225 Cambridge Street has obvious historical merit, and one might suspect other buildings in the affected parcels do as well. There is of course a “highest and best use” question, particularly as concerns the sprawling parking lot, and the location relative to Lechmere Station. There’s a case to be made for significant upzoning of the parcels as a group (with incentives for reduced parking, residential and mixed-use development, and appropriate protections and integration of the historical structures).

City Manager’s Agenda Item #23, regarding a redesign for Carl Barron Plaza. I look forward to the River Street/Carl Barron Plaza design process. These are areas that need design attention in a very significant way. Good design has the potential to significantly uplift the lives of those who experience River Street and Central Square regularly. These should be hallmark public places in Cambridge; currently they both fall quite short.

City council comments, December 21, 2015

The Barrett Petition, another tool in the housing creativity toolbox

A zoning petition filed by Patrick Barrett holds a lot of promise for helping homeowners maximize value and “stay put,” while creating new living area for temporary or long-term residents. By addressing unused area in existing houses, this is a win-win for neighborhood preservation and density.

Accessory units mostly fall into the category of “tiny living” and all urban trends point this way: people, particularly those under 35, prefer to live in walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented, vibrant, eclectic, and livable places, and are willing to sacrifice “size” to do so. Using the word “sacrifice” might even be a mischaracterization: in many cases, it’s actually a preference. Birthrates, of course, are down, lower than any point in human history, by a significant margin. This means fewer bedrooms and less living area are in demand on a per-unit basis. Additionally, consciousness of one’s environmental footprint informs all sorts of financial and lifestyle choices, not the least of which is the classic, “biggest financial decision you’ll ever make”—buying a home. Those that require temporary housing prefer city/town centers, and are willing to couchsurf and airbnb (and again, even prefer it)—for the most part, forms of “tiny” lodging. The point is that life has once again moved outdoors, into the city, into the village, into the neighborhood, and well-apportioned, efficient, sustainable small/tiny living (and traveling) is the new norm.

Which brings us around again to accessory units and basements. These are the creative, eclectic types of spaces that appeal to people today; some of these units/living areas might even fall into the category of “affordable” relative to the many too-big housing units dictated by our zoning.

One important aim of the Barrett Petition is to bring out of the regulatory shadows practices which homeowners are doing anyway: finishing basements and creating accessory units without permits. The underground practice, in my opinion, is more dangerous any day than taking these practices out of the shadows—even with (legitimate) concerns about health and safety, particularly when it comes to basement living. That is: while there may be legitimate problems with the language of the Barrett Petition, it’s vastly better than the status quo. Housing can’t wait, living area can’t wait, and safety can’t wait.

As many of you know, I’m an historic preservation advocate, and intimately understand the necessity and purpose of historic building envelopes. Anything that creates more use and vibrancy for our existing housing stock, while minimally affecting that envelope, should be welcome. Even if we get into the realm of modest additions and refinishing, this can be done with minimal infringement, as has been done over and over and over.

Cambridge must be a welcoming place, and efforts like the Barrett Petition are not only common sense, but necessary as our city (like urban areas in general) are repeopled.

Relatedly, and continuing to make the case for denser living and building/preserving less parking, Cambridge has done a study on residential parking permits issued to residents in new developments (those 8+ units in the past 10 years). What they’ve discovered isn’t completely surprising: most of us expected that less than half of these residents would hold a permit. However, the real number is even more astonishing: the rate of residential parking permits per unit is a mere 0.26. The point is (bringing it back to the Barrett Petition and tiny living), we can begin—with data—to allay the common concern that all new development and new housing area/units in neighborhoods can’t be done, because of fear that the demand on parking will be too great. Car parking is a concern in virtually every development conversation, no matter how small, or how T-oriented. We need to get past that, and the data (and the very hard work of our planners) help us get there.

The Barrett Petition, another tool in the housing creativity toolbox

City Council items, December 7, 2015

Few residential parking stickers issued to residents of recent, large developments. This isn’t directly indicative of how many people are driving (these developments for the most part provide parking, or at least the option of parking, for most units). A substantial number of people in these developments don’t drive, or even own a car, evidenced by, for instance, the regular practice of renting out owned garage spaces, etc. Nonetheless, of note is an average of 0.26 parking stickers per unit.
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Housing, not an auto repair shop. Hard not to get behind this one.

WHEREAS:

It has come to the attention of the City Council that the Board of Zoning Appeals has denied the special permit request to convert the former Tokyo restaurant on Fresh Pond Parkway into an auto repair garage putting the project in jeopardy; now therefore be it
ORDERED:

That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to approach the current owner of the site regarding the City’s interest in purchasing this property for the development of affordable housing opportunities.

My comments (submitted to council@cambridgema.gov)

I am writing to highlight the importance of City Manager’s agenda item number 9, relative to parking stickers issued to residents of recent development projects. While this doesn’t directly correlate with private automobile ownership or parking habits, this certainly helps inform our conversation around parking loads and parking demands commensurate with new development. Despite an overcapacity Red Line and a very incomplete bicycle network, a substantial majority of Cambridge residents are choosing more and more not to drive. The data in the city manager’s communication, of course, helps support this trend. This trend doesn’t come from nowhere: it comes from better transit planning, and better walking and bicycle planning, that have progressively increased in quality over the past several years. In order to support and reinforce the trend away from driving, we must continue to robustly plan for, and progressively improve our approach to, transit, walking, and biking, with better street design and transit/walk/bike network planning, throughout the city.

In addition, I am writing with a word of support for policy order number 2, relative to the Tokyo restaurant site and exploring the possibility of a city purchase for affordable housing. This is an interesting proposition in the right spirit; however, I think a more appropriate and ultimately beneficial course of action might be a rezoning, that clearly prescribes mixed-use residential development with substantial density. This would accomplish the goal of adding residential units without directly costing the city purchase money. Short of this, if there is some compelling reason it wouldn’t work, a direct city purchase would be a desirable alternative. Affordable housing could then be the primary use, with great street/sidewalk/crossing planning in the immediate adjacent area (this is something which has been an unaddressed concern for this site), and a possible mixed-use (retail, community space, startup space, etc. etc.) regimen. I write in favor of the spirit of this resolution, but with a preference for either 1. good zoning & private development, or 2. some kind of public-private partnership, before getting to 3. a direct city purchase of the site.

Regarding carsharing. There are a few agenda items regarding the carsharing zoning proposal. I am an enthusiastic supporter of carsharing (e.g., Zipcar), and a user. I can’t quite comprehend the opposition to carsharing on private residential lots. The opposition seems to be based primarily on a fear of crime and noise, and a philosophical objection to private owners profiting in residential zones. Neither of these rises anywhere close to enough to oppose the ordinance, when considering either the available data, or the priority of city values. Moreover, the language of the ordinance tilts toward being restrictive and treating carsharing as a nuisance. I suppose this is could be argued to be a rational starting point, but again, it’s rooted in unfounded fears and compromise for its own sake, without taking into account the urgency of reducing private car ownership and vehicle miles traveled (both of which are proven, direct results of better access to carsharing). The language is too restrictive as written, and I hope that this can be regularly revisited to allow for greater access to carsharing, particularly in areas like West Cambridge which have the worst access to transit.

City Council items, December 7, 2015