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

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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

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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

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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