Housing should be the priority for Central Square, not office buildings (and definitely not labs)

FullSizeRender_(10).jpg

Cambridge is facing a severe and escalating crisis of housing affordability, and right now, the city council is considering a proposal from Normandy Real Estate Partners and Twining Properties to build a 19-story residential tower at the corner of Mass Ave and Main Street by Lafayette Square, a key gateway to Central Square.

The Normandy Twining proposal has improved in recent weeks, as the total percentage of affordable housing has increased to 20%, and the original design concept, which would have created a wall between the Area IV/Port neighborhood and Central Square, has been replaced by a "point tower," allowing more sunlight to reach the neighborhood.

But as an architect and urban designer, I know there is more room for improvement. As it stands, 80% of the new housing is proposed to be luxury-rate, out of reach to all but the wealthy. In addition, the proposal features too many parking lots, including parking lots in the residential neighborhood along Bishop Allen Drive. This makes no sense for a building that is close to a major transit hub.

To address these concerns, I introduced an alternative urban design concept at last week's ordinance committee hearing, showing how a public/private partnership — based on principles of the C2 Study — could dramatically increase affordable housing, while also consolidating parking underground and creating a new community green.

This alternative concept will actually produce more housing overall, and thus more affordable housing, and it will also do a much better job of integrating the "Mass + Main" project into the fabric of the existing neighborhood. 

It would be nice if we had more time to explore the potential of this concept, but there's a problem: the Normandy Twining development team has suggested that if they don't get their new zoning amendment right away, they might decide to build an office building on their site, leaving us without any new housing at all.

Given the nature of today's housing crisis, that's unacceptable. It is the city council that is responsible for land use policy, and we should exercise that responsibility to maximize our bargaining power for more affordable housing.

That's why I have joined with Councillor Mazen to introduce the following policy order, which limits incentives for office and laboratory development in Central Square, and also makes it clear that the City should promote new housing, along with vibrant retail and related public amenities, as the immediate priority for the district.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Lawrence Lessig testifies before the City Council; Normandy proposal advances

Last night, the Ordinance Committee voted, 6-3, to forward the Normandy Twining zoning amendment petition on the full city council with a positive recommendation — but not before hearing from Lawrence Lessig on the issue of money in politics.

Speaking during public comment, Lessig, who serves as the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and is also a professor of law at Harvard Law School, drew a connection between the council's recent vote to reject a study of publicly funded elections and the City's "ad-hoc planning process."

Click here to read Lessig's testimony.

The meeting focused on Normandy's Mass + Main proposal, which would add some 232 units of new housing to Central Square — but 80% of these units would be luxury/market rate — and the project has raised concerns about a planning effort (the "C2 Study") that was unexpectedly sidelined last year.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

For a more vibrant Central Square – and to boost affordable housing – do urban design

As the city council prepares to make some big decisions on the future of Central Square, I encourage everyone to watch this fabulous new video by noted author Alain de Botton, "How to Make an Attractive City." 

de Botton explains the six key elements of successful urban development, and he concludes with a simple truth, in his words: "Beautiful cities have only ever been created when governments impose strict and ambitious regulations to keep the greedy private guys in check."

Here in Cambridge, some people look at the escalating crisis of housing affordability and conclude that things like urban design, public/private coordination, data-driven decision-making, and comprehensive zoning/implementation strategies are all obstacles to the production of desperately needed affordable housing.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Urban design isn't just about ensuring that new development is attractive, it is also the key to unlocking complex opportunities for affordable housing, public open space, and other amenities. In addition, it helps communities capture value that would otherwise be extracted by global real estate speculators.

Today's debate over the proposal by Normandy Real Estate Partners and Twining Properties is a case in point. At 4 pm, the council's Ordinance Committee will meet to discuss the Normandy proposal in the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. I encourage everyone to attend this important meeting...

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Council adopts Bring Your Own Bag ordinance

The city council voted 8-1 this evening to pass the Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance, making Cambridge the largest city on the East Coast to ban single-use, plastic checkout bags and completing an effort that began when the city first started studying the issue in 2007.

The legislation also makes Cambridge the first city in the Commonwealth to require that retailers charge a fee for paper bags. Retailers will get to keep the fee, and it has been suggested that this will not only encourage the use of renewable bags, but also help offset costs associated with making the switch away from plastic.

Acting in his capacity as Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee, Councillor Carlone led his colleagues through a series of votes to reconcile differences between two versions of the pending legislation on March 12. The outcome of that committee meeting was featured in this Boston Globe report.

After bringing the matter forward for a vote this evening, Councillor Carlone joined with his colleagues in acknowledging all of the city officials, environmental advocates, and Cambridge residents who have been working to advance this legislation for the past eight years, including State Representative Marjorie Decker, former Mayor Henrietta Davis and many others.

On a separate motion, the council also voted to request that the City Manager purchase 10,000 reusable bags for seniors and low-income residents. Students at CRLS will be asked to create a logo for the bags.

The text of the "Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance" is posted below...

Read more
Add your reaction Share

City Council to vote on Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance

Screen_shot_2015-03-30_at_9.28.23_AM.pngThe Cambridge City Council is likely to vote on the plastic bag ban at tomorrow night's meeting at the CRLS Attles Meeting Room, 459 Broadway. The meeting will begin with public comment at 5:30 pm.

If adopted, the "Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance" would make Cambridge the largest city on the East Coast to ban single-use, plastic checkout bags, completing a process that began when the city first started studying the issue in 2007.

The legislation would also make Cambridge the first city in the Commonwealth to require that retailers charge a fee for paper bags. Retailers would get to keep the fee, and it has been suggested that this will not only encourage the use of renewable bags, but also help retailers offset costs associated with making the switch away from plastic.

Acting in his capacity as Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee, Councillor Dennis Carlone led his colleagues through a series of votes to reconcile differences between two versions of the pending legislation on March 12. The outcome of that committee meeting was featured in this Boston Globe report.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Ordinance Committee votes to advance "Bring Your Own Bag" law to ban plastic checkout bags

FullSizeRender_(5).jpg

On Thursday evening, the city council's Ordinance Committee voted unanimously to forward a strong version of the proposed ban on plastic checkout bags to the full council with a positive recommendation.

It is now expected that this reconciled version, renamed the "Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance," will come before the council for a final vote in a matter of weeks. If adopted, it would make Cambridge the largest city on the East Coast to ban single-use, plastic checkout bags, completing a process that began when the city first started studying the issue in 2007.

Acting in his capacity as Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee, Councillor Carlone led his colleagues through a series of votes to reconcile differences between two versions of the pending legislation; here are some of the highlights from the meeting:

  • Amendment Number 4, which sought to create an exemption for take-out food restaurants, failed on a vote of 1 in favor and 4 against.
  • Amendment Number 5, which would have relaxed the definition of a "reusable" plastic bag, also failed, by a vote of 2 in favor and 3 against. As it stands, the proposed ordinance states that a plastic bag must have a minimum thickness of 3.0 mils to qualify as reusable. A similar definition is used in Newton, Newburyport, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Marblehead.
  • Amendment Number 6 was adopted, allowing for compostable plastic bags that meet ASTMD6400 standards and are approved by the Commissioner of Public Works.
  • Amendment Number 8A was also adopted; this amendment requires that retail establishments charge a fee for any paper bags or compostable bags that are provided at the point of sale. This would make Cambridge the first municipality in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to require that retailers charge a fee for paper bags. However, the City does not plan to collect this fee. Instead, retailers will keep it.

 Here are materials from Thursday's meeting...

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Plastic bag ban amendments to be considered March 12

The ordinance committee will meet on Thursday, March 12, to once again take up the matter of the plastic bag ban. The meeting will be held at 5:30 pm in the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. If approved, this would make Cambridge the largest city on the East Coast to ban single-use plastic checkout bags.

I want to say thank you to the hundreds of residents who wrote to the council in support of the plastic bag ban back in December. After seven years of study, and with leadership from former city councillor (now state representative) Marjorie Decker, the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance was advanced out of committee and "passed to a second reading" by the city council last February.

But in response to concerns that were raised by the council last April, an alternate version of the bill was introduced in October. This version added some promising new elements (such as a fee for paper bags, Amendment #8, which I support), but according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club, it also opened the door to possible loopholes (by weakening the definition of what qualifies as a "reusable" plastic bag, for example; see Amendment #5).

With two versions of the bag ban before us at the very same time, I felt that the best way to proceed would be to focus on preserving the original bill and while also scheduling a meeting to consider the alternate version as a series of itemized amendments. Tomorrow, we will meet as a body to consider some 13 proposed amendments to the original bill.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

How much housing does Cambridge need by the year 2030?

Mass_and_Main.jpg

As the city council considers a proposal from Normandy Real Estate Partners and Twining Properties to construct a high-end residential tower at the intersection of Columbia Street, Mass Ave, and Main Street (pictured above), many residents are asking the question: How much housing does Cambridge need by the year 2030?

The Citywide Master Plan is expected to provide an answer, but for now, I asked my legislative aide to contact the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) to get their latest estimates and projections.

According to the Director of Data Services for MAPC, it is projected that Cambridge will need to produce between 3,100 and 6,200 additional units of housing during the 20-year period starting in 2010 and ending in 2030. An explanation of the basis for the projection, along with details on two different growth scenarios, is available here on the MAPC website. Scroll down to page 5 to see specific recommendations for our city.

While the MAPC analysis calls for up to 6,200 new units in Cambridge by 2030, it's also worth pointing out that in just the past year, some 2,450 units of new housing were either completed or in construction across the city, according to the Community Development Department's 2014 Year In Review. Taken together, these numbers indicate that Cambridge is making real progress toward MAPC's 2030 goal.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Cambridge City Council votes to reject study of campaign finance reform

The city council voted on February 20 to reject a motion requesting that the City Manager work with campaign finance reform advocates to examine the potential for establishing a system of publicly financed municipal elections in Cambridge.

The motion was based on a policy order that was introduced last year by Councillors Nadeem Mazen and Dennis Carlone. Their original order was referred to the Government Operations, Rules, and Claims committee, which met earlier this year to hear testimony from campaign finance reform advocates (including Ron Fein, Legal Director for Free Speech for People, and local members of Represent.Us). The committee report from this hearing was placed on file.

Ultimately, three councillors voted in favor of having the City do a study of public financing (including Councillor Carlone), but four councillors opposed the motion, with one voting "present" and one absent. An account of this 3-4-1-1 vote is featured on the front page of this week's Cambridge Chronicle, see: "Cambridge City Council rejects study of public campaign funding."

This evening, the council entertained a motion by Councillor Mazen to reconsider the February 20 vote. However, the motion for reconsideration failed, with Councillors Carlone and Mazen being the only members to support continued debate on the matter.

The full text of the original policy order is posted below...

Read more
Add your reaction Share

With support from Mothers Out Front, Council adopts Renewable Energy order and moves to dump TransCanada

President Obama's veto to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline isn't the only bad news for the TransCanada Corporation these days. Late last week, the Cambridge City Council voted to send the energy giant a rebuke of its own.

On Friday morning, the council unanimously approved a policy order sponsored by Dennis Carlone, aiming to get the City to switch to a new supplier of electricity for all municipal operations. Presently, the City obtains its electricity from TransCanada, the same corporate entity behind Keystone XL, the notorious pipeline project that has been described as "game over" for the planet by noted scientist James Hansen.

With the approval of this order, the City Manager is now requested to terminate the City's relationship with TransCanada. Instead, the City will look to identify a new supplier to provide up to 100% renewable energy for all municipal operations.

This policy order was the product of a series of discussions that Councillor Carlone had with members of Mothers Out Front, a promising new advocacy group that formed in Cambridge and is now expanding to other municipalities and states. Additional information about this order was posted to Councillor Carlone's blog last month, click here for that report. And posted above is a video featuring powerful public testimony and council discussion on the matter.

The council is also looking to explore the potential for a utility aggregation program to further advance the City's goal of becoming a net zero community. To follow up on this topic, Councillor Carlone has scheduled a meeting of the Public Utilities committee for Wednesday, March 4rd, in the Lombardi Building, which is next to City Hall. More information about that hearing is available here.

The full text of the policy order is posted below...

Read more
Add your reaction Share