Happy summer and Happy Bastille Day!
This newsletter is a recap/summary of some of my work on the council in 2021. As the council is on summer recess, I will be doing newsletters with less frequency. The major topics are summarized below and in future newsletters I will cover some additional topics, and expand on other work.
The council will continue to have committee meetings – and the work continues – but the next full regular business meeting is on August 2. The committee meetings will address important issues including the city manager search, zoning options for addressing parking, continued work on Envision, cannabis regulations, local regulations on campaign financing, and more. Stay tuned. I recommend perusing CambridgeDay.com for news and notices of upcoming events.
AND, if you know anyone who isn’t yet vaccinated, please encourage them to get vaccinated. ASK. I recently found out someone I am close to isn’t vaccinated due to hesitancy – and I now know that I need to reach out more. I believe I have convinced them to get vaccinated. And if incentives help, remind them of Vaxmillions. The Delta variant is here, and the only way that we can beat it is by getting vaccinated. Covid “long haulers” should be enough of an incentive – the disease can be debilitating for a long time.
As always, please send feedback, comments, questions, suggestions and ideas on anything related to my Council work.
Topics covered below:
- Environmental work (Divestment, Gas pump labels, EV Ready Policy)
- Restaurant App Fees
Memorial Drive/Riverbend Park, open streets
- Charter Review
- Civil Service
- HEART Proposal
- Development in the city and Envision
There is no way to define my term on Council without Covid at the center. Even as we begin to see our city reopen, there is no doubt that covid will leave a lasting impact – including a psychological one. I have noted the toll of the coronavirus on all residents of all ages – especially children, who have seen skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression. We must think critically and work diligently to heal from the last year and a half.
Of course, much of the council work since last March was focused on responding to the coronavirus emergency. And while the city’s response was laudable and Cambridge’s rates were relatively low, there is still more work to do as we head towards a “new normal.” What does the new normal look like to you? My hope is that the new normal will include more resilience and more attention to fundamentally addressing the shameful racial and economic disparities throughout society. That we will continue to see our streets as public spaces for more than just single-occupancy vehicle convenience. That carbon emissions will continue to decline, not accelerate. That our public health system will be enlarged, not restricted, and our economic system more equitable. I am not naive that these are lofty hopes – I am committed to doing what I can to nurture such visions and I want to continue my work on the Council to pursue them. Below is a summary of some of the work I have done – from Broadband to Envision to Divestment – and the issues I plan to continue pursuing. There is a lot there – and a lot still left to accomplish!
Access to broadband, now more than ever before, should be seen as an essential utility that is available to all. The only way to truly do this is a municipally owned network. Moving us forward on broadband is one of my proudest accomplishments during my first term and I won’t stop beating this drum until we have reliable access to affordable internet across the entire city. I have written before about the gains that we have made since I began working on this last year, but the pace has been disheartening. I worked tirelessly with Upgrade Cambridge to get the manager to include a commitment to a feasibility study in last year’s budget, but it took nearly a year before an RFP was drafted. While Cambridge dragged its feet on this issue, Comcast raised their prices for nearly all of its services at a time when home data usage is higher than ever. And I have heard time and time again from many of you about the subpar service that Comcast provides. Unfortunately, the effective monopoly they have in the city renders us incapable of pushing them to provide higher quality connection. When we allow under-regulated monopolies to control a utility, we shouldn’t be surprised when their profit-driven motives do not align with the public interest. The RFP that was proposed in April was not strong enough for me, because it did not specifically call for a feasibility study on a municipally-owned network which in my view is a vital component. This remains an outstanding concern but I remain committed to getting the best possible RFP out to ensure the feasibility study does what we need it to.
Environmental work (Divestment, Gas pump labels, EV Ready Policy):
I am thrilled to be getting a lot done on climate – with much more in store for the near future which I will write about soon! One thing that I have realized very few residents know about is the option to switch to 100% Green electricity! I have been working to shift the standard option (only 18% renewable), but in the meantime, if you are able to afford a 3c/kWh increase to your election bill, please switch! Read about your options here and sign up for 100% Green here. Here are a few concrete policies that I made happen so far this year:
Divestment from fossil fuels and private prisons – while we are still unable to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels due to state law, we have more control over what we do with our city funds, including our approximately $200 million in free cash. I wrote a divestment policy to ensure that none of city funds are invested in fossil fuels companies or companies profiting off private prisons that will be implemented later this year.
Gas pump labels – I was excited to vote earlier this year on an ordinance requiring warning labels on gas pumps in Cambridge (continuing the work of former Vice-Mayor Jan Devereux) and I pushed and cajoled to ensure labels were on the pumps before the end of 2020. While thrilled, I believe the design could be improved and graphics might better convey the message. I have been working with the City Manager’s communication team towards improving the messaging at gas stations. These warning labels are by no means a solution, but taking this step goes hand in hand with the other efforts the City is taking to combat climate change by drawing a more direct connection between our daily habits and its effect on climate change. After decades of documented lying and obfuscating of facts by the fossil fuel industry, greater transparency can only be a good thing. I was happy that the effort picked up some media attention – here is an article and a clip from the local news that I was featured in.
EV ready policy – every decision and policy that we make today needs to be based on future climate goals and targets, and I see a big part of my job as making sure that is actually happening. For example, buildings and parking garages constructed today will last, on average, until between 2061 and 2071, far past the time that Massachusetts will ban gas-powered vehicles (2035) and long after the necessary goal to be net-zero by 2050. But then why are we letting developers build parking with no EV infrastructure? Ideally, we won’t be adding parking in Cambridge in the coming years, but we came close to a 700 car garage being approved as part of the CC&F proposal just this year, so it is clear developers still plan on building it. The EV ready policy that I wrote ensures that all new parking built would have 25% of spaces outfitted with chargers and for 100% of the spaces as EV ready (proper electrical connections to easily add chargers in the future). This will now be a part of the special permit process and should ensure that we have more EV infrastructure in Cambridge in the coming years.
Armory and Tobin trees:
At the beginning of the term, I spent a lot of time working with the City and our State Reps to try and secure the Armory property so we could incorporate it into the Tobin/Vassal Lane reconstruction project. One of my last meetings in person before Covid was at the State House to meet with Sen. Jehlen about the Armory property. While nothing is guaranteed (and given that we started off this conversation last year with them saying there is no way we are selling any of that property), a possible scenario at this point is the sale of part of the parking lot. The section of land south of the basketball court (and along the back of the property) is currently being used by the contractors – around 41,000 sq/ft of space, and we think that they could be convinced to hand over that section to Cambridge at market value. This would increase open space, help with climate and stormwater mitigation, and create an opportunity for more fluid transit. While I continue to believe that the correct and fair and equitable and reasonable path would be for the city to acquire the entire site to build affordable housing, an early childhood education center and have a better design for the school complex, it would still be a huge win to secure a section of the parking lot.
Furthermore, it is incredibly frustrating that the city did not push harder for the site before I began meeting with our state delegation. The three large oak trees that are slated for removal may have been saved had we planned the project with the ability to put the enormous stormwater tank on the Armory property. And other concerns (congestion, height, tree removal) could have been mitigated had the extra space been made available years ago. I will continue doing everything possible to save the three oaks, and I also want to reform how Cambridge approaches projects like this moving forward. Trees need to be seen as essential infrastructure and projects need to be planned from the very beginning to save our diminishing canopy. If the City is not leading by example on this, how can we expect private developers to?
Restaurant app fees:
After the pandemic hit, I became aware of the oligopoly that is damaging local restaurants to the point of putting them out of business. The dominance of four delivery companies – DoorDash, GrubHub, UberEats, and Postmates – and their stranglehold on the delivery market has been nearly fatal to many of our beloved restaurants. I am thrilled the state legislature passed an economic development bill that includes a 15% cap, and yet, it is frustrating it happened many months after I first advocated for such a change in Cambridge.
Here is why this is important and we should learn from this situation for the future: Prior to the pandemic, most restaurants did between 5 and 15 percent of their business as delivery (if they offered delivery at all). With the four delivery companies charging restaurants between 25 and 30 percent of the total order price of the food being delivered to the customers, restaurants were paying these companies about 2 to 3 percent of their total revenue. Now that restaurants are doing upwards of 80 percent of their business as delivery, that amount has skyrocketed to more than 15 percent. That difference, all handed over to the delivery companies, could be more than a restaurant’s entire profit margin. Last April, I co-sponsored a policy order asking the City Manager to cap third-party delivery fees at 10% in Cambridge. Shortly after, State Representative Mike Day of Stoneham introduced a similar bill in the legislature to do the same across the state. Implementing this cap would ensure that while restaurants are unable to have dine-in customers (and as time goes on, unable to go back to the capacity they once operated at), third party delivery companies are not taking such a large chunk of revenue away from local restaurants that are already struggling to survive.
These four major delivery companies dominate the industry – accounting for 98% of the delivery market – and make it next to impossible for restaurants to negotiate fees. They have bought up all the smaller delivery companies (Seamless, Foodler, and Caviar) in recent years and they now offer local restaurants a lose-lose scenario: pay exorbitant fees for their service, or be excluded from the apps that so many people are now accustomed to using. And that is the kicker: while there has been a push to buy local during the pandemic to help our favorite businesses weather this storm, the lack of transparency about these delivery companies’ fees means that consumers are in the dark. If you order a $30 meal from your local restaurant, there is no way to know that ten of your dollars are going to UberEats or GrubHub. People who think that they are buying local when they order out for delivery do not realize that a big chunk of their money is going to one of four companies all valued in the 10s of billions. However, the City Solicitor determined it was not within the city’s legal authority to cap fees (which I disagree with, since Seattle and NYC are doing it). But after working with state reps and other restaurant owners in the area, the economic development bill passed by the State Legislature included a 15% cap – and if Governor Baker signs it, the order would make MA the third state in the country to enact a statewide cap. I am disappointed that Cambridge was unable to take action earlier, but proud of what we accomplished and thrilled for the restaurants that will be better off.
Memorial Drive/Riverbend Park:
One of the positives coming out of the pandemic was a shift in the way we view public space, and whether or not we should be allocating so much of it to cars. Last year, I co-sponsored two orders, asking the City Manager to close down Memorial Drive to cars, and to identify streets around the city that could also be opened to cyclists and pedestrians. This was a solution to the bottleneck that was occurring at Fresh Pond, Riverbend Park, and elsewhere in the early evenings when people wanted to go for a walk while staying distanced from others. Over the course of the year, we were able to push the manager to extend the days that Memorial Drive was closed to cars (and Riverbend Park was open) to both Saturday and Sunday, and continue that closure far past the normal fall end date. This year, DCR announced that Riverbend Park would be open early, be open for both Saturdays and Sundays, and stay open until later in the year. This is exactly the type of shift we need to be pushing more of. I have spent time talking with the city, DCR, and environmental and transit groups about the extension of Riverbend Park to Magazine Beach (and beyond). This would give folks on the other side of Cambridge easy access to the amenity that so many of us have enjoyed on the weekends this year. We have access to one of the most beautiful waterfronts in the world – people should be able to use it!
I have written extensively in my newsletters about charter review and my belief that, after 80 years of Plan E and no changes to our charter, we should take a look under the hood and see if anything needs work. I was thrilled that my policy order passed the Council last month – which will send three charter amendments (based on numerous meetings that were held over the last year) This should not be controversial: nearly every other municipality in the state holds a regular review of their charter every 5 to 10 years. For the sake of transparency and good governance, I see this as a necessary pursuit. And, it is clear to me that the balance of power in the city is off. The legislative branch, in the form of the Council, should have more authority to serve as a counter to complete executive authority. We just lived through the proof of the need for balance at the national level.
The next step is to have the charter ballot questions approved by the Attorney General, or possibly go through a home rule process, so they can appear on our municipal ballots this November. People in Cambridge have talked about making these types of charter amendments for decades and I am thrilled that in my first year on Council I was able to make it happen.
Civil Service and governance structures:
As I wrote above, I began my term committed to reviewing the way we do business, since I noticed that too often we are too busy dealing with short-term needs to step back and assess the larger picture. My first specific example of a policy that I believe has outlived its usefulness is Civil Service. I sponsored a policy order asking for a review of the pros and cons of Civil Service and a report on how the city can exit the system. My research indicates that this system, which worked well for many decades protecting civil servants, now at the local level stymies attempts to hire a more diverse workforce and ensure accountability. This has been confirmed by numerous people in the city and the state. While there has been a substantial delay in the report that I requested LAST summer, I keep monitoring the timing and have been promised it would be completed soon. Once we understand the issues, we can determine whether to continue our participation in Civil Service.
Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, we saw a massive call to action on racial justice, both locally and nationally. I saw – and continue to see – this moment as a historical moment, during which Cambridge should lead. Last budget season, I worked to reallocate funds from the police department budget to fill unfunded human services and social work positions. In the fall, the full Council sponsored a policy order asking the city manager to look into programs around the country that provide alternative response systems so that rather than call the police for non-violent issues happening in the community, there is another option to receive help. Since then, I have worked with The Black Response to elevate their proposal – which is a well-researched alternative program based on the CAHOOTS model in Oregon. I submitted a policy order asking the manager to work with The Black Response to fund a program in the FY22 budget – that policy order passed, and I have since helped to broker conversations between the group and the administration. I am looking forward to Cambridge being a leader and one of the first communities in the country to implement a creative and progressive program over the next year.
Development in the city – Envision as a guidepost:
So much of the work this year has encompassed a range of issues that are related to development issues. And much of what I pledged to do as a candidate is work to have the city use the Envision documents for strategic planning, council goals and guidelines for our collective work. I have held numerous committee meetings towards that end and have continued to push for better planning and less developer-centric proposals.
Parts of the city continue to have major development proposals – notably East Cambridge and Alewife. A number of these developments are welcome and will have a positive impact (Biomed, for example), but others not so much. The Council spent a bucketload of time looking at the Cabot Cabot and Forbes petition this winter. It was a complicated proposition: the idea was that it would create a new zoning overlay in the Northeast corner of the Quad, which would then allow CCF to bring forward a special permit request that would allow the developers to build higher (up to 85 feet in a few places) in exchange for community benefits. I had numerous concerns about the proposal and was glad it got voted down. The concerns I had about the petition are a good summary of the concerns I have about development in Alewife (and the city) more generally. The first and most fundamental concern is that the council has yet to ordain the Alewife plan as a part of Envision Cambridge (a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort). Until we agree on the plan for the area – including the long-term school, open space, and community needs, such as a library, community center, etc – it is difficult to do this work piecemeal and create yet another overlay district in our already overly complicated zoning. It is concerning that many of the items discussed in the Alewife Envision Plan are not addressed in this upzoning proposal – what was that work for? The second major concern is around the long-discussed bridge over the tracks to connect the area to the Alewife Triangle, and Alewife T stop. It is a non-starter for me if we are not assured of a bridge – and it would be best if the city was directly involved, not as a third party. It is public infrastructure and needs to be built in the proper location where the entire population of the quad could access it. Third, I strongly believe that the parcel needs to include public green spaces. The connection of the area to the relatively unknown and little utilized Rafferty Park has to be clear, strong, and built into plans. And Envision shows myriad parks throughout the quad that must be included in the quad.