Council updates: AHO, cyclist safety, early voting, schools

Early voting at the Fresh Pond water treatment plant!

All: 

Happy summer – still a few weeks before Labor Day.  There are many people hurting from this pandemic – if you are doing ok, I encourage you to reach out to help those in need.  The Volunteer Clearinghouse in Cambridge has a GREAT project to supply free masks to families in need.  The masks are cloth masks, made in Massachusetts – I encourage you to support their efforts. Chelsea continues to be one of the hardest hit communities in Massachusetts.  I have donated items and money to groups there.  There are many worthy groups – the Chelsea Collaborative is a great one. 

And if you need help, reach out yourself – this is the time for all of us to acknowledge our needs, get support, and support others.  I also note that emotionally it is a draining time – you may not need food or financial assistance, but you may need some caring as you deal with the ongoing state of the world.  Take care of yourself and your family.  

Last week another death occurred on our streets  – a cyclist was killed in Harvard Square by a large truck.  The full details are not yet known.  What we do know is that a pedestrian was killed in Harvard Square about a year ago, and the plan to make the square safer has not been implemented.  What we do know is that protected bike lanes save lives and there are not protected bike lanes in Harvard Square.  We need to ramp up our efforts.  I own a car – I drive – and I know that our city will not end the use of cars.  I also know that streets are public property – and they need not be allocated mostly to cars.  We need to be doing more to use our public ways more broadly – for cycling, outdoor dining, strolling.  And safety needs to be prioritized and changes need to be accelerated.  

When I first got elected, I thought that my first few months would be consumed with discussion and debate about the Affordable Housing Overlay [AHO].  Then the pandemic hit and everything was on hold not directly related to dealing with the public health crisis.  Then George Floyd’s murder happened and a welcome reckoning with our country’s legacy and lasting pandemic of racism spurred action, discussion, and passion around addressing systemic racism and policy department practices and protocols.  

Now, with the Covid19 in a different stage here in Massachusetts, and notably in Cambridge, the AHO is about to be ordained.  This email has a long section on the AHO, since it was something that created a lot of discussion, and sadly division and rancor last year.  While we have moved on, it is still important to me that I approach the issue thoughtfully.

This week, there is continued concern citywide, statewide and nationwide about the return to school with Covid19.  Cambridge numbers are heartening – after the first few months of too many deaths and troubling cases and hospitalizations – show very low positivity rates and very few new deaths.  The challenge of keeping those numbers low is great.  With universities having some students return, the city has worked closely with the universities to understand how they will work to ensure low rates of Covid19 and have appropriate plans in place to deal with cases and prevent transmission and contain any outbreaks (see the plans here).  The K-12 school systems are also in something of a crisis, with staff and families concerned that learning is at best challenging and at worst impossible under the conditions brought on by the pandemic.  I feel for the administrators, the families, and the staff.  I fully support the School Committee in their work and believe we can and should look to a safe re-opening of our schools as soon as possible.  All students’ education will suffer by the conditions imposed by Covid19 – remote learning is simply not as good as in-person  – and the most vulnerable students will be hurt even more.  I also support the leaders of other schools in Cambridge, public charter schools, independent schools, and child care centers as they work to safely take care of our young people.  

Voting has started in the state’s primary, which is important.  I want to remind everyone that voting by mail is safe and convenient (details below on early voting and logistics of returning a ballot) however it is important to follow all instructions on your ballot.  A much higher percent of mail in and absentee ballots are rejected than in-person ballots.  There are rules – signing the envelope, making sure the ballot is marked correctly – that apply to mail-in and absentee ballots, If the rules are not followed, the ballot may be rejected.  And remember if you do vote on September 1, check your polling location – since 14 of the locations have changed due to the pandemic (more on this below).  

Below are some council updates.  Please send thoughts and ideas and comments anytime.

Patty

P.S.  This Wednesday is Women’s Equality Day – sign up for the communal reading at 5:30 PM. If you cant’t make it, read the Declaration of Sentiments and the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women from the 1979 UN and think about the important step toward the ongoing quest for enfranchisement for all. 

The beautiful Charles

Charter Review:

On July 27th, when the Council met for our summer meeting, I sponsored a policy order asking the Mayor to call a special meeting to discuss charter review (which passed unanimously).  I wrote this order because I am concerned that Cambridge has not once held a formal review process since 1941 (when Plan E was adopted in Cambridge), making us the only city or town in Massachusetts to go 80 years without reviewing its most important legal document.  Many cities and towns in Massachusetts have a charter review process built into their charter, requiring a review every set number of years (usually 5-10 years) to ensure the charter continues to serve the needs of ever-changing municipalities.  I also personally am very concerned that the charter has been interpreted over the years to devolve more power to the City Manager than I believe is healthy.  Cambridge has changed dramatically since 1940, but our governing documents have remained static.  No matter how you feel about the balance of power in the City, it is good governance for the City Council to ensure that our governing documents are positioned to serve our modern, progressive city through a review of the city charter.  There are multiple ways to carry out this task, but the first step is a meeting with the Collins Center – an organization that helps cities improve their effectiveness in public management.  This meeting is being scheduled for the first few weeks of September, and hopefully by next week’s email we will have a date locked in. 

AHO:

We had the first council meeting to discuss the AHO last week.  After months of researching the question of whether the AHO is sound policy, I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss it.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have  a full discussion.  I understand that for most of the council, the discussion had already happened – the hundreds of emails and hours spent thinking about it last year.  And with the expressed support of the other new city councillor, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, the votes were clear that it would pass.  I understood that.  Still, I hoped that we would discuss some changes to make it a better policy.  

In researching this issue, I spoke with affordable housing developers, with folks in Somerville who are looking at how to increase AH and have had some zoning changes.  I spoke with officials from other cities to hear what they are doing.  I learned a lot – and remain unconvinced that the AHO as currently written will be a game changer.  It has some good ideas – and I hope it works to increase AH and distribute it around the city.  Still, I am  not sure how I will vote on it in the council, on September 14 since it is discouraging to have some changes that I thought would make is stronger not be included.  I am interested in any of your feedback and input.  

I would have liked to propose several amendments, all of which in my opinion would be best for the city and all of us:

  • Make design guidelines mandatory

  • Require passive house/net zero for all new projects under the ordinance, the city has said that the newly completed Finch building was just 3% more in costs for a building that is a model for sustainability – and some of those costs were covered by grants

  • Increase in the number of 3 BR – to ensure family friendly units

  • Focus the first phase on corridors only – see how it works, and after the first few years expand to other areas of the city

However, after talking with people in the community and reviewing the past record, it is clear proposing those amendments would be a waste of time.  The council was interested in passing the ordinance pretty much as it was proposed.  

Two changes were made, both of which I supported: Requiring that some of existing retail ground floor usage in commercial districts would continue in AHO projects.  The amendment passed to mandate that  at least 50% of the existing frontage remain non -residential.  That is critical to our small businesses which are dying by the day.  I said that I would have supported an even greater – 60% or 75% requirement, but there was not support for that.  Also, a change to ensure that the CDD would create a sketch of the expected changes passed.  

Other amendments, two of which I proposed and one of which Councillor Carlone proposed, failed.  I proposed two amendments that I believed were important. My full statement on the amendments is part of the council record.  To summarize my amendments:

  1.  Middle income – include language to ensure that middle income folks – teachers, custodians, non-profit staff  – have first call on 20% of the units built.  The number of applicants for these units is far higher than available.  However, the number of people making less applying for AH units is even greater, so this amendment was voted down.  I was disappointed – our city is becoming a city of two extremes (I used the symbolism of a barbell in my remarks) with only very wealth or very poor being able to live here.  Unless you’re like me – having bought a house 25 years ago.  I am worried about the long term impact of that.

  1. Set goals to measure success – for more than a year I have asked for clarification of how many additional units are expected to be built due to the AHO.  The answer from CDD was 10-15 units more per year – which is far below what many were saying would be possible.  That number was the basis for my (failed) attempt to get a measure of effectiveness – of 15-20 additional units – written into the AHO.  I also proposed a specific measure of geographic distribution of AH – since that is the other goal of the AHO.  One may still support the AHO – and perhaps far more or far fewer will be built as a result.  I also note that the CDD estimate that about 10 additional units a year will be built seems high based on their own assessment that the AHO will save about 5% in costs.  I don’t fully understand the 10-15 more, since the current expectation with current funding is about 100/year, so if the extra 5% is a straight one-off impact, it would seem that 5 additional units/year is more likely.  But I took the CDD numbers for my proposed amendment, which was voted down, since some said it didn’t belong in a zoning ordinance.  My point was that the AHO includes a requirement for “a report that assesses the effectiveness of the Affordable Housing Overlay in increasing the number of affordable housing units in the city, distributing affordable housing across City neighborhoods and serving the housing needs of residents.”  How can we require a report on effectiveness without defining effectiveness?   

Councillor Carlone proposed an amendment to ensure a break in facades of more then 150 feet, not the 250 feet in the AHO.  The 150 feet had been in the version of the AHO finalized last year prior to it being tables.  However, even this amendment failed and the AHO allows for up to 250 feet of uninterrupted facade.  

I still don’t know if the AHO will produce very few new units, in which case we’ve spent a lot of time on something that isn’t effective.  Or if it will lead to buildings that unintentionally create more divisions, not fewer.  Or if it will work as the proponents hope – producing more AH units in a way that benefits  

An example of why I am concerned that we do not have a sense of how this change will play out is that the cities noted as examples to use in assessing this proposal.  All of the ones in the CDD memo as examples are not comparable to Cambridge.  I would have liked to understand how cities like Minneapolis, which recently changed their zoning, have fared.  The list includes cities of Austin TX, Salt Lake City UT, Los Gatos, and Corte Madera CA, Simsbury CT and Arlington County VA.  While that list is varied, the density of those cities is far below Cambridge – by a factor of 2, 8 or 25.  And the one closest in density to Cambridge, Arlington Country Virginia, has an AH project district that is restricted to corridors.  And the inclusionary rates and incentive rates in these cities are far below Cambridge.  Which means we are left not knowing how this change might play out – at least based on these examples presented as comparables which are not really comparable.  

This proposal has been debated for a long time and we are all weary.  I wish it had been amended, but it is now clear it will pass as is.  And the only unknown is whether it will pass with 7, 8 or 9 votes. I support the goals and wish the other proposals explored in the Envision Cambridge housing group and suggestions by others had been vetted.   

We cannot solve the housing crisis on our own.  AH is challenging and market forces are so strong, it is difficult to imagine whether this ordinance will change this enough to justify all the energy and concern.  At this point, that time and energy which I personally wish had been spent on other initiatives that appear to my analysis to have more potential, are sunk costs.  We need to move on and keep working to understand how best to address the issue of housing affordability.  The AHO may help somewhat, but everyone agrees it won’t solve the problem.  

Updates

Shared Streets:

As noted in last week’s email, the Shared Streets initiative is moving forward with a next phase. I support the goals, and I am concerned that we are conflating two distinct initiatives: one is to build a network of streets across the city for safer transit by cyclists.  The other is to provide a measure of safer outdoor activities since some places remain closed to recreation and walking with more distancing is important due to Covid 19.  The “shared streets” has blended those two goals, and it is not clear that is working well.  I am working to clarify, understand, and gather data to determine how best to address both needs.   

Early voting:

There are three early voting locations.  I voted at the Water Department on Fresh Pond Parkway.  It was easy, convenient, and very safe.  The three places are all accessible, large, well ventilated and everyone inside is masked-up.  

No-excuse Mail in Voting:

1. Complete a vote by mail application

2. Deliver your Application to the Cambridge Election Commission by email, mail or fax

  • The application must arrive by August 26th to vote by mail in the September 1st State Primary

  • The application must arrive by October 28th to vote by mail in the November 3rd State/Presidential Election

3. Vote when your ballot arrives

  • Ballots for the September 1st State Primary will be mailed beginning in early August

  • Ballots for the November 3rd State/Presidential election will be mailed beginning in early October

4. Return your ballot to the Cambridge Election Commission by 8 pm on Election Day

  • Mail: the envelopes will be addressed and postage is provided!

  • In-person/Drop-Box: The Election Commission has a ballot drop box located OUTSIDE  – no need to exit your car – Everyday from now until election day – 8am to 8pm outside 51 Inman Street

 5. Return your ballot to any of the early voting locations this week M-F 9:30 – 5 pm  there is a separate box at each early voting location for mail in ballots – you don’t have to wait in line.  

More Covid testing in Cambridge:

Cambridge Public Health Department is expanding its mobile testing by providing additional FREE testing slots next week at the King Open School, located at 850 Cambridge Street. The site will be open for testing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on: Monday, August 24; Tuesday, August 25; Thursday, August 26; and Friday, August 27. 

To schedule an appointment sign-up online – No identification or Social Security Number is required. Testing is for Cambridge residents only.

Above is a slide from last year’s plan to improve safety in the middle of Harvard Square. Construction was set to begin in June of this year – Covid has pushed it back. We need to move as quickly as possible to make this area safer and more accessible without any more delay. 

Many polling locations have changed!

A map of the updated election day polling locations. 

See the document here