Has it been only 6 months?!? A Wrap Up

Councillor Nolan in the Council Chamber

First: This email is relatively long (even for me) since I’ve tried to include an overview of what the council has done so far this term and issues on which I have focused more specifically. And, it’s been an all encompassing time, hence the length. Please read, comment, give feedback. 

I ran for City Council with a vision for bringing my experience and passion to working on a far wider range of issues than my School Committee work. As I wrap up my first six months, it’s hard to summarize the whirlwind of unexpected twists and turns and topsy-turviness of the last six months. Who could have predicted that within weeks of taking office, a virus that was starting to cause ripples of concern in the medical community would turn quickly into a global pandemic causing an economic and public health crisis. Which turned all attention in every area of local government to COVID-19 and its repercussions, impact and responses. And in the midst of this crisis, an outpouring of pain and anger over one more senseless death of an unarmed Black person ignited a firestorm of protest and activism.  

I feel lucky to be a councillor in Cambridge – where our response to COVID-19 allowed us to rally the community to raise millions in relief – for individuals, for small business, for non-profits – to mitigate the impact of this devastating situation. Yes, we could do better and yes there have been and continue to be missteps. AND, we are so much better off than most communities – since we are blessed with a strong economic engine driven by biotech, and our universities. We’ve all learned about flattening the curve of epidemics, the science of disease transmission, how to manage some social contact through video means, and the stark inequalities of our society became harder to ignore.  

An issue that continues to drive me to work hard on a better world – the climate crisis – has direct connections to the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. The intersectionality of how these issues relate to each other must not be ignored. The ongoing and worsening (despite emissions down dramatically in urban areas due to 80% reductions in traffic, the arctic permafrost is literally melting and plastic is literally drowning life as we know it) climate crisis affects frontline and marginalized communities the most – the same ones that are hardest hit by COVID-19. 

Sometimes I despair and sink deep into a fear that my own children – in just one generation – will be on an uninhabitable Earth. And yet, I have hope – the outrageously high levels of energy and youth activism around addressing the pandemics of racism, health disparities and environmental destruction are inspiring. 

With that in mind, get everyone you know to engage – to think deeply about how to have a positive impact – and however it can be done, reach out to others. Make sure they are ok, and encourage them to act – somehow, someway. Action is the best antidote to despair. On that note – I am working with a few others to get Black Lives Matter signs across our community while putting the money we raise towards Black-led organizations. Here is a link to “order” a sign – we will follow up with you once you fill out the form. 

Below are the main issues I want to highlight in summarizing my work. I have worked on a number of other items (such as: let’s unlock the golf course as open space). I am definitely keeping busy.  

  • COVID-19
  • Broadband
  • Tobin/Armory
  • Restaurant App fees (and eventually Pick-it-up)
  • Open streets/Mem Drive
  • City oversight and structure
  • Police budget
  • Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO)
  • Climate issues

Inman Square, reconfigured for outdoor dining

COVID-19:
COVID-19 has affected every area of life – and of city government. From health concerns to education to resident services to economic needs – every single area of city government was affected by the emergence of COVID-19. For example, collecting trash – the simplest and most basic of local government services. How to ensure the safety of workers? How to monitor the health of workers? Multiply that by a thousand and you begin to understand how many things in the city had to be adjusted. Every issue below has now become more important to address during the crisis. The climate emergency and air pollution contributing directly to spread, reshaping our transit landscape.  

Every meeting since early March has focused on how to respond to the pandemic. I’ve been busy in Council with a wide range of policy orders led by myself and my colleagues. And not directly related, I helped organize frontline relief by raising money to spend in local restaurants to feed frontline workers (more on that below) and worked to gather volunteers for other efforts. Many of you helped in so many ways – we can be proud of what we have done, and recognize we need to keep it up, since the pandemic is still here and the threat of backsliding on our numbers of transmission is still very much real.

There is also opportunity stemming from the crisis – we better understand how to reach vulnerable populations, since the CEOC and Food For Free and The Department of Human Services worked overtime to reach out and ensure that residents were helped. The lessening of traffic has opened up a chance for us to re-think the use of public space. So much of publicly owned land in the city are streets – which have been allocated to vehicles. Now some are being temporarily used for outdoor dining and retail – to increase the safety of customers and staff. Might those changes be made permanent? Even here in New England, we might see outdoors be used for a broader set of needs than before.   

Broadband:
One of the issues that I campaigned on – and have been working on since day 1 in office – is reliable access to affordable internet across the entire city. There has been a fight over the past five years to get the City Manager to allocate funding for a broadband feasibility study, but he had refused to do so until now. I was the lead sponsor of two orders pushing for the feasibility study. And, along with five of my colleagues, voted against the IT budget with a clear message that funding for broadband was needed. My resolute insistence that this issue be raised at every budget hearing ensured the matter was not forgotten. Several colleagues pushed hard as well and we succeeded! The City Manager, after many meetings and discussions, came back to the table with a proposal to use money from Free Cash next fall for a study. This was exciting news! Upgrade Cambridge was instrumental in keeping this issue front and center and I worked closely with them to pursue this goal. This is a full-fledged feasibility study of municipal broadband! 

Note this is only one more step – it means we will do a study and that will recommend next steps. Depending on results, we may see a full municipal broadband network funded by subscriber fees and give residents an alternative to Xfinity/Comcast or a different way to achieve better internet throughout the city. I am excited since it is another example of how citizen engagement, solid research, persistent pushing and local leadership work. This is a big step towards digital equity in our city!  As with every issue, the Covid-19 affected the urgency – thousands of students need access to relatable internet to access school. And thousands of residents need access for job search, or to do their jobs. Affordable broadband access has to be treated as a necessary utility.  

Tobin/Armory:
The Tobin/Vassal Lane project has been a long process up to this point, and we are still a ways away from breaking ground. I was involved in this before I started on the Council, but since January I have had the opportunity to be more involved on the city-side and push for the changes that I believe the community is looking for. The questions raised have only become more pressing in the four months since COVID hit. Many people have asked me about the timeline and cost of the project, along with the feasibility of wading into a $250 million project during a pandemic. I am the chair of The Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee and I held a meeting this week (was originally scheduled for mid-March) to discuss “the timeline, scope, and budget of the Tobin/Vassal Lane School Project, including updates on the Armory property, and how it fits into the long-term plan for all school buildings in the City to accommodate expected enrollment changes over the next 10 to 20 years.”  You can watch a recap of the meeting here (discussion on Tobin starts about 35 minutes in) – one main takeaway is that, in an attempt to avoid disrupting the school year for students at Tobin even more, the timeline has been pushed back one year. The design has not been finalized, and there will still be chances to provide feedback and voice concern (the next meeting is on July 29th at 5:30 – you can join the meeting here). 

One aspect that I have spent ample time on since January is acquiring the Armory property. As it stands, the National Guard is not interested in giving up that parcel of land, and they have gone as far as claiming they use the site regularly, especially during the pandemic. (If you have seen a single person at that site in the last year, please let me know). However, we are continuing to push, and there is hope for at least part of the site. 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 storm water mitigation, and create an opportunity for more fluid transit. On that note, it is worth pointing out that the next phase of the project includes a traffic study, including using phone data pre-pandemic to understand how people moved around the site pre-covid. The city will also share data from schools with increased enrollment (MLK, King) with the traffic engineers to improve traffic flow at the Tobin site. We also got a guarantee that they will do “everything they can” to preserve all trees on the site, especially the large ones along Vassal Lane. There is one tree in the front of the building that was planted after 9/11 that they believe might have to come down, but otherwise they feel confident in the rest staying untouched.  

Restaurant app fees:
One problem in our community and across the country that I have spent a lot of time on since March is the dominance of third party delivery services. While people have started to go back to restaurants, it will be a long time before dine-in capacity will look the same as it did pre-pandemic. Take-out and delivery will remain a large part of restaurants’ revenue for the foreseeable future. But the dominance of four delivery companies – DoorDash, GrubHub, UberEats, and Postmates – has made this situation untenable for many of our beloved restaurants. It pains me that the sharp decrease in patrons during this pandemic has caused many local establishments that play a large role in our community to go out of business.

Here is the dilemma: 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. In 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. 

It is important to understand that the four major delivery companies dominate the industry – accounting for 98% of the delivery market – and they 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 this effort led to Pick it up Local, an initiative from the city to inform residents of the negative impact that ordering with delivery has. I will continue to promote picking up from local restaurants while also pushing for real legislation to help end the dominance of the third party services. 

Sub-topic on helping restaurants:  Feed our Frontline Cambridge
In another effort to support local business in Cambridge, along with the frontline heroes working in Cambridge hospitals, I teamed up with Jen Fries, Sarah Block and Kim Green Goldstein and Feed the Fight Boston to buy fresh meals from Cambridge restaurants and deliver them to the hardworking hospital staff. We raised just under $25,000 to provide over 2,500 meals!  The effort has winded down, since systems are in place to distribute food to workers – and much of the current efforts now focus on getting food to the hardest hit communities like Chelsea.  Cambridge Mutual Aid is doing stellar work in this area. Thanks to all of you who donated!! We made a difference.

Open Streets and Memorial Drive:
At the beginning of April, I was a co-sponsor of 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. This would have provided more space, but the City Manager thought it would “encourage block parties.” It is clear now, four months into a new way of living, that this pandemic gives all of us in government the chance to consider positive and necessary changes, especially on the local level. We can’t “return to normal,” since people are taking the MBTA less and any additional cars on our streets will cause immense congestion and air pollution (which evidence shows significantly increases coronavirus infections). So we must think of solutions. 

While I wish it happened sooner, I am glad that the city is attempting to re-imagine our public spaces, including some of our streets. That being said, I recognize that the current implementation of “Shared Streets” in Cambridge is unsatisfactory. I have been on all of the shared streets – Garden, Harvard and Magazine – and have seen first-hand the problems you mentioned. Many cities across the country have implemented shared streets successfully, so what do we have to do differently? I will be advocating for a review with community input and I want us to look more closely at other cities and see what lessons may be learned from their experience. Cities like Oakland and New York are doing mass street closures, while Somerville and Boston have done just a few. I look forward to learning from their experience and getting it right here in Cambridge as well. The goal, while more important than ever, remains the same as it was pre-pandemic: build city infrastructure to encourage transit that is not in single occupancy vehicles. 

Finally, I am glad we were able to expand Memorial Drive closures to both Saturday and Sunday – I hope that moving forward we will continue to close Memorial Drive to cars more often, and look closely at taking a lane and closing it to cars full time. 

City oversight and structures:
The city has changed over time to accommodate best practices as it relates to governance. I am committed to reviewing the ways we do business, since that is good governance, and too often we are too busy dealing with short term needs to step back and assess the larger picture. I will be thinking about ways to contribute to a comprehensive review of our policies and practices. 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. I hope the report is delivered as requested in September and we can engage in a discussion of whether to exit the system. My research indicates that this system, which worked well for many decades protecting civil servants, now stymies attempts to hire a more diverse workforce and ensure accountability.   

Police Budget: 
The last six weeks have pushed us all, no matter our position in the world, to do more. To better understand the pervasive nature of racism in our society, and do everything in our power to fight back against it. Dismantling the systems of power that uphold racism is not easy, but we have seen the effects of a mass movement in a short period of time. Both here and Cambridge and across the country, we have already seen things begin to change. And we have so much work still to do. While most of the council – including myself – voted in favor of the police department budget at the beginning of May, we had the chance to revisit our vote after the Murder of George Floyd. We witnessed millions of people around the country march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which called for people to look closely at their local city and town’s police department policies and budget. Here in Cambridge, thousands of people heeded that call, and voiced their support for reviewing and reallocating funds. 

I was proud to be one of just three councilors that publicly supported the policy order that noted the police department budget is scheduled to increase by $4.1 million and asked the City Manager to report on how those dollars might be “…redirected to measures that promote public health and safety in other departments.” One specific way I advocated for starting a reallocation of funds from policing to the community was to hold off on filling any vacant positions within the police department, and use those funds to begin immediately filling the new positions in the budget for next year, including a housing liaison, directly tied to community needs. In the end, a compromise was reached, and $2.5 million was held from the FY21 Police budget to fill a number of open positions in social work and elsewhere. This version of the order was voted on unanimously. 

I will note that we did not handle the controversy well.  Emotions are understandable, and still leaders should model respectful behavior.  Unfortunately in my opinion, some councillors and the Commissioner got upset and were disrespectful of each other and of some members of the public.  We must do better.  

I saw – and continue to see- this moment as a historical moment, during which Cambridge should lead. I know that our commissioner, the full council and the city administration are all on board with the goal of addressing systemic racism and being forward thinking. We don’t disagree on goals, so now we need to have dialogue about how to proceed. And I expect and hope that these conversations will continue, so that next year there will be greater changes in the police department budget and allocation of resources across the city. I am ready to start that process immediately, and along with other councillors and community members, plan on starting the budget process far earlier this year.  My full statement on this item.

Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) 
The Affordable Housing Overlay is once again up for consideration. Without question, Cambridge needs to invest in more affordable housing. However, after almost two years of discussion, there remains a lack of clarity around the number of additional units expected due to the overlay. Without data-based analysis on the projected outcome of the AHO, it’s challenging to evaluate how the proposal will impact the city. As I have continued to dig into the weeds of this proposal, I have also spent time talking to housing activists, affordable housing developers, and city staff (in both Cambridge and around the Boston area), and there seems to be a consensus that the AHO would not have the impact that many residents expect. I remain committed to finding a solution that prioritizes affordability while also acknowledging the importance of sustainability, livability, and good urban planning. Recently I have been exploring ways in which we can modify the current overlay to produce a greater number of total units overall and promote green building practices that are in line with the city’s sustainability commitments. I am especially interested in seeing if there are ways we could promote home ownership – not just building affordable rental units.  Especially since wealth creation is something that holds back far too many people and housing instability comes too often directly from rents that change, might we re-think and re-imagine the way we promote affordable housing?  

It would be irresponsible to adopt a major change without knowing alternatives and understanding potential consequences. I plan on working more with the CDD and my colleagues to pass legislation that is sound and effective, and then moving on to other strategies to increase and preserve affordable housing in the city. 

Climate
One of the main tenets of my campaign was fighting the climate emergency that we are in the midst of. I have always thought that Cambridge leads on climate issues, and yet we could and should be doing so much more. When I started as a Councillor, I had to ask for the city data dashboard on sustainability to be updated and even the city’s own emissions goals, which the city 100% controls, are not being met. We are far behind on the solar goals we laid out, and we are overdeveloping on known floodplains. These are all issues that I will continue to press on because it will be difficult to get anything positive done for our city if we are underwater in a few decades. 

I spent time talking to folks from EnvironmentMASS and VoteSolar on how we can be increasing our solar capacity here in Cambridge. I plan on changing the energy system we have to an opt-out program, so the default is the 100% green plus plan, and people can opt-out if they want. 

Additionally, I am working with a few colleagues towards a gas ban, to prevent any new buildings from being hooked up to the pipeline infrastructure that we are trying to get rid of. We must move our society towards electric – and source that energy from wind and solar, and by ensuring that no new pipelines are built in our city, we are taking a step in that direction.

A beer with my son, outdoors in Harvard Square!

Eloise the Ninja cat, always ready to help me get through emails