What a first year as Councilor – a look back and ahead

Safely celebrating saying goodbye to 2020!

A year ago I was inaugurated into the City Council. At that time, I could never have imagined what the year would bring. Or what this week would bring – a seesaw of emotion all around. In just this week: Extremists, some waving Confederate flags, rioting inside the nation’s capital, spurred on by our Presidents and many elected members of Congress, seeking to overturn our democracy. Reaching the tragic milestone of more Americans dying daily from Covid-19 than died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. A state in the deep South elected a Black son of sharecroppers AND a Jewish son of immigrants to the United States Senate.

This year has brought unprecedented ups and downs at every level. I report in this email on my efforts at the local level, as a councillor – areas of focus and future work. Usually, I have many thoughts on the city council agenda – next week’s agenda is relatively light so there is not much to review but please reach out with any questions. This recap email is long, as was the year. And yet it still leaves out some of the efforts that I have worked on and written about in previous newsletters – including cannabis delivery, mask protocols, urging state actions, and more. As always, I welcome your ideas, comments, feedback, and questions. 

May this year be better than last – admittedly a low bar!

Patty

Topics covered below:

Covid19
Broadband
Gas pump labels
Armory/Tobin
Restaurant App Fees
Memorial Drive/Riverbend Park
Charter Review
Civil Service
Police Budget
Development in the city – Envision, the AHO and beyond

Covid-19

One cannot think of 2020 without thinking of Covid-19. There are myriad phrases we say now that a year ago would have been met with a puzzled look. [e.g. “Don’t forget your mask” “How about a zoom cocktail” “Do you think N95 is the best?” “How painful is the nose swab?”….] We’ve changed our lives in countless ways, and this crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better. Keep your masks on, visit with friends or families outside, wash hands frequently, and reach out to those you know and love (the US mail is a great way to touch someone….).

I have noted the toll of the coronavirus on all residents of all ages – mental health issues are at crisis levels. Seniors and those who live alone are lonely, isolated and many are despairing.  Pediatricians report skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression among children. We must do all we can to address those problems. And, we know so much more about the disease than even a few months ago. We know that there are ways to open schools safely and we know that our children must be in school if at all possible.  

The council work was focused on dealing with the coronavirus emergency for much of the year. So many people in the city stepped in and have worked 24/7. We are fortunate that we live in a city with a thriving commercial sector and home to elite higher education institutions – both of which are in good economic shape. And even here, there are thousands more residents who are food insecure, who do not have enough money for rent or mortgage payments, and hundreds of small businesses either struggling to survive or closing. We have done much, and there is still much more to do. 

And on the handling of the disease, we are also fortunate – we have free testing available 7 days a week (after the council pushed hard) with quick results (usually within 24 hours), hospital capacity is still reasonable, we have had far fewer deaths the last 6 months than many other cities. And we are also seeing the same disparities in impact – disproportionate numbers of low-income and people of color have gotten the virus and died.  

Our city, state, country, and world will eventually limp our way back to a new normal. The 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 working from home part-time will mean greater connections, not fewer. That carbon emissions will continue to decline, not accelerate. That the pain and fear will be acknowledged so it can be addressed. 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.    

Broadband:

Access to broadband, now more than ever before, should be seen as an essential utility that is available to all. 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 we have made on this issue, but I am extremely disappointed with the pace at which this has moved since last spring. As you may recall, after multiple policy orders and numerous meetings with city staff, the City Manager came back to the table with a proposal to use money from Free Cash for a study. However, after initially promising to have an RFP available by August, he has continuously delayed the process. 

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 a 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. I plan on continuing to push this issue and I will keep you updated on any progress I make. I remain hopeful, despite the delays, that the RFP will soon be available and I will be calling a committee meeting to discuss it when it is.  

Gas Pump Labels

I was excited to vote earlier this year on an ordinance requiring warning labels on gas pumps in Cambridge 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 – simple by enlarging the font size.  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 their 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.

Armory:

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. Since Covid struck, there have been delays in the Tobin project that have pushed back the final decision on the design. And as the National Guard was activated, the conversation around buying that Armory took a back seat. That said, even at the height of the pandemic, the largest national crisis in a generation, the property was not being heavily used. With this in mind, we have continued to push for the sale of that 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, and have a better design for the school complex, it would still be a huge win to secure a section of the parking lot.  

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 eight 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. 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. 

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:

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.” DCR had done stellar work around the Boston area opening up several streets and were open to doing the same on Memorial Drive. 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. Only last week did DCR announce that Riverbend Park would no longer be open on the weekends. However, the fact that we had the park open on weekends for so much of the year is a great start, and I am confident that we will be able to reopen it soon. Furthermore, 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. While there are, of course, traffic concerns, I believe that the best way to move forward would be to pilot an opening of more of Mem. Drive and see how it goes. 

We have access to one of the most beautiful waterfronts in the world – people should be able to use it!

Charter Review:

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. 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 city 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.   

I campaigned on good governance and my desire to take a closer look at the structures that have caused many in the city frustration in their work. If we can agree that our city, and the world, has changed dramatically since 1940, then we should be able to agree that our charter needs updating as well. After working with other councilors and the city to get folks on board with the idea, I have been working with the mayor to move forward with a charter review. After my recent policy order passed, the next step is for an initial study to be completed by the Collins Center. Despite a delay over the last few weeks, I expect the study to be underway soon. I am looking forward to seeing the initial results and working with the council to decide next steps.  

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 over the 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. 

Police Budget: 

In June of 2020, I was proud to be one of only three councilors to publicly support the policy order that noted the police department budget was 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 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. Just this week, a Public Safety Task Force was named by the City Manager, which will “…examine ways to reform community safety in Cambridge by mitigating police response to select calls for service, while enhancing community cohesion to include restorative process.” This task force presents a good opportunity for the city to take real, substantial action on the matter of community well-being. And I hope that we continue to work on ways to ensure that we are addressing the need to re-think, re-imagine, and re-allocate funds while the task force meets.  

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 committee meetings towards that end and look forward to the council continuing the work in the new year.  

Parts of the city continue to have major development proposals – notably East Cambridge and Alewife. A number of these developments are welcome. Biomed worked with the community and came forward with a proposal for a large building – AND a community space that garnered overwhelming support from our threatened and fragile arts community. I was happy to support this upzoning and believe the developer has done what should be done – work closely and transparently with the community. A major victory was the presentation of a financial analysis of how the additional financial benefit (increased floor area) compared to the community benefits (in this case a theater and performance space and public park). That is the type of good governance that will allow us to properly evaluate zoning proposals.  

By contrast, the CCF proposal to upzone a large chunk of the Alewife Quad area raises lots of questions for me and the council, and the community. To begin with, it is a complex proposition that started off on a shady and unfortunate foot when the developer decided to bring it forward as a “citizens petition.” In practice, this is a zoning petition for the Alewife Quad, brought forward by Cabot, Cabot, and Forbes, who own over half of the area covered by this petition. It is a complicated proposition: the petition currently before the Council 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 have a few serious concerns:

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 Plan are not addressed in this upzoning proposal.
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 nonstarter 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.  
Third, I believe strongly that the parcel needs to include public spaces. The connection of the area to the relatively unknown and little utilized Rafferty Park has to be clear, strong, and built into plans.  

The AHO decision was divisive and sadly saw our city model some of the polarization that we see play out on the national stage. I remain committed to a thoughtful approach to dealing with the affordable housing crisis. I documented my rationale for voting no on the AHO and I note that I would have voted for an AHO that was what Somerville passed. I hope we can learn from this experience and build more housing without such rancorous fights. I join the chorus of those who have pushed the city to identify sites we already own on which to build housing. That alone means more housing – since land acquisition costs are zero.  As we work in the new year, I hope that the city approaches affordable housing with an eye towards seeking to address the ongoing wealth gap in our community – beyond providing housing. Can we find a way to provide an opportunity to build wealth? There are many discussions to come, and I look forward to reviewing proposals, crafting solutions, and learning more about how to be effective in meeting our goals of increasing housing in the city.