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PSNA October 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 7:00pm

Porter Square Neighbors Association
North Cambridge Senior Center
2050 Massachusetts Avenue

AGENDA

* 1791 Mass Ave
* Candidates' Forum Wrap-Up
* Accountability

1791 MASS AVE

Developers Sean Hope and Jason Korb presented preliminary plans for an affordable housing development at 1791 Massachusetts Avenue. This is a slight update to a presentation at ANC, and drew a number of follow-up questions from that meeting.

The project website at http://1791massave.com has drawings and minutes from previous meetings and various other materials. Summarizing, the plan is for 40 units (12 1-bedroom, 13 2-bedroom, and 12 3-bedroom apartments, all affordable), preservation of historic structures on the site, and a 5-story (partially 4-story) additional building between them. Only 3 parking spaces are provided for required accessible parking (all units in the building will be accessible by wheelchair, and 3 will be fully accessible, with lower counters etc.)

There were lively discussions of two main topics: the very substantial up-zoning, and the deliberate omission of parking.

The project is in the Residence B zoning district, which allows far fewer units than the planned 40. The deveopers plan to ask for relief from this in a comprehensive permit hearing at the Board of Zoning Appeals. Some felt that such a major zoning change is properly the business of the City Council, not the BZA. (The BZA has taken similar positions in the past.) On the other side, it was pointed out that the current Residence B zoning is an anomoly; almost all the rest of Massachusetts Avenue is zoned commercial.

The second big issue is the lack of parking. The developers admit that some number of residents will own cars and seek to park them in the neighborhood. They will do what they can to encourage alternatives, such as offering free T passes, but they can't control tenant's car ownership. They stated that they can't add underground parking without increasing rents above affordable housing caps, and they poined out that Porter Square is an ideal site for a car-free lifestyle.

The comprehensive permit hearing is not yet scheduled, but is hoped for in November. It should be interesting.

CANDIDATES' FORUM WRAP-UP

The City Council Candidates' Forum, was held Wednesday, one day earlier. It was sponsored by PSNA and the Agassiz Baldwin Community, with additional support from the Ward 10 Democratic Committee, the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, and the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee. Lesley University graciously donated their auditorium in University Hall, and CCTV taped and will broadcast the forum. (CCTV also offers a live show the night of the election.) Once again, Alice Wolf moderated and Susana Segat kept time. Thanks to all!

More detail about the forum is given below.

Overall the forum was a great success. The hall was full to overflowing, and several candidates told us that it was by far the best audience they had encountered. We were struck also by the presence of all age groups both among the candidates and in the audience.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Accountability of both developers and city officials for following through on promises has gotten considerable attention in PSNA recently. While several of the Forum candidates chose to addess the accountability topic, only one of them made a concrete proposal, and that one was quite radical (completely replace the "strong city manager" form of government.) During discussion at the PSNA meeting, Alice Wolf pointed out two less radical corrections, namely for the City Council to appoint the various boards and commissions rather than the City Manager, and/or for the Mayor to be elected directly. These would still require a charter revision, no small matter, but could go a long way to give citizens a stronger voice in how the city is run.

FORUM DETAILS

The Forum was organized by a steering committee from PSNA (John Howard, Susan Hunziker), ABC (Phoebe Sinclair), Ward 10 Democratic Committee (Ruth Ryals), and ACN (Gary Dmytryk), plus moderator Alice Wolf and timer Susana Segat. NCSC also helped with publicity. We met in the spring, early fall, and one week before the event, to define a general format, develop publicity, and select the questions to the candidates.

In order to deal with the large number of candidates, we divided them into three panels of about 7 each. Rather than taking questions from the floor, we developed a list of topic areas using neighborhood poll for both suggestions and prioritization. We asked each candidate to choose just one topic of particular interest and to present a specific proposal they expect to bring to the City Council. Thus we hoped to learn both what their priorities are and whether they have a practical, actionable program for addressing them. We also asked each candidate to tell us their abilities, knowledge, priorities, and experience with consensus-building.

We chose the topics with an online poll, starting with a list of proposals and asking for preferences and additional suggestions. About 45 people responded. Both the counts and their suggestions significantly influenced the final list of topic areas:

* Accountability: What mechanisms would you propose to hold city officials and developers accountable for their promises around development projects in the city? How should the city council insure that developers deliver what they promise, and that city ordinances are enforced?

* Housing: What are the key issues with housing in Cambridge and how do you propose to address them?

* Climate change: What specific actions would you take to ensure that the City has resilience in light of environmental changes and/or catastrophic weather?

* Social safety net: What are the holes in our safety net and what would you propose to mend them?

* Congestion: Specifically what would you do to improve the balance between the competing needs of drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transit users?

By my count, five candidates addressed accountability, one each addressed climate and congestion, six addressed housing, and five the social safety net. I felt that about half of them offered substantive proposals, seven more offered something minor or vague, and three ducked completely. On the second question, six candidates gave what I felt were strong evidence of successful consensus building, five gave some, and five gave nothing substantive. Seven candidates did not participate. Two who did were so woefully unprepared that they shouldn't have. Overall, I view think the questions did elicit a lot of information about the candidates, both positive and negative.