“Missing Middle” Initial Thoughts

Cambridge’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance famously requires 20% subsidized housing in developments of ten or more units, but it does not apply to infill development of less than 10 units. As currently written, the new Missing Middle Zoning Petition takes advantage of this to incentivize small infill development without offering a mechanism for creating any subsidized housing. This proposal would also erode the advantage the Affordable Housing Overlay was designed to confer to nonprofit housing developers in our city. If the petition is successful it will generate 100% market rate (luxury priced) infill development while rendering the AHO less effective and accelerating condo conversion. This is an unacceptable classist and racist outcome.

The goal of ending single family zoning is laudable and something I support, and I have long been a proponent of eliminating parking minimums, but this petition takes a hammer to the zoning code with sweeping disregard for the most vulnerable neighborhoods in our city. Zoning has long been a tool of oppression and racism, but it is misguided to think that we can undo those long entrenched patterns by deregulating the zoning code for market rate housing only. Right now in neighborhoods like the Port and Wellington Harrington, we are seeing a few developers convert large amounts of rental housing into expensive condos. This proposal would accelerate that pattern, which would be devastating for our city. As Black Response Cambridge pointed out in a recent op ed,“history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes”. In her most recent oped, movement leader Stephanie Guirand makes it abundantly clear that low-income and Black and Brown people are being left behind permanently by this zoning petition. I still have not seen any substantive proposals for how to address the legitimate racial and economic justice concerns that have been raised, even after several community leaders have spoken out in opposition.

Upzoning an already dense, expensive housing market full of vulnerable renters is a dangerous game, especially without any legitimate tenant protections or stronger condo conversion restrictions. Without an inclusionary component the proposal will only drive up land values and housing costs in this already overheated market, and that is unacceptable because it will cause harm. By adding an inclusionary requirement for smaller developments as part of this upzoning, we could mitigate some of this harm, while creating more affordable homeownership opportunities for longtime residents of historically oppressed and neglected neighborhoods in our city. This is one way to begin to actually counter the historical injustice of redlining.

Here is my proposed amendment:

  1. On any lot, a certain minimum number of new Dwelling Units built shall be owner-occupied Affordable Dwelling Units (Affordable Home Ownership Units), subject to all applicable affordable housing laws and regulations, including and not limited to the applicable provisions of Section 11.203 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance (Inclusionary Housing).
  2. The number of Affordable Home Ownership Units that are required to be produced are as follows: 
Total Newly Constructed Dwelling UnitsAffordable Home Ownership Units
11
21
31
41
52
62
72
83
93
10 or moreAs determined by Section 11.200 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance (INCENTIVE ZONING AND INCLUSIONARY HOUSING)

Opposition to Alewife Upzoning

Here are 5 reasons why Councillor Zondervan is not ready to move ahead with the proposed upzoning in the Alewife Quadrangle:

1. There is no guarantee of a bridge.

CC&F talks big about building a bridge across the commuter rail tracks, but this language allows them to get out of that by making a financial payment. Without a guarantee that the bridge will be built, it is sometimes hard to understand why we are spending so much time on this proposal. The developer hasn’t even secured key permits and easements with the MBTA, adding significant uncertainty. Even if this bridge were to get built, it isn’t in an ideal location- it is sited to primarily serve the developer’s tenants, rather than the public interest.

A map of the Alewife area, including the “Quadrangle” (blue) and the “Triangle” (orange) which are separated by commuter rail tracks. The zoning proposal in front of the council proposes an upzoning of much of the Quadrangle in exchange for the bridge across the tracks.

2. Too much parking.

The proposed 85-foot tall above ground parking garage is simply unacceptable from a climate perspective. Traffic is already famously bad in the area and we need to reduce the number of cars that come into our city. The developer’s insistence on a 700+ car garage makes connectivity feel like less of a priority. I asked them to build more housing instead of the massive garage, but they don’t seem to be willing to move in that direction. I appreciate their commitment to rooftop solar, but that does not make the parking structure acceptable.

The proposal to develop 16+ acres in the Quadrangle, including with an 85-foot above ground parking garage which would worsen area traffic and counteract our climate goals.

3. Subverted process.

The developer went to the nearby rock gym to collect signatures of registered voters in order to submit the upzoning as a citizens’ petition instead of having to engage in contract zoning with the council. It is unclear if those who signed were even aware of what they were signing since none of them have shown up to our meetings, which is highly unusual. Why isn’t this a PUD? Through this trick, the developer is able to offer community benefits based on just ⅔ of the land being upzoned, and if the developer were to buy the adjoining parcels they would get the upzoning without having to provide any additional benefit.

4. Cherrypicking the Alewife District Plan.

Ironically, the city’s Envision Alewife process led to a near consensus on preserving the light industrial nature of this area. But the market pressure is all about building high-end laboratory/office space, because that commands the highest rents. The CC&F proposal pretends to honor the light-industrial buildings envisioned in Alewife, but is mostly focused on collecting the high rents of laboratory/office space.  The proposal does not reduce dependency on automobile traffic as Envision calls for. CC&F has not grappled with questions around public amenities or the open space network that Envision calls for, to reduce heat and flooding impacts of climate change.

Recommendations from the city’s Alewife District Plan (page 10) which the developer has chosen to only partially follow. We should create zoning off of our planning, instead of accepting zoning from a developer that cherrypicks our planning.

5. A worthless financial analysis.

The analysis we were initially presented with showed a -$3M net value for the proposed upzoning, which didn’t make any sense. That value is the assumed increased value of the upzoning minus the assumed costs to the developer including community benefits. It defies belief that the developer would go through the trouble of filing this petition four times at a net loss compared to what they could do building as-of-right. CDD said the initial analysis was done without the commitment letter, so there was no way to actually know the true costs of the community benefits to the developer. We received the letter on Monday (2/16) and it shows a much lower estimated cost for the bridge by millions of dollars. CDD will have to redo their analysis.

The developer’s presentations have made the bridge a primary focus of this proposal (just look at this title slide from their December 16 powerpoint). Moving ahead without a guarantee of its construction would be a disservice to the public.

11/16/20 Council Catch-up

Closing indoor spaces

 I strongly stand with the Mayor and Vice Mayor in prioritizing closures of indoor spaces like bars and gyms ahead of the schools. Cambridge needs to lead here to save lives. We should be clear with the City Manager that we need a relief program and these spaces need to close immediately. It was frustrating that this important discussion got charter righted into next week because time is of the essence when dealing with exponential growth.

Asking for weekly COVID updates

Cases are on the rise here in Cambridge and across the state. In response, I called on the City Manager to start delivering weekly updates on the city’s COVID-19 response during council meetings, as opposed to the less frequent updates that we had slipped into. Here’s a clip of what I said:

Extending Memorial Drive closures

One policy order from Monday’s agenda called for an extension of the popular Memorial Drive closures, which normally end in November. Many residents have called for an extension due to the pandemic. We need to maximize open space and opportunities to get exercise and fresh air outside while maintaining social distancing requirements. I have previously called for Memorial Drive to be shut down entirely, but the least we can do is extend the current weekend closures.

Some of my colleagues who were unsupportive pointed to young people not wearing their masks properly outdoors as a cause of the recent spike. It is important to recognize that outdoor transmission is not considered to be a driver of the pandemic, and every bit of scientific evidence we have points to indoor transmission as the culprit. 

One of my colleagues exercised their charter right on this policy order and it won’t be considered until next Monday. Watch my take on this here:

Tree Protection Ordinance update

Lasting changes to the Tree Protection Ordinance have advanced to the Ordinance Committee. At the recent meeting, I proposed a two-month extension to the current regulations around tree cutting to ensure there is no gap in coverage. If this change is adopted, current restrictions will not expire until the end of February, 2021. More details in the video:

Support for 32BJ SEIU

 I strongly support the workers of the 32BJ SEIU labor union as they demand a fair contract with no layoffs from Harvard. These workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, protecting our entire community from the virus. I am calling on Harvard University to do right by these fine folks as one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. I have sent a letter to President Bacow about this.

Update on Tree Protections

I recently chaired a hearing of the Health & Environment Committee to restart discussions around amending the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance.

How we got here

This discussion began in earnest back in 2017 with a policy order from then-councillor Jan Devereux, which resulted in the creation of a task force charged with looking at ways to better protect the urban tree canopy. The Urban Forestry Master Plan Task Force finished meeting in 2019, and though consultants delivered an excellent presentation to the Health & Environment Committee in a November 2019 hearing, the discussion was ultimately sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of a new council term.

Early on in their deliberations, the task force received an infamous report from the city stating that based on LiDAR data collected over time, the city’s tree canopy had declined by nearly 20% since 2009. This data confirmed a long suspected trend and brought a new level of urgency to the discussion. Last term in response to this new information, which also revealed that most of the loss had occurred on private property within the city, the council approved an amendment I introduced to the Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) to create a new permitting requirement for cutting any significant tree on private property, as well as a one-year moratorium on issuing such permits (with exemptions for dead or dangerous trees). This had an immediate cooling effect on the destruction of healthy trees in our city, as anticipated.

The purpose of the “tree moratorium”, as it has come to be known, is to prevent as much canopy loss as possible while new regulations are implemented based on the findings of the task force. Trees are one of the only irreplaceable elements of our urban landscape; if a 50-year old tree is cut for convenience sake, it will take 50 years to replace what was lost. There are no shortcuts, and each unnecessary loss is devastating for our city. When it became clear this past February that the process was delayed to the point where the council would not have a chance to incorporate findings into the existing Tree Protection Ordinance ahead of the moratorium’s expiration date, I led the effort to extend it for another year (we got that done just before the pandemic hit).

Proposed long term changes

Of course, reversing our canopy loss requires a comprehensive strategy that goes far beyond changing the city’s laws. But strengthening the existing Tree Protection Ordinance is one of the most immediate and direct interventions we can make as a City Council, and changes are long overdue. Here is a list of the key changes being proposed:

  • Expand the ordinance to cover all private properties (including affordable housing)
  • Redefine what it means to be a significant tree, lowering the threshold from 8 inches in diameter down to 6 inches
  • Extend special protections to all trees 30 inches or larger (often referred to as “legacy”, “exceptional”, or “heritage” trees)
  • Change and adjust mitigation requirements for cutting down a healthy tree
  • Require a city arborist’s inspection prior to occupancy for large projects
  • Establish a tree trust and ensure tree replacement funds are spent on enhancing our canopy in an equitable way
This slide from the city’s presentation really shows just how much of our canopy is rooted in private land (pink is private property, green is public)

The biggest challenge is finding a way to prevent large trees from being cut down while further incentivizing planting and preservation. While it is easy to say that no healthy, significant trees should ever be cut down on private property, the task force cautions that such a policy could stymie new plantings. They found that we would need to plant 2,750 trees annually just to reduce the amount of canopy loss we are experiencing by 50%, yet we currently plant less than half that amount each year on public land. Our ability to increase the number of trees planted each year is limited by opportunity rather than funding, as most remaining opportunities to plant are on private land. For this reason, finding ways to get property owners to plant as many new trees as possible is key to our success. The city has proposed three primary mitigation strategies for consideration:

  1. A “one for one” replacement policy, in which a tree of any size that is cut down must be replaced by a single new tree. Obviously this policy would not take into account the size and age of the tree being cut down, and would always result in a net canopy loss.
  2. A “some for one” replacement policy, in which replacement and mitigation is determined by the trunk diameter of the tree being lost. This recognizes that bigger, older trees are more valuable.
  3. A hybrid of the first two options in which additional consideration is given to where the trees are planted. If the trees are replanted on private property, then the replacement would be based on 50% of the diameter of the tree trunk instead of 100%
A more detailed explanation of option 3, the “hybrid option”, from the city’s presentation.

In addition to those options, the city has presented three additional mitigation tools for us to consider:

  1. Requiring additional mitigation of 1.5x the diameter for “exceptional trees”
  2. Allowing alternative mitigation (things that provide shade that aren’t trees) on certain smaller properties
  3. Determining mitigation by a “trunk area formula” instead of the diameter of the tree trunk. 

There’s no one simple solution to this conundrum, and any cocktail of mitigation strategies we employ must be accompanied by more resident education and support. The general population is not very well educated on the importance of trees to human health and safety. This needs to be remedied, both in our public school curriculum and general outreach. 

We also need to support property owners in making good decisions about their piece of our shared canopy. That includes helping them make decisions on appropriate species to plant, optimal planting location(s), and financial assistance not only with planting but also with maintenance of the tree. We can even provide trees to property owners from our bare root nursery.

Time is of the essence

COVID-19 and other council priorities have delayed the continuing of this discussion until now, and the moratorium currently in place expires on December 31, 2020. Thanks to the hard work of the UFMP task force and DPW we are very well positioned to make timely updates to the TPO, but we want to make sure we get it right and give ourselves enough time to do so. The next committee discussion on this topic will take place on November 10 at 10 AM, and we should actually have ordinance language available at that meeting to advance to the full council for a hearing in the Ordinance committee. If you’re interested in this topic, please send us your thoughts ahead of the next hearing. You can email council@cambridgema.gov (be sure to copy clerk@cambridgema.gov so your testimony gets entered into the official record).

Rest assured, this council will not invite a tree cutting frenzy by letting what is currently in place expire for any length of time before the long term protections are in place- I will propose an additional (short) extension to the moratorium if necessary!

Committee Hearing on Municipal Broadband & Digital Equity

The council recently met to discuss issues of digital equity and municipal broadband, coincidentally six years to the day that the city’s Broadband Task Force was initially appointed.

Last June, after many years of grassroots activism and a “NO” vote on the IT Department budget by six members of the City Council, City Manager DePasquale finally agreed to move ahead with a broadband feasibility study. At the time, he stated that an appropriation for the money needed to conduct such a study would appear on a council agenda sometime this fall, so I am very grateful to Councillor Nolan for chairing this hearing as a means to continue the dialog and seek accountability on this critically important issue.

If you’d like to support ongoing efforts to move Cambridge forward on municipal broadband, consider becoming a member of Upgrade Cambridge today!

Last term, an inside-outside strategy of activism reignited the conversation around digital equity and municipal broadband in our city. Activists applied an unprecedented amount of grassroots pressure through the creation of Upgrade Cambridge, while I led on a series of committee hearings and policy orders that forced the conversation inside city hall. These collective efforts allowed us to break the stalemate that had existed in the years following the September 2016 release of the final recommendations of the Broadband Task Force, which included proceeding with a “highly focused, broadly inclusive” feasibility study on municipal broadband. While the entire task force was supportive of this recommendation, the City Manager was adamantly opposed.

Digital equity and municipal broadband are interrelated but ultimately distinct issues which each need to be addressed. Our efforts last term resulted in an appropriation from City Manager DePasquale to support a 12-month digital equity research initiative and the creation of a new Digital Equity Advisory Board. I want to be clear, however, that my policy order asked for far more than simply another study. The order laid out four specific policy goals (one of which was a clear quantitative & qualitative understanding of the digital divide in our city) and asked City Manager DePasquale to develop a plan to achieve all four of them. It also put the council on record in explicit support of four aspirational goals, which included achieving universal affordable broadband access in Cambridge by 2025. Both the policy order and the unanimous council vote could not have been more clear, so it is frustrating that only one small piece of the order has been partially addressed with the digital equity study and advisory group. We didn’t need to spend two years doing another study, but here we are. And by the way, we still haven’t received the outcomes of that study or any detailed update on its progress, nearly two years after the council appropriated $150,000 to pay for it.

Several difficult conversations with constituents last term helped me more fully appreciate the grim realities of our city’s infamous Comcast monopoly. I spoke with a recent CRLS graduate of color who had experienced inconsistent internet access at home during their four years, which often forced them to rely on their friends or the wifi connection at Starbucks. I also spoke with senior public housing residents who described Skyping with loved ones and preparing taxes in common areas of their building that afforded little privacy, because that was the only place they could access the internet. These anecdotes underscored what was already apparent: that our collective decision to treat the internet as a premium service rather than as a utility afforded to everybody has created a vast digital divide in our city, with striking disproportionate impacts on our most vulnerable residents.

I am heartened by the City Manager’s newfound willingness to move ahead with the municipal broadband feasibility study following the digital equity efforts that began last term. Particularly encouraging is the city’s decision to hire Patrick McCormick as our new CIO. Patrick served on the original Broadband Task Force and brings extensive and specific expertise which was previously missing from the city administration. 

At this most recent hearing, the council gave city staff the clarity they need to come back with an appropriation for the broadband feasibility study, hopefully in the next few weeks. I remain deeply appreciative of Councillor Nolan’s persistence and insistence that we move this forward in her role as chair of the Neighborhood & Long Term Planning Committee (I chaired that committee last term). And in the meantime, we all await the results of the digital equity study with bated breath.

The $1 billion racist budget that floats above reality

This was the most discussed budget process in recent memory, one that will surely be remembered for its uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic recession, and the national uprising against the racial injustice and police brutality that has plagued American society for far too long. It will also be remembered for how difficult it is to undo centuries of racism, even here in liberal Cambridge.

Start with the intro (after the picture) or jump to my thoughts on:

  1. Cambridge Police Department
  2. Cambridge Public Schools
  3. IT Department (municipal broadband)
  4. A look ahead (next year’s budget and beyond)
This is a billion dollar budget that floats above reality.

We rightfully gave the most scrutiny to the Police Department this year, but the entire budget is racist. To be clear, when I say that a department or institution is racist, I do not mean that the individuals working for or in that institution are individually bad people. That is a favorite misunderstanding of those who want to ignore racism. Unfortunately, that denial is the heartbeat of racism, as Ibram X. Kendi says. As a society we need to correctly understand the word ‘racist’ not as a slur or an insult, but as a labeling of the outcomes that are produced.

I want to be clear and upfront about the fact that I voted against this budget, just as I did last year. This post contains my reasons for doing so, including my take on some individual sections that need your attention. Despite my vote, I appreciate all the hard work that goes into preparing our budget, and I recognize that we’ve made progress since last year. The fact that we are now openly and more correctly talking about the racism that pervades our entire city budget is progress in itself.

As the late African American writer James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”. For the first time in a long time we are facing our racism as a society, and doing the work to change it. I’m committed to spending the next 12 months making sure we are not faced with another racist budget next year.

Approving the budget is the single most consequential decision the council makes each year, and our process needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with the fact that we don’t even begin formally discussing the budget until weeks before it must be decided on. To move forward in a way that is explicitly anti-racist, we must truly examine every department in our city including through an enhanced, extended budget process with more public input. I am committed to doing this work, and this post also looks ahead to how we will get there. As always, do not hesitate to reach out directly to discuss anything on your mind.

Cambridge Police Department

The murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020 was the spark that set the country ablaze with righteous anger. This has become a long overdue national reckoning on racial injustice, and Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and I made sure Cambridge took part in the conversation to fundamentally rethink the role of policing in our cities.

In solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and their national call to defund the police, we introduced a policy order asking the City Manager to re-allocate $4.1 million away from the Cambridge Police Department and towards high-priority community needs in other departments.

$4.1 million is the difference between the projected expenditures for the police in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020 ($61.8 million) and the proposed budget for the police department starting the next fiscal year on July 1st, 2020 ($65.9 million).

In response to COVID-induced revenue shortfalls, the City Manager proposed a budget that left many council priorities in various departments glaringly unfunded or only partially funded. Examples included a housing stability case manager in the City Manager’s office, a social worker at the Central Square library, and several much needed preschool teachers. At the same time, the proposed Police Department budget included many vacant positions that we can easily live without, totalling millions of dollars.

Our proposal was the opening to a conversation about how to address this very visible and immediate injustice in the FY21 budget, and how to re-prioritize our spending to address the long neglected needs of Black people in our community. Fueled by the energy of the moment, it gained far more attention than we were expecting, or than anything else I’ve seen in my 2+ years on the council so far.

We received thousands of emails, and over 400 people signed up to speak during public comment on Monday June 8th, causing the council to limit comments to 1 minute each and to defer the rest of the meeting to Wednesday, June 10th. The emails and comments we heard that Monday were almost entirely supportive. We heard clear demands from Black leaders on what is needed to restore health & safety to our community. I recognize that the stakes are high for any Black person who speaks on the topic of policing, and I appreciate the many brave voices who did so despite the risk. It was also heartening to have so many white allies stand in solidarity with the proposal, many of whom had never weighed in or spoken up before. 

The proposal also created legitimate fear and confusion among some residents who understandably wanted to make sure there weren’t cuts to things like the cadet program, school resource officers, or crossing guards. I spent a great deal of time meeting with members of the Black community who had these and other concerns in an effort to provide clarity and build even more consensus. I came to the Wednesday continuation of the council meeting ready to introduce amendments that emerged out of those conversations, and they were ultimately incorporated in the final version of the policy order at the June 15 meeting.

These amendments would go on to form the backbone of the council’s eventual compromise: a promise by the City Manager to delay $2.5 million of planned hires within the Police Department in order to immediately fund some of the aforementioned positions that had been placed on hold. On the surface, this compromise represents a huge victory. As just a small example of that, there is now the potential for a housing justice case manager to begin working immediately instead of next April. With an eviction crisis looming, that will make all the difference for many individuals and families struggling to navigate the system. I appreciate the City Manager’s compromise proposal and the willingness of my colleagues to unite around it as an important step forward towards justice.

At the same time, the compromise we reached did not change the proposed budget in any way. While we succeeded in shifting the immediate hiring priorities away from policing, those positions will continue to exist, and they will be filled as soon as the current moment passes. This tactic is similar to Mayor Walsh’s approach in Boston: a splashy $12 million reallocation away from the police overtime budget loses some of its luster when you realize that money can simply be moved around later in order to cover whatever overtime spending actually occurs. These sleights of hand have undoubtedly produced immediate victories, and given the short time we had, we got as much as was possible in this year’s budget cycle. 

But even making these modest, critical, and broadly supported improvements would prove to be challenging. Shortly after the City Manager proposed the $2.5 million compromise, he gave the floor to our Police Commissioner, who was put in the awkward position of defending his department’s budget after his boss had just proposed a reallocation. Commissioner Bard, who is African American, was appointed three years ago. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration and has a real expertise in kinder, gentler policing, which he has brought to the Department. He was understandably upset and indignant about the calls to defund the police in Cambridge, but he unfortunately overplayed his hand in an attempt to deflect criticism of his Department and the proposed funding change.

The Commissioner’s remarks began with insulting both the white allies and the Black voices who spoke during public comment when he said that he didn’t hear “authentic voices,” just “a bunch of people looking for their ‘I’m a black ally’ receipts, hoping they could somehow use it to pay off white guilt.” In fact, the council heard from more Black people on this issue than on any other issue this term. Giving public comment can be very intimidating, especially the first time, which was the case for so many who spoke. It is critical to welcome and appreciate everyone who takes the time to participate in our democracy, and to encourage them to keep coming back. As a council we need to hear from the people and so it was difficult for me to hear them be so disrespected.

When he implied that the motion makers displayed “arrogance” by not consulting him, I objected, pointing out that in fact I had reached out to him and gotten no response. He was also assuming intent, which we are asked to refrain from doing during council deliberations. Finally, it is entirely appropriate for councillors to scrutinize the budget and make proposals without consulting individual department heads. Our job is to provide oversight, not micromanagement.

He went on to lay out a large list of programs that, in his view, would have to be cut if the council did not approve the proposed budget increase. As a reminder, even with the reallocation factored in, our proposal would fund the Department at the same level of spending as the previous year. Additionally, the manager had just finished stating that we could avoid cuts simply by not filling some of the vacant positions in the police budget. Detecting this contradiction, I interrupted him through a “point of order,” which is a parliamentary appropriate way to interrupt a speaker. Councillor Simmons interjected before the Mayor could address the point of order, and the meeting descended into chaos.

Over the years, Councillor Simmons has repeatedly challenged my Afro-Caribbean heritage and questioned my Blackness, while I see our shared membership in the African diaspora as a beautiful thing. I hope she will come around and see the benefits of working together on an anti-racist agenda. While her name calling and shouting at me were entirely inappropriate, I’m prepared to forgive (though I can’t promise to forget) in the interest of moving forward. I felt that we made significant progress in that direction at our final meeting before the summer recess on June 29.

A photograph of part of my mother’s extended family taken in the 1970s in Suriname, by my father. Can you find me in this photo?
A photograph of my late paternal grandfather in Suriname, taken before the country gained its independence from the Netherlands. His uniform signified his position as the appointed government representative and local head of the police (commissioner, or komisaris in Dutch) in one of the country’s districts, which are roughly equivalent to counties in a U.S. state.

It is critical that we have this difficult conversation about policing in our cities. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said in a viral Instagram post, defunding the police “looks like a suburb”. She accurately points out that suburban communities generally spend a larger percentage of their budgets on education and public health and a smaller percentage on policing as compared to urban communities like Cambridge. In nearby Lexington, for example, the police budget represents just 3% of overall spending compared to 9% of overall spending in Cambridge, while 70% of their budget goes to education, compared to 30% of Cambridge’s budget. We should be spending a lot less on racist policing and a lot more on education, community building and creating economic opportunity for our residents, with a heavy focus on undoing the harm that has been for so long done to our Black residents.

The suburbs themselves were created through racist, exclusionary policies designed to keep Black people out. Policies like redlining and the war on drugs systematically denied economic opportunity to Black people as urban policing and mass incarceration became the primary tools for maintaining the racist status quo. Modern day policing of urban centers is generally carried out by violent invasionary forces of suburban white males who oppress Black urban communities. Despite admirable efforts in recent years to diversify and tame our local police force, the Cambridge Police Department retains vestiges of our racist history of policing. I look forward to working with the Commissioner to dismantle these racist traditions and remake the police into an even less violent and less racist institution.

Cambridge Public Schools

During the discussions around the police budget, many folks rightfully pointed out that the police is not the only racist part of our budget. I have long shared that view, for instance I voted against the school budget (and the overall budget) in 2019 primarily because of the ongoing racism in the school department. I am the only current councillor to have done so.

The school department is racist because it disproportionately fails to educate Black and brown students to the same level as white students.

In 2019, the grade 3 literacy rate was 80% for white students but just 44% for African American/Black students. We see this trend across nearly every educational outcome we measure. Even worse, this type of racial achievement gap is enshrined into nearly all of the 2020 outcome goals. And all of the pre-COVID inequities were only exposed and magnified when the pandemic hit. Being anti-racist means identifying this inherent racism and actively counteracting it.

The School Committee and the School Department have begun to do this work with the new Building Equity Bridges initiative and the creation of the new Office of Equity, Belonging and Inclusion. I have been impressed with the direction and ambition of our four new School Committee members, as well as the leadership and transparency of Mayor Siddiqui. While I couldn’t vote “yes” on this section of the budget, my “present” vote reflects the newfound trust and confidence I have in my colleagues to accomplish even more together in the next year.

We also voted on a $237 million bond issue to rebuild the Tobin/Vassal school, which is partially named after a slave owner. During that discussion, the City Manager pointed out that we have already spent $13 million (before the shovels have even hit the ground) and that it will be a challenge to keep the entire project below $250 million. To put that figure in perspective, it is almost as much as we spent on the MLK/Putnam Avenue Upper School and the King Open/Cambridge Street Upper School combined, including all the additional facilities that were built or rebuilt at the latter facility: the Valente Branch Library, the Gold Star pool, and the new Cambridge Public School Department’s administrative building.

The future is very uncertain right now, and spending an eye-popping sum on replacing a functional school building in West Cambridge makes no sense to me. We could easily have delayed this allocation by a year while some of the uncertainty around COVID-19 becomes more clear. We haven’t even figured out what will happen in September, and I am hearing loud and clear from teachers, parents, and scholars alike that remote learning simply does not work.

As my son wisely observed, we should “just take that money and pay the extended day teachers more!” I would add that we should pay all the hardworking paraprofessionals in our schools better and expand those programs, which greatly help our minority students succeed. Imagine how much of a difference we could make for Black and brown working class families by investing that kind of money in creating real economic opportunity, providing internet access, healthcare, including mental health services, housing and transportation, and the list goes on.

IT Department (municipal broadband)

By forwarding the IT Department’s budget to the Council with an unfavorable recommendation, we sent a strong message to the City Manager that moving forward on municipal broadband is a must, and he subsequently promised to conduct the feasibility study that he has resisted for years. He announced at the June 15 City Council meeting that staff would work on a scope over the summer, and that he plans to come before the council next Fall with an appropriation. We need to make sure we hold his administration to this promise.

Thanks to all the activists, residents, and experts who have been pushing on this for many years. This is an amazing victory for democracy! The feasibility study itself will build on the digital equity study which I secured last term, an effort that has been delayed by about three months. The lack of updates on that effort have been incredibly frustrating, but the city has promised to deliver the study by October 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as another reminder that addressing the digital divide in our city is a critical part of our work on racial equity.

When mom and dad can’t work from home, and students can’t access their schoolwork online, economic and educational disparities are worsened and those stressors once again fall disproportionately on members of the Black community in Cambridge.

A look ahead

The FY22 budget cycle starts now and should involve lots of community meetings that dig deep to better understand what needs to change in our budget and our government to make the next budget an anti-racist budget. This is the single most consequential decision the council makes each year, yet the budget process is too brief and devoid of opportunities for the community to weigh in. In addition to community meetings, the Finance Committee should schedule hearings now to begin discussing the FY22 budget priorities. 

We also need to come together as a community and find immediate ways to spend some of our free cash to do justice and create economic opportunities for Black community members.

In addition to the budget and finance work, I’m also committed to working on dismantling our dangerous and racist system of policing as chair of the Public Safety Committee. My analysis of the CPD Use of Force Policy shows that it does not meet the basic policy recommendations of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. There will be a hearing on Tuesday July 7 at 1 PM to discuss how we can improve this policy, which has not been comprehensively updated since 2011.

I’ve also requested a copy of the Police Department’s annual report to the City Manager, which contains an inventory of the department’s materials and equipment. Hopefully the City Manager will release this report by the July 27 summer meeting as requested, so we can have a conversation around disposing of any military or military-grade equipment that the department has. I don’t want to waste time splitting hairs over what something is classified as, we simply don’t need police armored vehicles driving around the streets of Cambridge. Finally, I am excited to work with my colleagues on exploring alternative approaches to responding to emergency calls, like the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon which responds to mental health 911 calls with specialized first responders, not armed police officers. 

In addition to all of this my office will continue its ongoing work around housing justice, tenant protections, digital equity, and environmental justice which form essential components of an antiracist agenda. I genuinely look forward to this work and to building even stronger partnerships with Black leaders in our community as we move forward together. The world is very broken right now, and America is a deeply racist country. Those are depressing facts that cannot be easily fixed. Being entrusted with the responsibility of doing this important work is something I cherish every day as someone who came to the US as a teenager, escaping dictatorship and oppression in my home country. Thanks to all who are and have been doing this work and may we be ever more successful.

Funding our community, Transforming our policing

Note: I submitted this Communication for the June 8, 2020 council meeting.

To the Honorable, the City Council:

Policing as we know it evolved from slave patrols and is a fundamentally racist institution. The tragic murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests across the country serve as another reminder that we need to fundamentally rethink the role of policing in our society. As Chair of the Public Safety Committee, it is my intent to hold hearings that center Black voices and chart a course to transformative change. This Communication lays out some of the steps and approaches that could be taken at the municipal level.

Re-allocation of Funding

The FY21 proposed Police Department budget totals $62 million, including a $4.1 million increase from FY20. This means the Police Department makes up almost 9% of our operating budget, the largest department outside of Education. While the proposed budget does include several initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence and preventing criminal behavior among young people, it also contains many millions of dollars for traditional violent policing and equipment including a $1 million cost center for a tactical operations unit, which is generally the most militarized component of a police force.

Traditionally, we have responded to criminal activity among young men by increasing the policing of them. Often, these young men are left behind in our traditional education, artistic, and athletic pathways to economic opportunity, creating immense pressure for them to fall into a potentially violent and deadly criminal lifestyle. While the Department has implemented some programs in an attempt to disrupt this cycle, including even some that have been moderately successful, not enough is being done and we continue to lose too many of our youth to violent crime and incarceration. Police-centric programs also come with their own inherent limits, since once down a criminal path a certain distance, the individual becomes potentially unreachable this way. The response of adding more and more violent policing into the mix through reflexive annual police budget increases, without sufficiently addressing the underlying socio-economic risk factors, has allowed generations of young men (often Black) to fall into a life of crime that becomes difficult to rescue them and society from.

Meanwhile, our very successful youth programs like the King Open Extended Day program remain shockingly underfunded and limited in scope, despite their demonstrated success and potential for assisting in the education and wellness of our youth. Many opportunities remain in our budget to better support young people, especially Black youth. With the final budget vote coming up on June 15, it is not too late for the council to call on the City Manager to better fund these programs and to reduce the police budget correspondingly. Specific areas to consider for increased funding include the many initiatives in the Human Services Department, our summer youth programs, the RSTA program at CRLS, Project Elevate and other efforts to recruit more teachers of color, providing better mental health services for young people, and many other ideas that can and should be sourced from the community and those who have been historically most impacted by our racist and anti-Black approach to education and economic opportunity.

Body Cameras

The Cambridge Police Department does not currently use body cameras, although they have done other things to reduce incidents of excessive force. Body cameras can increase accountability by creating an objective video record of an incident from the perspective of the officer. While cell phone recordings of incidents have become prolific, body cameras can provide consistent footage that is more credible in a courtroom. They do come with significant privacy concerns, however, which must be addressed as part of any policy and implementation. 

I support the effort of my colleagues to move forward with a body camera program in the Cambridge Police Department. However, we should be cognizant of the fact that such a program will ultimately have a limited impact, and to the extent that body cameras give us comfort in continuing to fund and expand traditional policing methods, they will be counterproductive to efforts of deeper and more transformative solutions.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts have provided extensive guidance on how to craft an effective body camera policy. Key considerations from this guidance include:

  • The need to avoid continuous recording while at the same time blocking officers from selectively determining which encounters are filmed. Body cameras should not be used as general surveillance tools, but allowing for officer discretion undermines any benefit that the cameras might bring. Special consideration should also be given to encounters involving domestic violence and rape in order to protect the identity of the survivor.
  • The need to create consequences for noncompliance with body camera recording, including direct disciplinary action against the officer and the disallowment of verbal evidence in favor of the officer that otherwise could have been verified if the camera had been turned on, except in situations where the officer couldn’t reasonably have turned on the camera or where other verifiable forms of evidence exist.
  • The need to implement privacy considerations at the point of recording. The ACLU recommends limiting cameras to uniformed police officers and marked vehicles only, and requiring that officers notify people that they are being recorded. Additional consideration should be given to instances in which police officers enter someone’s home, particularly in non-exigent circumstances.
  • The need to incorporate policies related to retention and use. The ACLU recommends that retention periods should be measured in weeks not years, and policies should be clearly posted online. Careful thought should be given to who can flag a recording for further retention, and when they can do so. 
  • The need to ensure that anyone recorded by a body camera can access and make copies of said recording for as long as it is retained by the department.
  • The need to regulate public disclosure, including redacting information to protect identities when possible.
  • The need to implement protocols and technological controls that prevent tampering or destruction of evidence by the department.
  • The need for explicit forbiddance of body camera use by government officials who do not have the authority to conduct searches and make arrests.

Use of body cameras would fall under the Surveillance Ordinance, which was used by the Council to rubber stamp massive amounts of police surveillance the first time we had an opportunity to review these technologies earlier this term.

Use of Force Policy

The version of the Use of Force Policy available online took effect in 2011 and was publicly released in 2015. The Police Use of Force Project is a helpful resource that the council can use as a starting point when analyzing our Use of Force Policy. This tool analyzes use of force policies from 91 of the hundred largest cities in the country, evaluating them across eight different metrics. As of 2016, none of the 91 cities had a policy that satisfied all eight of the criteria put forward by the project. The criteria are listed below, along with my analysis of how Cambridge’s policy measures up. I want to be clear that these eight criteria are by no means sufficient in my mind, and that a deeper and more radical analysis of the use of force policy is warranted in order to arrive at a satisfactory place. 

1. Does the policy require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force?

No. Cambridge’s policy does not even reference de-escalation. The policy only stipulates that the force must be immediately necessary. That wording gives an uncomfortable amount of discretion to officers, and the policy should be modified to explicitly require de-escalation before using force whenever possible.

2. Does the policy use a force continuum/matrix that defines/limits the type of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance?

No. The policy does not contain such a thing. It does define “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons, but it doesn’t make it clear how and when to choose between them. Such a force continuum/matrix would clarify expectations for each type of interaction, and it would create more clear boundaries around when “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons can be used.

3. Does the policy restrict chokeholds and strangleholds (including carotid restraints) to situations where deadly force is authorized or prohibit them altogether?

Yes, mostly. The policy does explicitly ban “carotid control or chokeholds”. Strangleholds are not explicitly mentioned. However, it also includes a giant loophole, exempting “those types of manual holds for which a police officer has been specifically trained in gaining control or maintaining control of a detainee”. We need to better understand exactly which manual holds are currently considered permissible. Also, while it does say “Officers will not use any other type of manual holds that are intended or designed to inflict pain or injury”, I would prefer something more like “Officers shall not use any maneuver whatsoever that is intended or designed to inflict pain or injury”. Manual holds seems to refer specifically to the use of hands, which as we saw in the George Floyd case, can be subverted by using other body parts like knees and full body weight to hold down, asphyxiate and kill someone.

4. Does the policy require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force?

No. The policy states that “Where practical prior to discharging a firearm, officers shall identify themselves as law enforcement officers and state their intent to shoot.” As we saw in the recent deadly shooting of a suspected looter in Los Angeles, this type of guidance does almost nothing at all. The officer pulled up in his vehicle and fired 5 shots through the windshield, striking and killing the suspect who was kneeling on the ground with his hands in the air. The officer had seen what looked like a possible butt of a handgun sticking out, which turned out to be a hammer. Presumably the officer in that situation did not think it was practical to announce his intent to shoot, and so he didn’t. Furthermore, deadly force is not limited to discharging a firearm, as we saw tragically in the cases of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and many other police killings that did not involve firing a weapon.

5. Does the policy prohibit officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles, unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle (for example, shooting at people from the vehicle)?

Yes. The policy clearly states that “Officers are also prohibited from discharging a firearm at a moving vehicle, except when the occupants of the vehicle are using it to employ/exert deadly force against the officer or another victim…”

6. Does the policy require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force?

No. The policy states “Whether the degree of force used is reasonable depends upon the specific facts surrounding the situation. Only a reasonable and necessary amount of force may be used. The degree of force that the officer may reasonably be expected to use depends upon the amount of resistance, or the threat to safety that the situation presents.” None of this indicates that other alternatives must be exhausted; rather, it reads more like support for a post-hoc analysis justifying the amount of force that was used.

7. Does the policy require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force?

No. The policy appears to be silent on this issue.

Does the policy require comprehensive reporting that includes both uses of force and threats of force (for example, reporting instances where an officer threatens a civilian with a firearm)?

Yes. The policy clearly states that “…any officer who points a firearm at another individual shall be required to fully document the incident in a Use of Force Report…”

Police Review Advisory Board (PRAB)

From the PRAB website:

 “The Police Review & Advisory Board was established by City Ordinance in 1984 to: 

  • Provide for citizen participation in reviewing Police Department policies, practices, and procedures;
  • Provide a prompt, impartial and fair investigation of complaints brought by individuals against members of the Cambridge Police Department;
  • Develop programs and strategies to promote positive police/community relations and to provide opportunities for expanded discussions, improved understanding, and innovative ways of resolving differences.

Membership includes 5 civilians who are representative the [sic] City’s racial, social and economic composition.”

At the June 2, 2020 meeting of the Finance Committee, staff indicated that the PRAB currently has one unfilled vacancy. While the biographies of the current members are empty on the website, the four current non-staff members all appear to be White professionals, with the only male member also being the current PRAB chair. The vacancy represents an opportunity to make the PRAB more representative.

In addition, the PRAB has many procedural and transparency limitations that render it largely ineffective as a police oversight body. While the secretary reported to the Council that only 10 complaints have been filed in each of the past two years, it is unclear how many complaints are not filed because of a lack of faith in the process. Significant reform of how this body operates should be considered, including greater independence from the police department, and greater transparency.

6/1/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #10)

We’re back to regular Monday night meetings after a week off due to Memorial Day. It is difficult to focus on much besides the murder of George Floyd and the deep pain that has been exposed in our country. Modern policing is a fundamentally racist institution that evolved from slave patrols. The City Council will have several opportunities to confront these issues, including through policy and during our budget discussions. We need a radical restructuring of our budget to truly prioritize the needs of the people.

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

I have grown tired of the City Manager’s refusal to publish COVID-19 updates in writing. It is challenging to prepare thoughtful questions when we can’t review the information before the meeting, and there is no reason for it most of the time.

CMA #3: Funding for bike & pedestrian safety enforcement

This is a $6,000 grant for “initiatives that address pedestrian and bicycle issues, coupling educational projects with enforcement of laws to reduce pedestrian and bicycle injuries and crashes”. I would like to know more about which laws will see increased enforcement because even though this isn’t very much money, it is important we don’t do more harm than good.

CMA #4: Funding for reducing gang-related violence

This is $100,000 from Free Cash to be put towards a new partnership with Roca Inc, a nonprofit based in Chelsea that is committed to “disrupting the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping young people transform their lives”. The funds will be used to hire an outreach worker dedicated to Cambridge, and other related programming as part of the Police Department’s Focused Deterrence Initiative. It is good to see this funding on the agenda. How many more young men are we going to lose before we address the problem in a transformative way?

CMA #5: Funding for COVID-19 materials & supplies

This is $677,300 to cover the projected costs of PPE and other materials that will be needed to keep city employees safe once they return to the workplace. This funding will be used to purchase things like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, cleaning materials, and spray sanitizer. It will also go towards additional emergency communication costs.

CMA #6: Funding for the homeless shelter & local restaurant community meals program

This is $60,000 that will keep the restaurant/homeless shelter community meals program operating until the end of the year. This program contracts with local restaurants to provide meals to homeless residents through area shelters. So far, 2,750 meals have been provided across 12 different shelters in Cambridge.

CMA #7: Funding for the War Memorial emergency shelter

This is $2.175 million to fund the continued operation of the War Memorial emergency shelter. This is on top of the initial $500,000 donation from MIT & Harvard. Something doesn’t quite add up because the announcement of the original donation from the universities said that money would be put towards “construction, primarily for a new quarantine area located in the garage, as well as costs and maintenance for 3 months of operation (starting March 27, 2020), furnishing and supplies, and demolition and deep cleaning at closeout”. However, this new appropriation notes that money was used entirely for construction of the facility.

The shelter averages 60 guests per night. At a rate of $100 per person per night, it would cost just over $500,000 to house that many people in hotel rooms for three months. Even factoring in additional costs such as meals and security, it is clear that such an approach would not only have been more humane and safe, but also much more cost-effective.

CMA #8: Funding for COVID-19 testing kits

This is $150,000 from Free Cash to fund COVID-19 testing kits. 4,000 kits were purchased at $100 each, and MIT kicked in $250,000. I am proud of the extensive testing our city is doing, and I am glad to see a focus on the most vulnerable populations including residents of nursing homes, unhoused people, and communities of color. It’s still not enough, but it’s a start.

Applications & Petitions

Applications & Petitions #1: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

I’m assuming this petition is requesting banners for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but clarity is needed.

Applications & Petitions #2: curb cut at 56 Creighton Street

I will be checking with the neighborhood association before making a decision on this curb cut, since the application does not include any feedback from them.

Resolutions

Resolution #5: Observation of Juneteenth

June 19, 1865 is regarded as the day in which slavery was finally and completely abolished in the United States. This Resolution urges all residents to reflect on the meaning of this important day.

Resolution #8: Congrats to the Class of 2020

Graduation won’t look the same this year, but the class of 2020 has persevered through this difficult time to make the best of it. Congrats to all the graduates!

Policy Orders

PO #1: Painting benches and crosswalks in recognition of Pride Month

I am a cosponsor of this order from the Mayor, which requests a refreshing of the rainbow-painted sidewalks & benches in front of city hall in recognition of Pride Month. It specifically asks for colors that represent the Trans flag, the Pride Flag, the Bi Flag, and the People of Color Pride Flag. It also asks to light up city hall in rainbows.

PO #2: Public building for cooling this summer

This order asks for the city to designate an accessible public building as a cooling center for this summer, including all necessary social distancing measures. I strongly support this order as a way to mitigate the impacts of the Urban Heat Island Effect in our city as climate change brings increasingly unbearable heat waves.

PO #3: Repealing the ban on our single use plastic ban

Governor Baker’s emergency order temporarily nullifies the city’s Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance, also known as the plastic bag ban. I am a cosponsor of this order, which calls on the Governor to remove that stipulation and allow us to continue banning single use plastic. It is clear at this point that reusable bags do not pose a real public health risk.

PO #4: North Cambridge COVID testing site

I am a cosponsor of this order from the Mayor, which calls for an additional COVID testing site in North Cambridge near the Fresh Pond Apartments. It is important to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, and that begins with making testing more easily available!

PO #5: Renaming the Mass Ave & Churchill Ave bus stop

This bizarre order from Councillor Toomey asks to change the name of the bus stop outside Matignon High School from “Massachusetts Avenue at Churchill Avenue” to “Matignon High School at Churchill Avenue”. Personally, I’m more concerned with the safety of our public transit system as we reopen than I am with the names of the stops.

PO #6: Recognizing Caribbean-American Heritage Month

I submitted this Resolution, which recognizes June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Cambridge. We had our first ever celebration of Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Cambridge last year, and it was wonderful. Things will unfortunately look very different this year, of course, but I am hopeful that we will be able to celebrate regardless. More to come soon!

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Communication from Mayor Siddiqui on updates from the School Committee

The School Committee voted unanimously to recommend the budget, but reservations clearly remain. There are lots of open questions around the Fall and many concerns from parents that online learning isn’t going so well. It will surely be a challenging year, but I don’t see how I can support this school budget as it continues to fail to address the systemic racism that pervades our school system, and the convulsive changes that our society is clearly undergoing that require a different approach to education and creating economic opportunity for those who have historically been excluded.

Update on shared streets & bike lanes

Back at the March 30 council meeting, Councillor Nolan and I introduced a pair of policy orders asking for street closures throughout the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our intent was to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists to spread out, because it was very apparent even at that point that there was not enough space outside for people to safely practice social distancing. Unfortunately, the City Manager declined to move forward even after the council passed both orders and other cities around the country began moving ahead with plans of their own.

Finally, in just this last week, we have begun to see movement and progress. We have also been discussing next year’s budget, including plans for the future buildout of the bike network. This post will get you caught up on both conversations.

Shared Streets Pilot

The long-awaited Shared Streets Pilot proposal, presented to the Council at the May 28 special meeting, looks good as an initial response to the Council’s request. Starting on June 15, Garden Street, Magazine Street, and Harvard Street will close 24/7 to most vehicular traffic except for residents, deliveries, local business access, emergency vehicles, and public transit. This pilot will connect key locations across the city and provide safe recreation and non-vehicular transportation space for residents.

Map showing the upcoming street closures. The city will limit Garden Street, Magazine Street, and Harvard Street to most vehicular traffic except for residents, deliveries, local business access, emergency vehicles, and public transit.

The City Manager was clear that he will look to expand this network as quickly as possible, based on community input. I hope that the program will expand quickly to more neighborhoods including East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington. It was also encouraging to hear that there is no explicit end date set for these changes. During the meeting, staff implied that the restrictions would remain in place at least until next winter, and possibly longer. These three streets are all part of the planned bike network, so hopefully they will never “go back” to what they were. Instead, we would ideally see a transition to the permanently protected layout, including further reductions in on-street car storage.

Memorial Drive Closure

Many of us were calling for Memorial Drive to close to vehicular traffic long before the pandemic came, since the multi-use paths along the river are treacherous despite being a major commuting route to Longwood and a center of recreation for the whole city. It is impossible to practice social distancing while using these narrow paths, and one routinely sees cyclists and pedestrians dangerously veering into the highway to try and maintain a proper distance.

A cycling family rides by a sycamore tree during the City’s pilot closure of Riverbend Park on May 24.

DCR closed parkways in Watertown and Boston back in early April, and their spokesperson told me they were all set to include Memorial Drive at that time, but that the City Manager and State Rep Decker had objected strongly. The final Sunday in April came and went without Riverbend Park (a portion of the parkway) closing for the day, as it normally does during this time of year, when we typically have nice weather. Despite the clear need for more space, the City Manager maintained his position that closing additional streets could create “flocking” or “block party” behavior, and would send mixed signals during a time when people were supposed to be at home in isolation.

Finally on May 20, the City Manager announced that as a trial, Riverbend Park would close on May 24 & 31 from 11-7 PM. The scope of this pilot fell far short of what the Council had asked for months prior: the complete closure of Memorial Drive, 24/7. It also seemed to defy the City Manager’s own logic: wouldn’t closing the parkway for just a few hours encourage the type of “flocking” event that he had been trying to avoid the whole time? Despite all this, I remained optimistic that a successful pilot could lead to the more extensive closures that are so sorely needed.

Both closures were, by all accounts, hugely successful. There were no unruly crowds and people finally had space to recreate safely. The closures were an oasis of comfort that eliminated the tense conflicts normally seen between bikes, pedestrians, and speeding cars. However, residents reported significant challenges actually getting to the park, since other streets were not closed (including the dangerous stretch of Memorial Drive leading up to the closed part). Additionally, there are significant equity concerns about the stretch that was chosen for closure. Someone coming from Central Square, for instance, would have to walk a mile just to get to the closed portion, and then the closed portion would take them away from where they came from. It seems like that is a level of commitment most folks will not be looking to make just to get some safe recreation. Additionally, the seniors and other residents who live in public housing on the corner of River Street would greatly benefit from a closure of the segment in front of their building.

The obvious solution is to close all of Memorial Drive, 24/7, or at least one lane in each direction throughout the entirety. It is my hope that after the success of the initial pilot, the City Manager will recognize that and expand the closure program as soon as possible. Watch the video below to see why it’s important to expand the scope:

Dangerous conflicts between vehicles and bikers at the entrance to Riverbend Park (at Western Ave) during the May 24 closure pilot. Video filmed by my council aide.

Budget & future buildouts

The May 26 Finance Committee hearing included a discussion of the proposed budget for the Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department. I was concerned and frankly a little baffled by the City Manager’s response to questions from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and myself about planned bike infrastructure projects and the proposed update to the Bike Safety Ordinance, which would mandate a complete buildout of the network within a certain timeframe.

City Manager DePasquale said “we may have to look at a slowdown of some of the infrastructure that we were talking about, and I know that’s going to be difficult, especially with the discussion of a bike ordinance”. He and the department head Joe Barr brought up Parking Fund revenue losses as a reason why infrastructure projects may need to be on hold. They aren’t making as much money from ticketing and meters as they were, and that deficit would only worsen if more parking spaces were removed for infrastructure, so for that reason things will slow down, they said.

That is obviously unacceptable! What good are AAA bond ratings if we are not going to use them to build critical infrastructure like protected bike lanes, which are more critical than ever? Yes, financially we are going into a difficult time, but that doesn’t mean safe streets should be first on the chopping block, and these projects aren’t even very expensive. It’s more important than ever that we move our cities away from cars and reclaim more space, yes, permanently, for safe distancing and transportation.

Watch the video below to hear from Joe Barr and the City Manager directly:

Eversource & the Fulkerson Street substation proposal, part 2

Note from Q: This is the first in a series of progress updates that my office had begun preparing before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While these updates document progress on non-COVID issues in anticipation of getting back to work on them, my office remains extensively focused on the emergency response at this time.

After almost a year of opposition, negotiation, and suspense, we finally have some clarity on the future of the proposed Fulkerson Street substation. Part 1 (from last November) is a quick read with key background information if you need to get caught up.

In response to growing electricity demand created by all the growth in Kendall Square, Eversource proposed a massive substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge. With 34 building projects already permitted or under construction in Kendall Square, and electric load already reaching 98% of capacity at peak usage times during Summer 2018, there was complete agreement that something had to be done. But powering our commercial real estate growth in Kendall Square with a substation situated in the adjacent residential neighborhood of East Cambridge, directly across from the Kennedy-Longfellow school and a playing field, is simply unacceptable, particularly as the site was originally intended to be housing.

It just so happened that Alexandria Real Estate had already submitted a zoning petition for the neighboring parcel, the former site of the Metropolitan Pipe Company at the corner of Fulkerson and Binney. Alexandria sought significant zoning relief, asking for almost twice the amount of square footage allowable under the existing zoning, exclusively for biotech & lab space. Recognizing the leverage this created, I urged my colleagues to hold off on approving Alexandria’s upzoning unless and until Eversource agreed to put the substation elsewhere.

Alexandria’s parcel (the former Metropolitan Pipe Company site) is outlined in red. The Eversource parcel is shaded in orange. Across from the Eversource parcel is a playing field and the Kennedy-Longfellow school.

The council’s willingness to hold out created an opening for the city to broker a negotiation between Eversource, Alexandria, and other developers in the Kendall Square area.

The council was finally presented with some details of a negotiated deal at a March 2, 2020 hearing. Boston Properties has agreed in principle to incorporate the substation into an already-planned development at the site of the Blue Garage (290 Binney). In exchange, they will be asking to construct an additional 800,000 square feet of commercial space at the site, through a future upzoning. The existing garage will be knocked down and moved underground. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) is leading the process and design of the new development at 290 Binney, which will ultimately require council approval. 

The new location for the substation is much more suitable, and this plan frees up the Fulkerson Street parcel for affordable housing & open space. An excessive amount of commercial space was already in the cards at 290 Binney Street, but the new proposal consolidates the housing component into a single phase, from two, thereby reducing uncertainty around its completion. 25% of the housing will be income-restricted, and the new proposal eliminates a provision that would have required 20% to be condo units. This keeps the focus on adding to our rental housing stock, which is a higher priority.

Slide from a Boston Properties presentation to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from April 2020. The new proposal (right) shows the proposed substation site outlined in red. Proposed housing is outlined in yellow, and commercial space is outlined in blue. The solid blue lines on the new proposal show where the additional commercial space would go.
Slide from a Boston Properties presentation to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from April 2020. The new proposal (right) consolidates the housing into a single phase, retains the affordability stipulations, and eliminates the 20% condo requirement.

I generally vote against entirely commercial, non-net zero upzonings like the one proposed by Alexandria for the former Met Pipe site.

The additional 800,000 square feet is a steep tradeoff. The Alexandria and Blue Garage projects combined will add more than three million square feet of commercial space, in addition to the nearly two million coming next door at the Volpe parcel.

This astronomical commercial growth exacerbates our city’s housing affordability crisis and accelerates the need for even more grid infrastructure. We got into this mess because we didn’t have a plan, yet we just keep barrelling ahead. And on top of it all, the language in the Eversource letter is very tentative. Should the deal fall through for any reason, the utility would almost certainly go back to their original plan to build on Fulkerson Street.

In order to complete the Grand Junction multi-use path all the way from Binney Street to Cambridge Street, Alexandria purchased the remaining land alongside the railroad tracks and offered it to the city. This is the primary community benefit offered in exchange for their zoning relief. It shouldn’t have taken a massive upzoning to complete this path, but I am excited about the safe connectivity that it will bring to our neighborhood and our city.

For these reasons, despite my significant reservations, this ended up being an offer the council could not refuse. In particular, I considered:

  • the extraordinary circumstances around the negotiation
  • the clear consensus within the neighborhood in support of this deal
  • Our likely inability to block Eversource from moving ahead with a substation on Fulkerson Street if they went for state approval.
View of the proposed Grand Junction Path (in green) from Cambridge Street. Alexandria will complete the path from Cambridge Street to Binney as part of their development on the former Met Pipe site.

By the time Boston Properties made their offer, we really had no other choice.

But it didn’t have to be that way: early on in the discussions, I urged the city and the utility to consider non-wires alternatives instead of building a massive substation. The Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management Project allowed New York’s ConEdison to avoid building a 1.2 billion dollar substation a few years ago through a combination of solar, batteries, and better demand management. If New York can avoid building this infrastructure, why can’t we even consider it? But Eversource was never really interested in that approach, and I never got a straight answer to my questions about alternatives.

Even if we were to build these many millions of square feet all-electric, which may yet happen given the rapid evolution in building technology & codes, it would still require additional grid electricity. Tall buildings in northern climates cannot generate enough solar energy to offset consumption without it. So, we still don’t have a plan for how to build all these buildings without adding to our climate emissions, and we seem to be unwilling to consider alternative approaches that have been demonstrably successful in cities much larger than our own. Meanwhile, Eversource continues to impose unwelcome substations on neighborhoods all over the region, including right now in East Boston.

Neighbors and cycling activists remained united throughout the process, despite much excitement over the prospect of completing the Grand Junction path between Binney and Cambridge Street.

I want to thank everyone who recognized that by standing together, we could get both the Grand Junction AND an alternative site for the substation. Councillor Carlone was instrumental in facilitating dialogue between all of these parties, especially between Alexandria and the neighbors. Former Vice Mayor Jan Devereux called the series of committee hearings that made space for this conversation to take shape. The City Manager deserves credit for hearing the Council and putting a top negotiator in charge of quickly finding a suitable parcel within the load pocket that checks Eversource’s many boxes. (Bob Reardon, the former city assessor, was brought out of retirement to get the job done!)

Despite the steep price and my lingering concerns about this deal, it is a great and rare victory for the residents of East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington. I live in this neighborhood, and I want to thank my neighbors for their tireless and excellent advocacy. They and cycling advocates remained united in asking for more throughout the process, despite immense excitement over the prospect of completing the Grand Junction path between Binney and Cambridge Street. I don’t know that this has ever been done before in the history of modern utility construction; certainly Eversource couldn’t think of a precedent where they moved a substation in response to local opposition.

Going forward, I will insist that neighbors remain involved as this process continues to unfold, and I will do everything possible to minimize the impact of the Blue Garage development on our community. I will work with Eversource and the city on more proactive planning of our electrical needs, including the consideration of non-wires alternatives that may accommodate additional growth without creating more demand on the grid. A strict limit on demand growth would encourage the uptake of such strategies. We can’t forget about this now that the proposed substation has a new home, or else we will be right back in this difficult position in another few short years. Finally, we need to stand in solidarity with neighboring communities that are also fighting unwelcome substations, especially working-class communities like East Boston. Check out the excellent op-ed from Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards that has more information about that situation.