5/4/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #7)

Wearing a face covering is now mandatory in Cambridge. Read the official policy here or jump to Policy Order #10 to review some reasonable changes that I support to reduce the potential for disproportionate impact as we implement this policy.

The good news is that our suppression efforts are working, and we seem to be peaking in terms of the active caseload in Cambridge. The not-so-good news is that we’re still seeing new cases, and the terrible news is that we’re still losing neighbors and loved ones to this horrible disease and the disruption it has caused. This week we’ve started receiving some data about the race/ethnicity of people testing positive, and even though the data is very incomplete, we are already seeing disparate impacts on black and brown communities in Cambridge that mirror national trends. That’s why I’ve put in an order for Monday asking for more data, and for more resources to be directed towards these vulnerable communities. Our nursing homes and long term care facilities are also being severely impacted, and the vast majority of deaths in Cambridge from COVID-19 are in these facilities.

Memorial Drive and all city streets remain open to vehicular traffic despite two separate orders passed by the council asking the Manager to close some streets and Memorial Drive to traffic to allow more space for social distancing. As the weather warms and the virus wanes, we don’t need more policing, we need more space.

Last but not least, Harvard made use of the pandemic to cover its confession to accepting $9 million from Jeffrey Epstein and giving him undue influence and inappropriate access to their campus. Like MIT, Harvard grossly mishandled this situation, and needs to atone for their transgression.

Please consider signing our petition that calls on Harvard and MIT to do more for our community in this time of crisis. You can sign here or read my just-released op-ed on why MIT and Harvard need to step it up.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night. For assistance with this, please contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: Funding for domestic violence prevention initiatives

 This appropriation of $20,000 will support additional services related to domestic violence prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with Transition House. This is a hugely important part of our response to help protect those experiencing increased trauma as a result of being stuck at home with their abuser during the pandemic.

CMA #2: Reappointment of Larry Ward as an Election Commissioner

The Election Commission runs our elections every year, and they are critical to the functioning of our democracy. The Commission consists of two Democrats and two Republicans, each appointed to staggered four-year terms by the City Manager. The City Manager chooses appointments from a list of candidates submitted by the City Committees of each party. Larry Ward, who was first appointed in 2012, has been re-appointed to one of the Democratic seats. You can read his responses to the Cambridge Democrats questionnaire, here.

From the official website“The Board’s responsibilities include certifying nomination papers & petitions, registering voters, administering election recounts and preserving the integrity of the database for the street and voting lists by personally verifying the existence or nonexistence of questionable addresses within the City. In addition, prior to each election, approximately 260 additional election personnel are recruited, trained and supervised by the Board to staff each of the polling locations within the City. They work with the office staff to ensure that elections are managed in accordance with local, state and federal laws”.

CMA #3: City Manager update on COVID-19

This is yet another placeholder, and we will undoubtedly receive an actual update in person on Monday night. Why are we not receiving these updates in writing?

Resolutions

Resolution #2: Supporting asks from MIT graduate students

 MIT has not treated anybody right during this pandemic, including their own students. As a former MIT graduate student myself, I stand in solidarity with their very reasonable requests. I will ask to be added as a cosponsor on the floor, to give this resolution even more weight. Note: this item was placed incorrectly on the agenda in the Resolutions list. It should be on the Policy Order list, and will be taken up during the Policy Order part of the meeting.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Guidelines for re-opening construction

 This Policy Order was introduced last week as a very late addition to the agenda. I thought it would be best to exercise my charter right and give the council an additional week to consider it, given its immense detail.

It is, of course, important to carefully consider when and how construction projects will open back up. The safety of the workers and their families is of utmost concern. Special protocols will be needed to ensure workplace safety until the pandemic is over, especially at large worksites. But this Policy Order makes only passing reference to worker safety, and focuses instead on bureaucratic details aimed at restarting construction as quickly as possible. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these adjustments are well intended. But is it really appropriate for the City Council to decide right now that, and I quote, “The City should allow all paused projects to submit their covid-19 safety plans to the City now for review, to decrease the anticipated backlog; a lack of formal response from the City within 3 days should be considered an approval from the City“?

Much of this order is far too prescriptive. Demanding a five day response time from CDD for certain types of construction approval is an inappropriate level of specificity. No doubt the Community Development Department has many important priorities during this emergency. Where does one even come up with a figure like that?

I could continue but you really have to read this order for yourself to understand why it is so objectionable. So while I support having this conversation, I can’t support it as written. I will submit amendments that refocus this policy on workplace safety and public health.

#2: Small business recovery plan

This policy order asks for a plan to help small, local businesses recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. This is another important conversation we need to have about the coming “new normal”. 

#3: Making library materials available

This asks the City Manager to look into ways to provide library materials to students and others. This is a good idea, and I support the order. Our libraries are an important resource for students and the community, and we need to start thinking about how to make those resources available again while protecting everyone’s health and safety by maintaining social distancing. 

#4: COVID-19 public memorial

This asks the City Manager to work with the Cambridge Arts Council and others to create a public memorial for those who have been lost to COVID-19. We have lost many community members, and this is an important part of our response. We need a way to safely mourn their passing and celebrate their lives.

#5: 50th anniversary of Kent State and Jackson State shootings

I submitted this resolution to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State (on Monday) and Jackson (10 days later) State universities. At Kent State in Ohio, four unarmed students were killed and nine unarmed students were wounded by members of the Ohio National Guard while engaged in a largely peaceful protest of the continuing war in Vietnam, the invasion of Cambodia, and the presence of the National Guard on their campus. Ten days later, two African American young men were killed and twelve people were wounded by Mississippi State Police in protests at Jackson State in Mississippi, in a similarly inexcusable armed assault on unarmed students and bystanders.

Half a century later, not enough has changed. The United States has been at war overseas practically the entire time, and unarmed black men are still being shot in the streets by the police here at home in an endless war against our own people. It’s important to commemorate this moment in history as a reminder of how far we still have to go. I encourage you to read the full resolution, as well as this article in the New Yorker, to learn more about the incidents and their significant cultural impact.

#6: Request for more COVID-19 data

I submitted this order, which asks for additional enhancements to the city’s COVID-19 data center. We know that black and brown people in Cambridge are facing a disproportionate impact from COVID-19, but we need more information in order to respond. Specifically, we need information on deaths by age, race, and ethnicity, the total number of tests performed in facilities and in the community, and any other available data that can be safely reported. All the data should be downloadable so that anyone can easily access it and do their own analysis. The order also asks for the City Manager to immediately direct additional resources to mitigate the racial disparities already apparent in the data, because people’s lives are on the line.

#7: Restart Planning Board meetings

I submitted this order, which calls for the Planning Board to begin meeting again (virtually). In particular, I would like to see special permit applications from Economic Empowerment (EE) applicants move ahead. The lawsuit brought by Revolutionary Clinics against the City’s two-year exclusivity period for EE applicants has been struck down, in an important victory for racial justice. Since the exclusivity period expires in September 2021, it is important that these applicants are able to move ahead as quickly as possible, and right now the main obstacle is the Planning Board not conducting meetings.

#8: Universal COVID-19 testing

This order asks for free testing for all residents, like Somerville is already doing. It is critical to provide widespread testing in order to get this virus under control. All the countries and localities that have successfully reversed the course of this pandemic have done so with the help of widespread testing to identify the virus and quarantine the carriers to limit the spread of the virus. 

#9: Protections from Zoom-bombing

I submitted this order after our unfortunate encounter with the phenomenon known as “zoom bombing” during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting. During public comment, some people chose to make racist comments and display pornographic images. What’s frustrating about this incident is that it was largely preventable, and as an IT professional, I had been asking about these security concerns for several weeks now, and offered my assistance, to no avail. This order contains common-sense advice to allow us to run city council meetings via Zoom.

#10: Revisions to the mandatory mask order

I co-sponsored this order by Councillor Nolan based on what happened last week. The City Manager implemented a mandatory mask policy just hours before the City Council meeting last Monday, which had the matter on the agenda. This preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. As a result, there hasn’t been a discussion of the immense potential for disproportionate impact and bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. You can read my summary of what happened at last week’s meeting here.

Requiring everyone to wear a mask makes perfect sense, but threatening poor and unhoused people with a $300 fine does not. I joined a recent (virtual) meeting between members of the unhoused community and the City Manager, in which one young man stated plainly that there is not a lot of trust between the unhoused and the police right now, and that some people are being treated very roughly by some of the officers. The city claims the fine will only be a last resort, but if you’re not planning to fine people $300, then why attach a $300 fine at all?

As someone at the meeting carefully explained, those who do not have shelter don’t have a “home” to go to and take off their mask! So while some wealthy privileged people may not be deterred by anything less than $300, even the mere possibility of a $300 fine is oppressive to poor and unhoused people who are having an even harder time than usual meeting their most basic needs of food, shelter, and personal hygiene. It is tone-deaf to insist that we can’t have a mandate for wearing a mask without a $300 fine. It’s shocking that the city insists on that posture despite hearing clearly from the unhoused community that it is disrespectful and threatening to them.

A few days after last week’s meeting, the City amended the order and announced an effort to hand out compliant masks to anyone who needs them, something I had been calling for since before the policy was announced. Meanwhile, the Governor issued an emergency order that supersedes the city’s and allows for a fine of “up to $300”, but does not require it. We could levy a lower fine, or even no fine at all, based on the language of the order and guidance from our Attorney General.

The order on Monday’s agenda is not an attempt to “weaken” the mandatory mask order, as some of my colleagues have suggested, but rather a necessary attempt to improve it. Given the immense potential for disproportionate impact and enforcement bias, it is critical that the council has an opportunity to discuss and express its opinion on this matter.

Bonus: Spring has sprung and the garden is planted! Vegetables planted: eggplant, tomatoes, beets, spinach, lettuce, kale, corn, beans, and zucchini (hopefully).

Mandatory mask policy: initial thoughts

Wearing a mask is now mandatory anytime you go outside. My thoughts on this policy (also available as a Twitter thread):

One of the most discussed agenda items leading up to Monday night’s City Council meeting was the proposal to make wearing a mask in public mandatory, but the City Manager preemptively announced such an order before the Council even had a chance to discuss it. The intent of this policy is right and I support it as one way to help prevent the spread of the virus during the peak we are currently experiencing. It is also important to recognize that this policy is largely in alignment with Somerville’s policy.

With that said, the City Manager’s preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. There wasn’t enough discussion of the immense potential for bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. Context is important: the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black Americans including here in Cambridge, there is record unemployment, and we are struggling to even provide enough masks for the clients of the War Memorial emergency shelter.

So while there is a need for stronger messaging, I am worried about our most vulnerable residents being issued fines that they cannot afford. I expect to not hear any horror stories stemming from this policy, and ideally, there will be no enforcement at all. My suggestion is to have the police actually hand out compliant masks, something present in the Somerville order but not in Cambridge’s. This is a more proactive approach that recognizes that not everybody has ready access to a face covering that is both clean and compliant.

While this would certainly not eliminate the potential for bias, it seems like it would lead to more positive, productive outcomes in these interactions. What we really need is more space, not more policing. I hope the City Manager will listen to the will of the Council and support the closure of some streets, including Memorial Drive, to car traffic. New York City just announced it will close up to 100 miles of streets to pedestrians.

While Plan E Government may have thwarted substantial discussion of this topic on Monday, I plan to continue asking questions both behind the scenes and at future meetings of the City Council in an effort to continue improving on the policy decisions being made.

4/27/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #6)

A picture of the cafeteria at the city’s War Memorial emergency shelter, posted with permission from someone living at the shelter. You can see that food has been left out and the chairs definitely aren’t six feet apart. Folks staying inside the shelter have reported to my office that they are completely uncomfortable with these arrangements. You can read a more detailed update on this situation, or scroll down to Charter Right #1 to learn more about the upcoming vote to improve conditions. Please consider taking a moment to email the council about this in solidarity with the unhoused community.

Based on the daily case count, it does appear that Cambridge has entered the peak, the period during which we expect to see the most simultaneous active cases of COVID-19. Following this, we will hopefully see a mostly declining caseload. Based on the current data, Cambridge may have hit peak caseload, or is about to, but that is all subject to change because much of the data is still incomplete and gets filled in over time. So we won’t know for sure until after the peak has happened.

Unfortunately, that also means we will see an increase in fatalities, which lag behind total cases for obvious reasons. Last weekend’s Boston Globe obituary section ran 15 pages long, and soon most of us will know someone who died of COVID-19. It is going to be a very difficult next few weeks, and what lies beyond is anyone’s guess at this point.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night. For assistance with this, please contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: Funding for family support and parent education programs

 Families are going to need support now more than ever. It is good to see this grant funding, and I wonder if we can do even more.

CMA #2: Funding for Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

This is $309,676 in funding for LIHEAP, which helps low-income families in Cambridge and Somerville pay their heating bills during the winter.

CMA #3: Funding for Y2Y Youth Shelter

This appropriation of $114,359 will allow the Y2Y Youth Shelter in Harvard Square to continue running through May 31. I am glad to see this funding because there is significant concern around the potential placement of these youth clients at the War Memorial emergency shelter. 

CMA #4CMA #5CMA #6: Funding for snowstorm-related expenses

These appropriations will fund snowstorm-related expenses incurred this past winter including snow removal contracts, new equipment, and related street repairs. There obviously wasn’t much snow this winter, a mere 22 inches over 11 events. Given this, I don’t really understand why we are being asked to spend 1.1 million over what was budgeted. Do we budget for winters with absolutely zero snow? Why are we comfortable using Free Cash as a slush fund for snow removal, but not for housing the homeless during an emergency?

CMA #7: University funding for the War Memorial emergency shelter

Harvard and MIT each donated $250,000 to fund the construction and operation of the War Memorial emergency shelter, and this item makes it official. Frankly, given how large the endowments of these two universities are, I find these donations insulting. Harvard and MIT refused to shelter people on their campuses and only made this contribution when criticism began to build. Neighboring institutions are doing more for their communities with fewer resources. I created a petition calling on Harvard and MIT to step it up: you can sign here if you haven’t already. Over three hundred people have signed, including many Harvard and MIT alums, students and faculty! The War Memorial emergency shelter is fundamentally unsafe, and you can read more about my thoughts on that below, in Calendar #1.

CMA #8: City Manager update on COVID-19

This is yet another placeholder, and we will undoubtedly receive an actual update in person on Monday night. But I don’t understand why we cannot get written updates on the agenda ahead of time? I realize this is a rapidly changing situation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have written reports on Thursday that are elaborated on in person on Monday.

Calendar

Charter Right #1: Repurposing the War Memorial emergency shelter

I exercised my charter right on this policy order at last week’s meeting for the purpose of giving us more time to truly hear from the unhoused community about their needs. Over the last two weeks, my office has been in direct dialogue with several unhoused individuals, many of whom are living at the War Memorial emergency shelter and are reporting unsafe conditions. The council also received a citizen’s petition from the unhoused community, with over 100 signatures, asking for safer arrangements. This week I met (via telephone conference) with members of the community, the City Manager, and Councillor McGovern, to have a more formal discussion about how we can improve safety and comfort for the unhoused. The unhoused people on the call asked repeatedly to be housed in hotels or dormitories to safely practice social distancing, and this ask was strongly supported by their advocates in MAAP.

I will propose amendments to the policy order that bring it up to date, and hopefully, my colleagues will be more supportive of moving in this direction after hearing from the unhoused community directly about their needs. If Cambridge wants to be known as the best when it comes to human services, we need to do everything possible to protect our most vulnerable. So far we have not done that yet, great intentions notwithstanding.

Communications

Communication #5: Green Cambridge comments on proposed Alewife upzoning

This is an important letter from Green Cambridge about the environmental concerns raised by a proposed development from Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes. Separately, it is unclear how the new economic conditions will impact this and other proposed developments in the city. Chances are that as the recession deepens, projects will be delayed or even canceled. It’s a whole new world and we’re going to have to get creative about making sure we meet our affordable housing goals even as the recession eats into our revenues and private sector contributions. For the record, I have never taken campaign contributions from any real estate developer, including executives at Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes.

Communication #6: Petition from the unhoused community

This agenda item is actually a petition from the unhoused community in Cambridge, with over 100 individually signed letters (presumably collected that way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission). The petition calls for safer accommodations from the city, specifically mentioning hotels and dorms. Here is an example:

Resolutions

Resolution #8: on the death of Donald Reed Herring, brother of Senator Warren

 Condolences to our Senator, who lost her brother this week, as well as to everyone who is experiencing loss in this difficult time.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Food delivery app service fees

 This policy order asks the City Manager to look at restricting service fees charged by food delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Right now the fee structure is outrageous and it is really hindering the ability of our small businesses to stay above water during this crisis. It strikes me as fundamentally unfair that delivery services charge based on a portion of the meal cost, cutting directly into the restaurant’s profits. Why not charge a reasonable delivery fee instead? This is yet another unfortunate example of how the gig economy infected and weakened our economy, long before the appearance of COVID-19.

PO #2: Mandatory face masks

This policy order asks the City Manager to make wearing a mask in public mandatory. I support this, but we need to be careful to avoid unintended consequences by acknowledging the potential for racial bias in enforcement. We also need to recognize that not everybody has the resources to create a cloth mask, so we need to make sure there is a proactive effort to supply people with masks, rather than just slapping them with a fine that they may not be able to afford. If we can’t provide everyone who doesn’t have one with an appropriate mask, it wouldn’t be right to require everyone to wear one.

With that said, making this mandatory clearly communicates to people what is expected of them in order to protect the vulnerable. Many people are dying from this disease; the least we can do is prevent spreading it by staying home and wearing a mask when we have to go out.

PO #3: City workforce safety

This policy order asks the City Manager to establish specific steps to ensure the safety of the workforce upon the reopening of City offices and to provide special guidance for those employees who may be especially susceptible to COVID-19. It is important to protect our staff as they begin to return to physical offices over the next few months. Hopefully, this will lead to the city allowing a more flexible work schedule so that more people can work from home, de-densifying the offices, and making it easier to practice social distancing for those who come in that day. Even once we open back up, special considerations will need to be given for those who are particularly vulnerable. 

PO #4: Mental Health Awareness Month

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everybody, but especially for those who struggle with their mental health. Some have found solace in connecting with friends and family over the internet, but that has only made things more difficult for others. We need to find better ways to support each other and protect our mental health. This policy order, which recognizes May 2020 as “Mental Health Awareness Month” in Cambridge, is a good initial step in that direction.

PO #5: Videoconferencing technology for Council meetings

I totally agree with this order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler which asks the City Manager to look into a way of doing committee hearings over Zoom that would comply with the open meeting law. Monday night may actually be the first council meeting with a majority of councillors on Zoom- I’ve been using it for a few weeks but it hasn’t been fully integrated into the city’s A/V broadcasting system until now. We did a test run on Friday and it seemed to work ok, so hopefully, Monday night will be a successful first Zoom-based Cambridge city council meeting. With those kinks worked out, we should be able to start having committee meetings again via Zoom, of course initially dealing with COVID-19 related matters only, but eventually getting back to at least some of the other business that still awaits.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: School Committee budget update

First, I really appreciate Mayor Siddiqui’s communications keeping us abreast of the school committee discussions around the budget. These regular updates have been quite useful and are an important part of open and transparent communication between the City Council and School Committee around our collaboration on the school budget, which ultimately requires approval from both bodies.

Second, I’m heartened by the depth and breadth of discussion taking place on the School Committee around racial equity and closing the achievement gap. It seems to me that this is the most airtime this topic has received in decades. Talking about it does not equate with solving the problem, but we certainly cannot address the problem without talking about it. I look forward to an ongoing robust discussion and ultimately to a budget that begins to make real, meaningful change in the direction of equity. And if it doesn’t, I will once again not vote for it.

4/21 Post-meeting thoughts

Here are my thoughts after last night’s special City Council meeting on COVID-19. Photos published with the permission of someone living at the city’s War Memorial emergency shelter.

Photo of the sleeping area at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We all appreciated the City Manager’s update, but too little time was left for questions from the council. The presentation took so long that we barely even got through a first pass of the council before time expired. My notes are full of constituent questions that went unanswered. Far too much time was spent prematurely thanking & congratulating each other instead of answering questions. I understand the need to keep morale up, but it was excessive. This is an emergency, not an awards ceremony, and we are still at the very beginning of our response!

People are dying, & the most vulnerable are counting on us to think critically and sharp. But we are given very little info, and questioning anything is met with dirty looks. I get that people don’t like criticism, but saving lives is more important than sparing feelings. At last night’s meeting, the City Manager said that clients made a “smooth and uneventful transition” to the War Memorial emergency shelter, and the Police Chief called the opening “seamless”. But I am hearing a different story from folks actually living through it…

Does this look safe to you?

Photo of the dining space at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Food has been left out, and the chairs definitely are not 6 feet apart. I have heard from clients who are uncomfortable with this arrangement. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

Here are just some of the things I’ve heard from folks staying at the War Memorial shelter:

  • No privacy
  • Seated uncomfortably close together during meals
  • Sharing cigarettes
  • Not enough PPE
  • COVID-positive individuals have entered the facility

Folks staying in the new shelter recognize that the conditions are unsafe. The problem is more than the space between chairs or a lack of partitions. We were told last night that there are temperature checks daily, but I spoke to someone inside the shelter who said that is not the case.

Photo of a lounge area at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We fought tooth & nail to have everyone tested before entering the new shelter, and 30 people were pre-tested at the Warming Center last Thursday. But since the WC closed at 5 AM the following day, people who had just been tested had no safe place to go and were left exposed.

It wasn’t until Saturday that the Warming Center was kept open and people were asked to stay put until the results came in, so those who tested neg could be transferred to the Field House. Fortunately, only 3 people ended up testing +, and they were sent to shelter in hotels.

We obviously can’t force people to stay inside the shelter, but we also can’t test people every 5 minutes. Because of this, it is impossible to pull off a congregate shelter approach safely. & don’t the unhoused deserve dignity too? There aren’t even partitions between cots.

Photo of the outdoor space at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We are ignoring lessons learned from other cities, and the City Manager insists on celebrating a shelter that is inherently unsafe. Will it take a massive outbreak within the facility to get us to provide everyone with the isolated space they deserve?

The obvious solution: put those who need shelter into space where they can safely isolate, like a hotel or a dorm. If those who test positive for COVID-19 can be safely isolated in hotel rooms, why not those who tested negative? Wouldn’t that be the safest and most humane thing to do?

Compare all this to what we were told during last night’s meeting when I questioned the shelter:

  • Everything is fine
  • No problems here
  • Quit criticizing from the sidelines

We need to get this right, and I will keep advocating for the safety & dignity of the vulnerable!

Planning for our infrastructure needs

At a November 26 hearing of the Ordinance Committee, We discussed a zoning petition introduced by Councillor Carlone and I that would ensure the impacts of large new projects on electricity and natural gas infrastructure are properly considered as part of the permitting process.

There was broad agreement that it would be helpful to require developers to provide the Planning Board with information about the expected utility demands of their proposed projects, but the committee was not ready to require the Planning Board to base their decision directly on this information. I will return to this topic in the next term to find appropriate ways to ensure we are never again presented with a surprise on the scale of the proposed Eversource transfer station on Fulkerson Street. It’s critical that we plan carefully for the future while conserving energy and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and that will require a more stringent approach than the “build first and ask for more electricity later” approach that we’ve been following so far.

Eversource & the Fulkerson Street Substation Proposal, part 1

In response to Kendall Square’s recent explosive commercial building growth and without accounting for future demand projections, Eversource has proposed a massive 150-180 Megawatt power substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge, right across from the Kennedy-Longfellow School and Ahern Field. I vehemently oppose this substation, as well as the proposed substation expansions on Putnam Ave and in Alewife. Over the last six months, I’ve made it clear to Eversource, large property owners, and the City that they need to find a more suitable location in Kendall Square, and that they need to find a more sustainable and thoughtful way to meet our energy needs going forward. East Cambridge should not get stuck with dangerous and disruptive infrastructure that would power Kendall Square, but simply finding a different site is not good enough. Electric utility expansion is counterproductive to our climate goals, and Eversource should not be building any more of this infrastructure, period.

With 34 building projects permitted or under construction in Kendall Square and electric load already reaching 98% of capacity at peak usage times during Summer 2018, something clearly needs to be done. However, the Eversource proposal is a band-aid solution that perpetuates the lack of planning that got us into this mess in the first place! The demand projections presented by the utility don’t even factor in the millions of square feet of growth anticipated at the Volpe site in the coming years.

The demand projections presented by the utility don’t even factor in the millions of square feet of growth anticipated at the Volpe site in the coming years.

There has been a frustrating and unacceptable lack of coordination between the City and the utility, and the City seems perfectly comfortable to continue growing without serious infrastructure planning. If we continue along this path of mindless commercial growth, we will be back at the table in a few years having another conversation about the need for a new substation. Not on my watch! I will not vote for any more upzonings that add to our grid electricity consumption. Enough of us have taken such a position with respect to the Fulkerson Street proposal that the big developers in Kendall Square have come to the table to discuss alternative sites for this substation. I have also filed a zoning petition along with Councillor Carlone that would amend the special permit criteria to require that the Planning Board consider a project’s impact on our public utilities, including the electrical grid and its capacity.

86% of the electricity on the grid in Massachusetts does not come from 100% renewable sources, so any additional grid electricity consumption adds to our fossil fuel emissions, which need to be decreasing, not increasing! Though it may seem counterintuitive, we don’t need to increase our grid infrastructure in order to meet our electrical demands. Con Edison’s Brooklyn Queens Demand Management (BQDM) program is an excellent illustration: instead of spending a billion dollars on traditional solutions including a new substation (as proposed), the utility invested $200 million into demand management strategies and efficiency upgrades. This option worked better than anyone expected and addressed the electrical needs of the growing neighborhoods without the need for a new substation. 

If these alternative approaches can be effective in New York City, we should be able to explore them in Cambridge, but Eversource has refused to do so every time I bring it up during committee hearings. It is no surprise that the utility would be perfectly comfortable with endless additional grid infrastructure as most of their profits come from the distribution of electricity (as opposed to the generation) and they turn quite the profit despite being a “public” utility! Ultimately we need to move away from the for-profit utility model altogether. That is why I support Rep. Connolly’s bill, H.3893, “An Act Facilitating Public Ownership of Public Utilities”. I will continue to push for more aggressive investments in energy use reductions and for increasing local renewable energy deployments in existing buildings, and for net-zero ready and net-zero standards for new construction. We have built several net-zero ready municipal buildings at this point, and it is past time to do the same in private development through energy efficiency and local renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal, and air-source heating/cooling. Through all these strategies, we can reduce our building emissions, which account for 80% of Cambridge’s total emissions, and minimize the need for new grid infrastructure. Finally, I will continue to advocate at the state level to increase the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) up from the current 14%, and for other ways to accelerate the timeline to a 100% renewable electricity grid statewide.

Gas Ban Introduced

I recently introduced an ordinance that would ban natural (fracked) gas infrastructure in new construction in Cambridge and chaired a committee hearing to begin the discussion. 

Several cities in California have already passed similar laws, and several others here in Massachusetts are currently considering a similar ban on gas. Through air-source heat pumps, geothermal, rooftop solar, and maximally efficient design, we can electrify our building energy needs and avoid on-site combustion of fossil fuels entirely. Cambridge has already proven this concept in several municipal buildings, including the brand new King Open School complex, which has been built net-zero ready. 

We face a huge and expensive challenge in retrofitting our existing buildings to eliminate gas combustion in the future, and it makes no sense to worsen that problem by adding more buildings that burn fracked gas. 

HEET and Mothers Out Front delivered an excellent presentation at that hearing to educate us on what the word “fracked” actually means!

Currently only 14% of grid electricity in Massachusetts is renewable, and at current rates we won’t reach 100% for decades. So an all-electric, grid connected building today will not be truly net zero emissions unless it provides all of its own energy from renewable sources, which is difficult to accomplish. However, buildings designed as all-electric will automatically transition to net-zero emissions as the grid becomes increasingly green, whereas even the most energy efficient gas-reliant building cannot become net-zero without replacing the gas burning components, or supplying them with biogas, neither of which is particularly easy or cheap. Any individual or small business can get 100% renewable electricity through Cambridge’s Community Choice Aggregation program for a very comparable price to Eversource today. That means in Cambridge, a net-zero ready building can be converted to a true net-zero building with the stroke of a pen (have you signed up for 100% renewable electricity yet?)

I understand the concerns from residents who have lived through expensive bills from resistance heating (traditional electric heating), but air-source heat pumps (which can be thought of as air conditioners in reverse) are much more efficient and affordable than traditional electric heating. I have also heard from some residents who are concerned about having to give up their gas stoves, but it is important to realize that this change would only apply to new construction, so nobody is being forced or even asked to give up anything. Induction cooktops are garnering great reviews as a substitute for gas cooking.

Ultimately it will be important for all buildings to move away from fossil fuel combustion as an energy source because our aging gas infrastructure is an immediate and omnipresent safety hazard. Explosions caused by gas leaks happen routinely across the country; we all remember last year’s tragedy in Merrimack Valley and recently a major gas leak on Beacon Hill caused folks to have to evacuate so quickly that they couldn’t even put their shoes on before they left the house. According to HEET there were 280 unrepaired gas leaks in Cambridge in 2018, and there is no reason to continue living in fear of gas explosions when we have much safer and cleaner technology at our fingertips.Thanks to strong community support, I’ve been able to build considerable momentum around this proposal to ban gas in new construction. But passage is not guaranteed, and the conversation could very well drag into the next term.

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to let the council know how you feel about this policy by emailing us at <council@cambridgema.gov>. I’m also planning a community meeting in December to continue the discussion and learn more about the alternative technologies to gas that will power our transition to a renewable future.

Welcoming Community Ordinance Introduced

Cambridge has been a sanctuary city for more than 20 years as a matter of policy, but there is more that we need to do to protect immigrants in our community. I worked with Councillor Carlone to introduce the Welcoming Community Ordinance that would make it the law, as it should be, for the Cambridge Police Department to serve the public without consideration of immigration status or citizenship. Several other municipalities have already passed similar language, and the ACLU joined us at a recent hearing in support of the ordinance as proposed.

Specifically, this ordinance would:

  • Prevent police officers and other city employees from inquiring about the immigration status of anyone with whom they have contact, except to provide a public benefit.
  • Officially end any role the police may currently play in immigration enforcement by preventing them from participating in federal immigration enforcement operations, or from initiating investigations of their own on the sole basis of actual or perceived immigration status.
  • Prevent police officers from arresting or detaining individuals solely on the basis of an ICE detainer or ICE administrative warrant, including extending the length of detention by any amount once an individual is released from local custody.
  • Prevent the Police Department from providing a federal officer with information related to a person in the custody of the Department, including their home or work address, unless otherwise required by law.
  • Codify a policy of issuing a court summons instead of making an arrest when a person is caught driving without a valid driver’s license, assuming there are no other violations causing the person to be arrested. Instead of impounding the vehicle, the driver would be provided with a reasonable opportunity to arrange for a properly licensed operator to drive the vehicle away.
  • Require the Police Department provide individuals in custody with any documentation related to their immigration case, including any immigration detainers or ICE administrative warrants they receive.
  • Prevent ICE agents from being allowed to access individuals in custody of the Police Department (either in-person or virtually) except in response to a judicial warrant or other court order.

This work is deeply personal to me. I am an immigrant and naturalized citizen who came to the United States when I was 15 years old to escape dictatorship and oppression in my home country of Suriname in South America. Soon after their arrival, my family was served a deportation notice, and it took them eight years to get their legal status. I was fortunate to have arrived ahead of them on a student visa and ended up getting a green card (permanent U.S. residency) separately, so I was a witness in the rest of my family’s court proceedings (I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996). At the court hearing, I testified that my younger sisters would face immense difficulty if they were to be deported back to Suriname. The judge used my testimony to grant them permanent residency status, and then allowed my parents and brother to stay as well in the name of keeping the family together. It was an incredibly difficult situation but at least we were given due process and in the end my family was allowed to stay together and in the United States. 

The current administration’s war on immigrants is despicable. Keeping families together is no longer a priority and due process has been thrown out the window. Thousands of children are separated from their parents and kept in what are effectively concentration camps in which they are denied basic necessities like soap, and forced to sleep on concrete. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has proposed to evict mixed status families from public housing, a policy that would put up to 55,000 children who are legal US residents out on the street. Our country is deporting people into dangerous situations, like the diabetic man from Detroit who was recently deported to Iraq, a country he had never set foot in, where he soon died of a lack of access to insulin. It is time for Cambridge to step up in the face of this abhorrent abuse of power and do more to protect our immigrant community. We should stand with Somerville in building a protective legal wall to counteract this administration’s vicious attacks.

We held a committee hearing on this proposed ordinance a few weeks ago, but unfortunately the conversation was derailed by our City Solicitor who came unprepared to deliver a legal opinion on the ordinance despite having had nearly five months notice. I was ready to move the ordinance forward to the entire council for consideration, given that this language has already been reviewed by the ACLU and passed by several other municipalities. This conversation cannot drag on indefinitely with lives at stake, and I will do what I can to move this language forward before the end of the term. A benign interaction with the Cambridge Police or the court system should not be allowed to lead to deportation and separation for an immigrant family in Cambridge.

Councillor Zondervan’s Thoughts on the Sullivan Courthouse Vote

In one of the most consequential votes of this term, the Council approved the disposition of public assets at the First Street Garage, allowing a private developer to remediate the Sullivan Courthouse and convert it into primarily high-end commercial office space. The carefully orchestrated last-minute negotiation that took place on the chamber floor was a fitting end to a long process that exposed at every turn how undemocratic our city government truly is, and the extent to which powerful special interests rule. Putting the courthouse into private hands is a grave mistake, and I voted against proceeding in that way for reasons I will explain below. 

I am glad the project will contain twice as many affordable housing units than some were so eager to accept, although the additional units will not offset the impact of this development on the surrounding neighborhood and the people who hope to be able to continue living there. I am so proud of the overwhelming grassroots movement and true leadership from Representative Mike Connolly that it took to get us to the point where striking such a deal was even possible. To everyone who was a part of that, thank you for your work and your activism. I also appreciate Councillor Siddiqui’s willingness to demand more of the developer, though I am uncomfortable with the backroom approach, and ultimately we still left a lot on the table given the council held all the cards in this matter. 

Of particular concern is the impact that 400,000 square feet of high end commercial office space will have on the neighborhood and vulnerable renters who live nearby. Massive commercial development like this accelerates displacement, and the city has chosen to concentrate too much of it in the East Cambridge area. With millions more square feet set to come online over the next several years, the council had an opportunity to move in a different direction on land that had been in the public domain for more than 200 years. We should have denied the disposition and pursued the city purchasing the courthouse building instead. If successful in acquiring the building, we could have engaged in a democratic, public process that spread some of the development rights of the courthouse throughout the city so as not to overburden any particular neighborhood, while still being able to finance the cleanup and redevelopment of the site. Instead of an oversized commercial tower on the site itself that will worsen displacement, we could have built even more affordable housing than was obtained through this terrible deal. 

Hundreds of additional daily car trips in and out of East Cambridge will still be added by this hideous project despite the reduced number of disposed spaces in the proposed deal (which is subject to planning board approval). Even if the new deal is approved by the Planning Board, no actual car storage reduction will take place, because the number of spaces in the First Street Garage remains exactly the same. Keeping more of those spaces in the public domain for the next 30 years *is* a benefit to the community, because as we continue to eliminate on-street car storage to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, we need public garages, as a matter of economic justice, to assist those who cannot afford alternatives to driving to work every day.

It was fairly obvious that the compromise brokered on the floor had been worked out ahead of time, as the developer took only a minute to mull over a complicated package that will necessitate a trip back to the Planning Board to seek amendments that have no guarantee of passing. The deal was negotiated without input from anyone opposing the disposition, including the neighborhood group (East Cambridge Planning Team). There wasn’t even an opportunity for the council to discuss the substantial changes, let alone space for public comment. 

The choice to privatize is particularly concerning given the abhorrent condition of the building. Sensational claims that the building represents an immediate safety hazard made by proponents of privatization turned out to be baseless, but the city and state alike chose to drag their feet on reaching this conclusion publicly. Instead, they allowed fears to fester in the community, putting additional pressure on the council to vote yes. Everybody agrees that the building must be remediated immediately, but the fear-mongering that took place was inappropriate and unnecessary. 

The neighborhood deserves a remediated site as soon as possible, but privatizing the courthouse means it could be many years before that work gets done, if at all. It has been 11 years since the last economic recession, the longest such period in US history, and our President is reckless and unpredictable. The developer’s ability to remediate the site is contingent on outside funding that could easily vanish if we have a recession soon, at which point the developer could sit on the asset or even sell it off to another party. Most of us remember how development in Northpoint was stalled for years after the last recession, and the unfortunate circumstances around Jerry’s Pond show us that the city has very little ability or appetite to control public safety concerns related to private assets. Selling off this asset was the absolute worst choice we could have made if our goal is to remediate the site as quickly as possible for the neighborhood.

I am disappointed by the cheap shots on social media that were made in the aftermath of this vote, especially those that were directed against some of my colleagues.. At his inauguration last year, the Mayor gave a beautiful speech about “Cambridge United”. I hope the Mayor recognizes that in this case his office did not live up to that slogan. Policy disagreements should not translate into personal attacks on individual councillors.

Unfortunately, the courthouse building will stand for decades to come as an ungainly monument to injustice, reminding generations to come that government by the people and for the people, remains an aspiration that we must continuously strive towards, and that even the best intentions to negotiate a better deal can produce unjust outcomes in the end.

Councillor Zondervan’s Proposed Amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay

Councillor Zondervan recently joined his colleagues in submitting amendments to the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay. You can find them below, along with jump-links to a red-lined version of the proposed language. Please reach out to let him know what you think by emailing <qzondervan@cambridgema.gov>, or just by leaving a comment on this post!

Introduction

With nearly 20,000 individuals and families on the housing waitlist, it is frustrating to have spent most of the term and so much energy on a proposal that the city claims will lead to a few hundred additional units (at best) over the next decade, beyond what would have otherwise been built. Nobody disagrees that our zoning code could use a citywide overhaul, and the conclusion of the Envision master plan process seems to be a great time to do it. But this proposal takes a very narrow lens to that task, and for all the controversy, it seems likely that it will not meaningfully address the problem at hand.

Ultimately, we will need to be much bolder in our approach if we truly want to make a difference. Nonetheless, the AHO is before us and it is our duty as a council to carefully weigh the costs and benefits and to improve it as best we can before finally making a decision. I have listened to the perspectives of hundreds of constituents on this issue, and I have taken the time to seek out voices we don’t often hear from. A few themes have emerged from these conversations, which I have done my best to capture in the attached amendments for your consideration. 

In order for me to support an as-of-right citywide rezoning, there are three critical points I will be considering:

  1. We must protect existing tenants from displacement, and we must protect our local businesses as well.
  2. We must build with the climate crisis in mind, and that means anything we build should not be making global warming worse, and should protect the health and safety of its occupants from the impacts of climate change.
  3. We must be assured that the resulting buildings will be of the highest quality, that they will meet the architectural and design standards that we expect, and that they will serve the needs of the occupants.

This is by no means a final or exhaustive list of changes that will be required, and we are very much still at the beginning of the conversation in terms of evaluating whether or not the AHO is a good idea for Cambridge. The question does not hinge on the severity of the housing affordability crisis, which is high, but on the expected benefits of the policy proposed to address it. 

Whether or not we approve the AHO, we still have a lot more work to do in meeting the twin challenges of housing our residents affordably and protecting ourselves from climate change. That is why I am an outspoken supporter of Representative Connolly’s Housing for All agenda, and that is also why I will be introducing a bolder series of reforms this fall, including a ban on fracked gas in new construction and a proposal to allow multifamily housing everywhere in our city.

Summary of Zondervan Amendments

  • I was glad to finally receive draft AHO design guidelines from CDD. While these are a good start, a great deal more work remains to be done before these guidelines can be considered an acceptable tradeoff for eliminating discretionary project design review. I look forward to the continuing development of these guidelines. 
  • Any tenant directly displaced by an AHO construction must be guaranteed a right to return. (definitions, 3.b.iv)
  • For AHO units, we should give preference to those who have experienced a no-fault eviction from a market unit within city limits within the past year. (3.b.i)
  • AHO construction should not be exempt from the Tree Protection Ordinance. This is a fundamental matter of equity; everyone deserves access to the health and safety benefits of trees in close proximity to their dwelling units. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund should cover any additional costs incurred while achieving these standards, so that compliance won’t limit or prevent affordable housing construction. (7.6)
  • AHO buildings must be built Net Zero Ready (definitions), which means: as energy efficient as possible, with no on-site fossil fuel combustion, and maximum on-site solar production (if technically feasible), geothermal or air-source heating & cooling, and rainwater capture. (7.6)
  • FAR (density) should be limited to ensure sufficient land area for green open space for residents to enjoy and to protect against the heat and flooding impacts of climate change. (7.6.d)
  • Protect existing retail in buildings that are rebuilt/refurbished under the AHO. (4.b.i)
  • Allow retail services in any AHO building. (4.b)
  • 20% of GFA should be set aside explicitly for homeownership purposes in projects greater than 10 units. We could put these units directly into the city’s Homeownership Resale Pool, so there would be no additional administrative overhead. (3.b.iii)
  • Off-street surface parking cannot be counted as part of the 30% minimum open space requirement. (5.2.3.a.i)
  • 100% of the required open space shall meet the city’s definition of permeable. (5.2.3.c)
  • Waive the minimum lot area per dwelling unit dimensional requirement in table 5-1 to allow multiple dwelling units on a site. (4.a).
  • We should completely eliminate parking minimum requirements for AHO construction, with the only exceptions being to provide sufficient accessible parking as well as ample space for pickup and dropoff. Developers would still be allowed to build parking, but they wouldn’t be required to do so. (6.1.a)