Saturday, November 4, 2017

Cambridge Council Endorsements

I know you've all been waiting for it … the Official Amateur Planner 2017 Cambridge City Council endorsements!

I've lived in Cambridge for 6 years now, served on the Bicycle Committee for most of that time and gone to more council and zoning meetings than I care to admit. I'm making these endorsements based on two criteria: bicycle safety and progressive development policy (with a bit of transit thrown in). A bit of background:

1. Bicycle safety has become a hot button issue in Cambridge in recent years as more and more people have embraced cycling to work, and our infrastructure hasn't kept up. There is some talk that the recent activism, especially among younger voters, will change the makeup of the electorate in Cambridge this year. Nominally, all candidates are for safe cycling, but in reality, some are more than happy to sell out to the interest of the minority of people driving in Cambridge. After several "pop-up" lanes were installed this spring, there was a bit of "bikelash" in Cambridge, with some City Councilors calling for a moratorium until we could figure out how to make bike lanes not impact—well, something. They're not sure. Let's call it "easy parking and the free flow of traffic." Most insidious: the Harvard Square Business Association trying to kill bike lanes because cars. Councilors Simmons, Toomey and Maher supported this. they're off the list. (They also got their comeuppance: hundreds of cyclists, three hours of public comment and a meeting that ran until after midnight; I doubt they'll be pulling this sort of stunt any time soon.) Craig Kelley, based on several interactions, is kind of wishy-washy on safe cycling infrastructure, and while he often touts himself as a cyclist, he often veers in to the vehicular cycling realm. Sorry, Craig. For others, and for new candidates, I'll defer to the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group's list.

2. Development. Here, most candidates fall in to two camps, the Cambridge Residents Alliance and A Better Cambridge. Both are nominally aligned with allowing more development, but only one—A Better Cambridge—actually follows through. There are a few arguments against additional density and development, none of which hold water:

  • Gentrification. In Cambridge, this has already happened. So new luxury housing is not going to "improve" neighborhoods and increase existing rents, despite what CRA may say. This is, in general, grade-A horse manure.
  • Road/transit congestion. This too is a red herring. Cambridge itself is not that congested, most people bike, walk and take transit to work. It's the getting to Cambridge part. More local housing will mean more bike/walk/transit commutes, and the answer is not to build less housing, but to improve connections to Cambridge. Yet the CRA won't take a position on reducing parking minimums.
  • Open space. There is an argument for keeping some Open Space. But for an organization like CRA, open space becomes "parking lots." This needs no further explanation. (Apparently they have softened it to "it can be redeveloped for affordable housing"—good idea—"but only if the parking is replaced." Just, no.
There have been recent pushes by small groups of residents to downzone parts of Cambridge (I'm not sure if the CRA took a position on this, but they claim that Cambridge faces "over-development"; however, I know ABC opposed it wholeheartedly.) I don't like going to these meetings and don't want to have to go to more! Let's get councilors who we know won't buy in to this nonsense. 

A local zoning case in point: There used to be an autobody shop and a couple of businesses in a decaying, single-story building at 78 Pearl Street. These were non-conforming uses, built before the area was zoned C. The land was bought and the businesses relocated. It would have been a perfect opportunity to build a mixed-use, multifamily dwelling with apartments sized appropriately for the area. However, because of the zoning, mixed-use was out (even though it was replacing businesses!) and in place of the building went 78 and 80 Pearl: 4 bedroom, 3.5 bathroom (as a friend said: "oh, so everyone can poop in their own toilet!") single-family houses (on tiny lots) for $1.75 to $2 million. Two units instead of six. There are plenty of examples of non-conforming uses which could never be built today but fit in fine with the neighborhood. But given the land values, and the zoning, developers are forced to build this type of low-density, pseudo-suburban housing which is completely unaffordable.

So, while some CRA-endorsed candidates are beyond excellent on bicycle infrastructure (Jan Devereaux in particular, but she's past president of the very NIMBY Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, so there's that), this page can not endorse anyone who is endorsed by the CRA. If you're voting just based on bikes, she should be on your list.

There is some "whataboutism" going on with some anti-development types who say that the fault lies in other cities and towns not doing their part. This is true, but it's no reason for Cambridge not to develop more housing as well. Remember when Homer Simpson ran a campaign for garbage commissioner with the slogan "can't someone else do it?" Can't someone else do it is not a logical policy. Yes, there would be less pressure on local housing prices if the Newtons of the world did their part. But it's no reason for Cambridge to keep density down.  

Oh, then there's Tim Toomey. He's already out for a number of reasons (when he was a Councilor and State Rep, he was making more money than the governor, so don't feel bad if he loses his job, his pension should be just fine), but please leave him off your ballot entirely. He quashed the idea of running commuter rail to Cambridge because he was afraid of big, bad trains running on train tracks, so instead everyone from the Metrowest/Turnpike corridor drives. More congestion! More pollution! Progress! Thanks, Tim.

So with these criteria in mind, here are the official Amateur Planner-endorsed candidates. It's easy to remember: they all begin with "M":
  • Alanna Mallon: I met Alanna when she was canvassing. She gets it. I think she didn't get the Bike Safety endorsement because she holds back a bit on implementation of bike lanes. But from my conversation, she is very much in favor of transit and bike lanes, and will be an ally on the Council.
  • Marc McGovern: Marc has been on the Council since I've lived in Cambridge, and has been on the right side of the debate the whole time. I look forward to him serving another term.
  • Adriane Musgrave: I may have talked to Adriane longer than I talked to Alanna! (Note to candidates: knocking on my door helps.) She also very much "gets it" and is super data-driven and wonky. That's my kind of candidate!
So there you have it. If these three candidates are on the City Council, the future is bright. I will be ranking them #1, 2 and 3. (I'm not giving away my order.) If you live in Cambridge, vote how you wish. But I would urge you to vote for these candidates.

(I don't live in Boston, but here's my at-large council endorsement for Michelle Wu, of course. )

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