Friday, April 19, 2024

The Koch Institute building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was brought up Monday in debate about the nature of development in Cambridge. (Photo: t55z)

A roundtable billed as a chance to talk about a “vision” for Cambridge and its zoning and land-use laws Monday instead played out like the reintroduction of long-lost relatives — the City Council and Planning Board — who vowed to be better about being in touch between reunions. (And might not.) Much of the two-hour-plus meeting was devoted to introducing how the panels deal with the development process and each other, rather than whether there was an appropriate shared vision or consensus on changing it.

A second theme was whether the zoning rules under which the city operates, now a decade old, were relevant now. Planning Board chairman Hugh Russell said the basic principles of city planning were unchanged, even as “the world changes around us,” and didn’t need to be altered even when re-examined as they were some 15 years ago.

The tone of the meeting, though, as well as the specific suggestions of councillors Leland Cheung and Denise Simmons, suggested those principles would be tested again soon.

Vision came into play most in a rush toward the end of the meeting, when Mayor David Maher praised the towering, mirrored-glass Koch Institute building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, rejecting the notion that ground-floor retail belonged in every building in defiance of the views of other councillors (including Cheung, who called the Koch building “not a brick wall, but just as dead” at the pedestrian level); urged sidewalk dining wherever possible; and raised the possibility of a commuter rail stop in the Concord-Alewife area, which has a burgeoning life sciences presence.

A wish to move away from one- and two-bedroom homes and create larger homes that are “truly family friendly” was raised by councillor Craig Kelley, who also wondered briefly about encouraging the creation of fabrication space that would keep the city’s innovation economy growing.

Central issues

The issues of First Street and Central Square also came up, with First Street related to the Koch building by comparison with the Cambridgeside Galleria mall. Russell called First Street an example of what not to do with retail, since the mall “sucked the retail energy” away from the street, but Cheung noted that street retail can work with malls designed to let people flow in and out along the street — just not with Cambridgeside’s “fortress” design.

When Russell pointed out Central’s dramatic improvement over the decades, Cheung noted that one of the first thing visitors ask is “What’s wrong with Central Square?” and that when it comes to shopping, compared with Harvard Square or spots in Boston, it’s “the last place they want to go.”

There are already studies under way of Central and Kendall squares and Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge and between Harvard and Porter squares (what Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, said had been dubbed “the Harpo study” in tribute to the Marx Brothers). Projects on the far side of Central, in East Cambridge and NorthPoint are also looming.

Working together

But a way for the panels to work together had to be figured out before there could be a vision for trying all this together, and there were only vague proposals raised along those lines.

While Russell invited councillors to board meetings, councillor Marjorie Decker gave an 18-minute speech about her hands-off approach to the “depoliticized” Planning Board, which she’s adopted to avoid being seen as lobbying. She questioned whether the current structure is the best.

“There’s not a lot of communication between the two bodies. I’ve really struggled over the past decade to figure out what is the best way to communicate and to also effectively represent the needs of my constituencies, the larger vision of the city and work in partnership with the Planning Board … you’ve seen me maybe once or twice times in 12 years at a Planning Board meeting, and that’s been deliberate. Given the way our system is organized it’s been best for me to actually keep a distance from you and communicate formally, through a letter that’s public record or through a policy order. It’s not that I don’t know you exist, it’s my way of trying to actually respect the different roles. We all have different ways on the council of trying to figure out how to communicate with you. I don’t think we’ve landed on the most effective way for either body.”

Decker wondered if meeting quarterly might get the panels working better together, although one body is inherently political. “You’ve been appointed by the city manager, yet … often the council is held accountable [for your decisions.] I find myself defending you to residents,” she said. “We have to get elected to get hired again, so we have to ensure the decisions you make best represent the needs of the community. And our system doesn’t always allow that to happen.”

(Kelley drew laughs by describing the role of the board — apparently thankless save for Monday, when every speaker including the city manager made it a point to praise board members for their service — as: “We give you guidance and then get upset when you follow it.”)

A city employee whose sole job was working with residents on zoning and development issues was mulled by Decker, and the issue of compensation for board members was mentioned glancingly.

The end of the meeting left nothing resolved save that a change in how the panels interact would have to come methodically, such as through council policy order deliberation and advice from city managers.

One thing that seemed unlikely to change, quarterly gatherings or not: the number of meetings for councillors and board members. “You’re right,” Simmons told Russell. “You have enough meetings and we have enough meetings.”

A public meeting on Kendall Square proposals is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 21 at the Boston Marriott Cambridge, Two Cambridge Center or 50 Broadway in Kendall Square; initial recommendations are expected in November. There will be a public meeting for the Harvard-Porter study the next day at a location to be announced.