Council has awkward moments with expiring MIT petition, plan to televise meeting
Having discovered that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology petition to remake 26 acres in Kendall Square may expire more than a week earlier than they thought, city councillors moved it forward Monday and decided not to televise a meeting being held on the issue at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
The councillors moved the petition to a second reading without a roll call vote, while a vote taking back the announcement that Friday’s meeting would be televised went 6-2. Craig Kelley and Minka vanBeuzekom voted in favor of televising, Denise Simmons was absent and the rest of the council voted against – even David Maher, who introduced the discussion saying confidently that “We had a little confusion last week, but the meeting will be televised … this is not a regular roundtable. We’re using the term roundtable.”
It was actually vanBeuzekom’s policy order that was voted down, while Maher simply believed he could televise his meeting because at the previous Ordinance Committee meeting, March 7, “I made a commitment.” Also, he said Monday, “This is not an ordinary roundtable,” and called it a “working group of the Ordinance Committee.”
He ran into opposition from Marjorie Decker, who rejects categorically the idea of televising any roundtable, and Tim Toomey, who added that Maher didn’t have the authority to create his own style of meeting – one in which there was no public comment, like a roundtable, but was televised, unlike a roundtable. (There are also no votes taken at council roundtables.)
“It’s either one or the other,” Toomey said. “Someone will file a suit.”
“I think we’ve found a place where the rules need to be changed,” Mayor Henrietta Davis said.
Through its MIT Investment Management Co., the school proposes to remake its east campus in Kendall Square with 800,000 square feet of academic space, 240,000 square feet of housing and 65,000 square feet of retail. Two towers would be built mid-campus to host corporate tenants. The plans needs a zoning change, and as part of the deal, some 50 to 60 units of housing would be set aside for people with low or moderate incomes out of about 300 total; there would be community benefits payments of $14.3 million; and at least 5 percent of new commercial square footage would be reserved for incubator space for startup businesses.
This so-called MIT PUD-5 plan has been identified by the council as expiring April 24, and by the Planning Board on April 23. On Monday the public and some councillors got a surprise: “Upon further and closer review, it is the opinion of the clerk’s office as well as the city solicitor that the petition expires April 15,” Maher said.
That dates back to a Planning Board hearing Jan. 15, although technically the board decided that hearing didn’t end until it met again Jan. 22, when members heard more public comment, deliberated and voted.
More questions than answers
Kelley wanted more detail about Monday’s change, as he wasn’t “super happy with it popping up at the last minute.” Under the later deadline the council had another week before having to vote to move the petition forward, and petitions are voted on after a second reading.
But there wasn’t much more detail or clarity to be had about the sudden change in calendar.
Davis’ stab at an explanation: “The original calculation was perhaps not based on the actual Planning Board hearing, and that may have caused a kind of misunderstanding of the dates.”
That raised another question. As noted by vanBeuzekom, the council’s own table of pending zoning petitions says petitions expire 90 says after their first hearing with the Ordinance Committee, not Planning Board.
As Interim City Clerk Donna Lopez explained:
We’ve always used the 90 days under Chapter 40A [of the Massachusetts General Laws]; it’s usually 90 days from the Ordinance Committee meeting. However, in the [city] zoning ordinance it says 90 days from the Planning Board. And usually state law supersedes municipal. However, to be on the safe side it was advised that this be ordained by April 15.
“And that is the explanation at this time,” Davis said, leaving unanswered who brought the issue to the city solicitor in the first place, why her and the clerk’s language remained so tentative and what effect the new understanding of the law had on other zoning petitions.
It wasn’t the only awkward moment at the meeting.
“Procedurally it was not handled the right way”
Looking back at the four-hour March 7 meeting with its two hours of public comment, Maher conceded that many people were upset when councillors voted to send the petition to the full council – so it was heard Monday – before any member of the public got to speak. “People had to leave the meeting, and by people having to leave, we had to move the vote up,” Maher said. But apparently because it suggested public comment was irrelevant to the councillors’ decision-making process, Maher said that “procedurally it was not handled the right way.”
The complexities of the petition led to one-on-one meetings with councillors and city planners last week and Monday; to Friday’s morning meeting and likely another committee hearing after that; and to two chances for the public to look over the three-dimensional model of the proposed acreage and hear more about the plan. All are intended to impart more details about the plan for Kendall Square than could come at a meeting with two hours of presentation and two hours of public comment.
The catered gatherings for the public, which include activities for kids, will be held at 1 Broadway to the right of the Firebrand Saints restaurant from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and from 6 to 8 p.m. March 26.
The complexity did not, however, sway councillors into granting either Maher’s hybrid meeting concept or the one-time suspension to televise a meeting asked by vanBeuzekom – even though many citizens will be unable to take two and a half hours off from work to attend a 9:30 a.m. meeting on a weekday.
“I’m not going to support the televised roundtable, and that’s based on a single principle we’ve had since we started them, and that is once you start picking and choosing which roundtables you televise, there’s no point in having a roundtable,” Decker said. “It’s an opportunity for the council and stakeholder to have much more frank discussions than we do when the cameras are on and there’s the risk of maybe saying things that you might not say as frankly without the cameras on.”
Whether the city’s cameras are turned on or not, the Friday meeting is open to the public, and state law says any member of the public has the right to make and transmit an audio or video recording of an open session of a public meeting after telling the official in charge of the meeting they’ll be doing so – a right used regularly at Cambridge meetings, hearings and roundtables by journalists and other citizens.