Sunday, June 16, 2024


In honor of the Olympics, here are the gold, silver and bronze medal award winners in the competition for recent City Council frustrations. The ball in play is the Foundry building in East Cambridge, which the city got January 2012 in a real estate deal. That deal said municipal or community uses were preferred for its 53,800 square feet but that at least 10,000 square feet of it was required as community, educational, cultural or institutional uses. Basically nothing has happened with the building since, save for sporadi debate among officials and entreaties for action from the public.

At their Jan. 27 meeting, councillors Dennis Benzan, Nadeem Mazen and Tim Toomey proposed turning the whole structure into a home for nonprofits working in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, so residents can get high-paying jobs in Kendall Square and keep living here despite astronomical real estate prices.

Commence play.

The gold medal goes to E. Denise Simmons for demanding a recap of everything that’s happened.


The meeting began with about two hours of residents speaking in support of the combined plan of  Benzan, Mazen and Toomey, similar to the support such uses got when the city solicited response from residents citywide. Councillor Craig Kelley was in favor of moving ahead as well, and it’s safe to guess there were at least two other yes votes among the nine councillors.

After more than two years the city has had the Foundry and done nothing with it, it looked like there would finally be action and that it would be in a needed area with demonstrated public support.

But Simmons stopped the race, literally bumping the idea off track, with this crushing bit of rhetoric:

I would not vote for this if we don’t take a moment to at least get an overview. Before we spend the time developing financial plans, we just have to look at ‘This is how we got the building, these are some of the things that were referred to before we got all excited about STEAM and STEM.’ I’m not trying to belittle it, but I just think there’s a procedural way to do this … I support the idea, I just don’t support the way you want to do it.

“Before Mr. Rossi and his team spends hours developing a financial plan,” Simmons said of City Manager Richard C. Rossi, “you have to at least know where you came from.”

So, just to be clear: Simmons wants to save Rossi and his team from the hours they would take working up financials based on the STEAM plan – which Simmons said she’s “excited” about – by having him first work up a history of the city’s involvement with the building, and instead of having a vote Jan. 27, councilors will hold a March 3 special meeting to examine that history in depth.

Afterward, if the broadly supported STEAM concept is voted in, Rossi and his team will then spend hours working up financials based on it.

Even if the plan is voted down in favor of another, it will never be clear whether Rossi’s recapitulation of recent history played a role. This is for two very obvious reasons: a good idea can win enough council support to pass even whether it’s part of Foundry lore or not; and because we’ve all been living this history in real time. Four of the nine councillors (including Simmons) were even in office when the Foundry real estate deal was being worked out. Leland Cheung was in office to vote for it when it came to a vote in 2009. Mazen has been advocating for use of the Foundry for about a year. It’s possible the three remaining councillors could benefit from an official recap (although one of those is Benzan, who apparently felt enough grasp of the issue to write a policy order about it), but why does this particular issue warrant one when there are so many topics of debate in the council that linger from year to year?

Councillors who actually need to catch up could have their legislative aides use city technology to “at least know where you came from,” in the words of Simmons. There’s a “Search the database” link on the right side of the council homepage that sorts documents by keyword and date. This search for “Foundry” topics since January 2008 shows there have been 11 policy orders from councillors, nine committee reports and four action items from the city manager, as well as eight communications and a set of roundtable minutes to look through.

If it seems like a lot, like there’s been so much circling around for so long without a sustained narrative, well, that’s kind of the point. Demanding a summary of your own meandering, however, is definitely worthy of some fool’s gold.

The silver medal goes to Marc McGovern for making it feel like we’re starting over from scratch.

101513i-Marc-McGovernThis is a distant second for a number of reasons.

McGovern liked Simmons’ idea of a recap because he didn’t know how he could agree to the suggested use for the Foundry “without first seeing all the information you’ve accumulated from all the meetings you’ve had.”

Yes, there have been a ton of ideas for the Foundry. It’s been imagined as a hotel, as housing, as tech incubator space and as a permanent home for school administrators, who are now in a crumbling rental with no exit strategy. But STEAM uses have been in the mix since at least June 2012 from various councillors and members of the public, and it was exciting to see the council try to take action.

That’s why it was such as buzzkill when McGovern basically issued his own threat to bring in a policy order suggesting the Foundry would be better used as space for early education. This is not to say McGovern didn’t have valid reasons. The previous council’s fecklessness is not McGovern’s fault, and he’s being responsible by insisting he understands what he’s voting for. As councillor Dennis Carlone noted, early education is at least as likely to raise people out of poverty as are science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. But the city has no plan or place for it, and it would be wrong for the entire Foundry to be STEAM – especially if the Multicultural Arts Center, which is less than a half-mile away, is underused – if early education can sensibly have space there too.

His halting of the action, then, was depressing mainly because it showed how the malaise of the last council had yet to be shaken off. Here’s how McGovern phrased the second-most depressing moment of the night:

What I’m concerned about is more an issue around decision-making by this body and process. I don’t want to see a situation where individual orders come in directing the city manager to do something with this building that then get into this kind of debate over ‘What does councillor McGovern want to do with this building, or someone else to do with this building?’ And you have to vote against something that you’re really not against. It’s not the best way to do business.

I think STEAM and the arts are great. And I think those are two possible uses for the building. I also know there’s a lot of other possibilities for the building … early childhood education is something this council has said they’re interested in, and one of the huge obstacles aside from money is where would we put the kids? And what would we do? Now, I’m not saying this building should be used for that or not, but what I do know is that if I filed an order saying ‘use the building for an early childhood center’ we’d get 50 people that would come out and say that’s a great idea.

So I just don’t know if that’s the way to make such an important decision, because what we could end up with is a body of nine different orders directing the manager to do nine different things with the building.

And while the delay – so far – is only a month, that month started out being a delay of two weeks. (“It’s not at all blasphemy to wait two weeks,” is how Simmons put it in late January. “I would prefer the first week of March,” Rossi responded.)

The City Council’s roundtable meetings – this one was held in 2010 – take no votes or public comments and cannot be televised. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The City Council’s roundtable meetings – this one was held in 2010 – take no votes or public comments and cannot be televised. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The bronze medal goes to council rules about ‘roundtables’ and the councillors who kept them.

With councillors resigned to returning to Foundry talk with a report from Rossi, it came down to deciding what kind of meeting it was going to be. Simmons wanted a roundtable, in which the council supposedly goes in-depth exploring a topic, doesn’t take public comment and holds no votes.

“I cannot support that,” Toomey said of Simmons’ motion for a roundtable. “I’ve always said, if it’s a roundtable it’s not going to be televised. This is too important an issue for my community and people who cannot get here to see the discussion. I could not support a [meeting] if it not’s going to be televised.”

So the roundtable was turned into a “special meeting” that would accomplish exactly what the roundtable would, but with cameras rolling. In fact, there are always councillors who are passionately opposed to the televising of roundtables except when they’re not, resulting in roundtables that are called something else.

With the council already looking at revising its rules, let’s hope this is one that gets a good, rational look and is retired completely. Surely there’s something equally frustrating that can earn the bronze next time around.