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Dueling orders about whether Cambridge has a development “master plan” promise to make for a long Monday evening with the City Council as people arise to take their three minutes of public comment before councillors debate which to support.

Which is worthy? The answer is actually very simple: The one that asks for a concrete answer as to whether Cambridge has a development “master plan,” duh.

And only one does.

When given a choice between getting a question answered and having a question ignored, always get the question answered. And this is a question that’s been bogging down development in Cambridge for years already.

Sure, this is Cambridge and all the evidence shows we like to muddle about in obscurity and uncertainty. Our voting is tricky, NorthPoint is our easternmost neighborhood and we have “upper schools” filled with middle-schoolers – and our master plan is, by the explanation of our own Community Development Department, not a simple, readable document but

a set of documents: the zoning map and the zoning ordinance, the City’s growth policy document, ‘Toward A Sustainable Future,’ and the major areawide planning studies that are currently applicable across the city. These documents, taken together, reflect the evolution of the city over the last three centuries, and provide a planning framework into which new projects must be inserted with care and with attention to many trade-offs.

But if four of nine city councillors don’t think there’s a master plan or are even unsure, it’s time to find a way to answer the question resoundingly. (Not to mention that all but one of 14 council candidates responding to a questionnaire during the most recent election said a comprehensive master plan was needed, including Harvard-educated urban planners Dennis Carlone and former councillor Sam Seidel.)

So as promised during their winning campaigns for council, Carlone and Nadeem Mazen are asking (along with longtime councillor E. Denise Simmons) for a master plan process – starting with an Ordinance Committee made up of all nine councillors deciding whether the rapidly developing city actually has one.

It sets a July 31 deadline for meetings and reports, then asks for a roundtable that would set development priorities.

It’s that dueling policy order from Mayor David Maher, Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan and first-termer Marc McGovern that says the city has a master plan – but wants public meetings on it and a report back because it’s confusing to citizens. In the policy order’s language, “neighborhood organizations have expressed difficulty and frustration understanding the complexity of the city’s master plan.”

It’s hard to tell if the councillors are being polite or condescending with their language, or both. Even if they really think that’s the issue, their order is worth rejecting for the very reason that it somehow ignores that there’s a question out there from their fellow city councillors, development experts and some pretty smart citizens as to whether what the city has qualifies under the state’s requirements of nine specific components of a master plan, including how continuing development and population growth works with our transportation infrastructure.

There’s even a complaint with the state from resident Charles Teague saying Cambridge doesn’t have a real plan.

Whereas ordinary people and their towns acknowledge there are questions and just answer them directly, Cambridge has a weird little history of ignoring the obvious to avoid saying the uncomfortable (see Professor Gates, arrest of; and Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, former practices of).

Just this once, what say we actually just gather some experts and facts and answer the question, providing a real basis for conversation rather than just starting our conversation in the usual muddled middle?

Some resources

There’s a flurry of activity online about this, including explanation by the councillors (Carlone’s is here) and requests from organizations urging support for one or the other policy orders. The Cambridge Residents Alliance, saying a master plan is “the surest route to a livable, affordable and diverse city” is here; and here is the position of A Better Cambridge, saying the the order from Maher, Benzan and McGovern “recognizes the important work of previous community planning studies in Cambridge, as well as the critical role new development plays in expanding the diversity and livability of our community.” Online petition signatures and letters to the wider council are urged.

Of the three councillors who aren’t sponsoring one of the policy orders: Leland Cheung said while campaigning before the November election that he believed the city had a master plan (and that it “is the zoning code”); Craig Kelley told the Cambridge Residents Alliance he agreed a comprehensive master plan and citywide planning was needed; and Tim Toomey didn’t address it.

Going into Monday’s meeting, residents may want to compare the approach Cambridge’s neighbors have taken:

bullet-gray-smallSomerville held more than 50 meetings, visioning sessions and public workshops resulting in a 2010-2030 “SomerVision” document that was adopted in April 2012.

bullet-gray-smallArlington is at work on its “once-in-a-generation master plan process on land use and physical development in town” to guide it over the next 20 years. Working papers forming the basis of the document are being presented through May.

bullet-gray-smallBelmont prepared its master plan in a two-year process that ended with its adoption in April 2010. The document takes the town through 2020.

bullet-gray-smallWatertown is preparing a comprehensive plan for the first time since 1988. It was expected to be complete by the end of 2013.

bullet-gray-smallMedford has a “five-year consolidated plan”  focused on CDBG block grants and the like that take the town through 2015, but there are residents who complain about the lack of an actual master plan.

bullet-gray-smallMalden has a master plan prepared by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council that was adopted July 2010.

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