Thursday, June 20, 2024

After nearly three hours of public comment and another of debate by city councillors, two policy orders about development in Cambridge were deemed not so far apart after all and tabled so they could be combined by Mayor David Maher.

When that’s done, councillors can vote again on an order that might see if the city has a development master plan as called for by state law and bring the community and officials through a public process to bring it up to date.

While throughout Monday’s council meeting there were people seeing similarities in the orders and calling for them to be merged, most of the public speakers favored one and were against the other and expressed fears of what would result if the wrong one were voted in – mainly over things that were found nowhere in the actual text of the orders, including a citywide moratorium on construction while the master plan was examined and rewritten. Another fear was that the 18-month K2C2 process reimagining Kendall and Central squares would be scrapped.

No moratorium

While residents preferring the order offered by councillors Dennis Carlone, Nadeem Mazen and E. Denise Simmons said the city was being built up too fast without thought for overburdened transit, choking traffic or other infrastructure, residents speaking for the order by Maher, Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan and Marc McGovern warned that there should be no delay for new housing that was needed urgently to keep prices reasonable in a tight real estate market and rapidly gentrifying city.

“I don’t know where they read words that are not in the policy order, but I would like to put some of those fears to rest,” said Carlone, an architect, urban planner and first-term councillor who promised while running for office that he would call for a new master plan. “Our order doesn’t pretend to limit development. The ‘M’ word was never brought up, although some certain neighborhood groups did ask about a moratorium. I told them I didn’t think it would pass.”

If there was a neighborhood that would deserve one, Carlone said, it was Alewife, “but the likelihood of that happening is small at this moment. With time, greater study can be done.”

Two processes

Another conflict was who would run a master plan process. The order sponsored by Maher, Benzan and McGovern put it in the hands of the Community Development Department, while the order by Carlone, Mazen and Simmons looked to the council’s committees to start the process – including an Ordinance Committee look by all nine councillors to determine if what the city had now fit the state’s definition.

The committees would report on their findings to the entire council by July 31, after which there would be a special meeting or roundtable to boil them down as priorities for a new master plan process.

But Carlone stressed that he not only wrote his order with the intention of including the Community Development Department, but with the department’s knowledge. He even delayed filing the order at its request, he said.

Confused councillor

There was confusion even after Carlone’s clarifications, this time displayed by Benzan.

“The problem that I have with this conversation and with the amount of time and energy and resources it’ll take to produce a master plan is that every single day, we lose a family from our city. And what I haven’t heard tonight is: How do we address the immediate needs of housing?” Benzan asked. “This could take years. I don’t know of any city in America that has completed a master plan in three months … this is an enormous project, and I don’t want to wait five or 10 years for families that are struggling to stay in our cities to finally get housing in Central Square.”

Benzan also suggested that with councillors and city staff already at work on a number of issues, “At some point, we have to slow it down a little bit … A master plan can be a great long-term goal, but in the short term we have a lot of work to do to ensure we are trying to protect as many as our families as possible.”

After Carlone clarified again that there was no moratorium on development called for in his order, meaning the construction of housing could go on during the process, Simmons brought the topic to a close, calling for the orders to be tabled and combined. “If anyone can synthesize this, I believe it is you, maybe with vice mayor Benzan and councillor Carlone,” she told Maher.

The merger was embraced by both sides, with only Tim Toomey voting against the tabling and Maher being put in charge of making two orders into one.

Caused by open meeting law

That there were two orders at all was a result of the council’s efforts to avoid violating the state’s open meeting laws, Maher said. The law says that matters affecting the public shouldn’t be conducted away from public eyes, and with a nine-member council, four is the limit of councillors who can collaborate on an order.

“Until tonight I have not been able to speak to councillor Carlone about the differences in these orders … There’s a lot more commonality than you may think,” Maher said, acknowledging the overlap in orders mentioned in public comment by residents such as Ron Axelrod, Phyllis Bretholtz, Sue Butler, Lee Farris, Carolyn Fuller, Kathy Hoffman, Steve Kaiser, Jana Odette, Shelley Reiman, Kathy Watkins and Marilyn Wellons.

“The talking has to happen here,” McGovern said. “Which is good, because it happens in the public, but it’s also messy. So you’re going to see more of this, because we can’t come together to talk. You’re going to see more orders that appear on the surface to be competing, but we have to file them to bring them onto the floor and actually have a conversation that we want to have. That’s why these two orders seem on the surface to be competing, but I don’t think are.”

Another approach would have been to let an order be put on the agenda and amended during council debate. Carlone said that when approached by two councillors who did not co-sponsor his order, the sponsors were able to give them “a general understanding, nothing specific,” without violating the law.