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Lawrence Street in Cambridgeport now hosts a Hubway bike sharing station, much to the surprise of many residents. (Photo: Bing)

Lawrence Street in Cambridgeport now hosts a Hubway bike sharing station, much to the surprise of many residents. (Photo: Bing)

A promise to look again at the placement of a Hubway bike sharing station on a small residential street in Cambridgeport and the Hubway placement process became a proxy discussion Monday over city planning and the oncoming revamp of an entire development master plan.

The issue arose in a policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons asking to revisit whether stations should go in small neighborhoods, and nine Lawrence Street residents including comedian Jimmy Tingle stood to express their shock early last month at finding a 50-foot bike station taking up three parking spaces on their narrow street bordering Dana Park.

“We were never officially consulted or informed,” Tingle said during public comment.

It seemed briefly even more outrageous when James Williamson, a recent candidate for City Council, reminded the gathered residents that “zoning was changed so that the people of the city would not have a chance to review locations, because the bicycle zealots at the Community Development Department know better or were afraid if it were open to public participation they wouldn’t be able to put them where they want.” He noted another Hubway installation that might have drawn opposition, because it displaced buskers in Harvard Square, and called it “one of the reasons we need to revisit planning in the city.”

Public meetings, public process

Outrage over what happened on Lawrence Street was put in a different light with the news that there had in fact been a Nov. 19 public meeting hosted by the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association and a group called GreenPort that drew about 50 people, “a pretty good number,” according to Brian Murphy, assistant city manager and head of the Community Development Department. “The consensus was Lawrence Street was the preferred option.”

Indeed, a city press release about the installation of Hubway stations this spring included a quote from Lawrence Street resident Andrew Farrar.

Still, the residents Monday said they had seen no fliers and received no notice of the meeting.

“Maybe the reason Lawrence Street seemed like such a good idea was that many of the Lawrence Street people weren’t there,” quipped councillor Nadeem Mazen, but the laugh line led to an increasingly weighty conversation among the councillors – starting with a reminder from councillor Craig Kelley that the change in zoning leading to the Hubway placement was done in a 2011 public process by the council itself.

“Cautionary tale”

The council changed zoning and the table of uses “to allow stations throughout the city and wind turbines that are allowed all over the place as well. But in the wind turbine section we specifically said that we want a special permit to be associated – you can’t just put a wind turbine on your house and not worry about noise and lights flickering and so forth. We chose, the council chose, not to put anything in terms of extra process in the zoning code for a bike share station,” Kelley said. “And arguably maybe we should all know that putting them on public streets, people are going to get upset. Part of me feels the city staff is being unfairly maligned for doing exactly what the council said it should do. We could have asked, we could have required there was a public process.”

But Kelley had a larger point.

“It is a cautionary tale,” he said. “We are having trouble siting a Hubway station – one 50-foot station that we specifically changed the zoning to put in. We’re having trouble with this and the master plan for the city is going to be an immensely more difficult challenge, and as we change the zoning or don’t change the zoning and so forth I think we need to always think back to this specific episode when we made a change and what exactly what we wanted to have happen happened and we all of a sudden said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not really what we wanted to have happen.’ I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that.”

The rush of development in the Alewife area, where thousands of apartments are springing up years ahead of the projections of city planners and infrastructure to accommodate them, is another reason to proceed cautiously on a master plan, Kelley said.

“This clearly was not something we thought would happen. And if you look at Alewife, you would say, ‘Boy, we didn’t really think that would happen either, as quickly as it did and looking the way it did,’” Kelley said.

Other councillors acknowledged Kelley’s concerns without blinking on the planning process itself, with councillor Dennis Carlone pointing out that “The difference between a bike location that can be moved versus a million square feet [of development] is what a master plan is about,” saying it helped define why thinking about a master plan is “critical.”

Revisiting the policy

Simmons looked mainly at Hubway placement to say that such unintended consequences weren’t rare, but revisiting the policy gave the city a chance to fix it before other neighborhoods were surprised, and Mazen noted that the Community Development Department engaged with the public on the Hubway placement despite not having to.

“The question is, when we try to engage a neighborhood, how can we be complete or as complete as possible in that effort,” Mazen said. “And I think the same thing will be true in the master planning conversation. It may be a cautionary or informative tale, but not necessarily one I take as a big bump in the road.”

There will be a new look at the Lawrence Street Hubway station, officials said, probably in early June when more data have been gathered over bicycle use there.

Moving the station might cost an unbudgeted $10,000 to $15,000, and it would need to be to another site with the same mix of space, public access and solar charging capacity. It would likely be nearby, as the station was sited to fix a “gap in service” for Hubway in central Cambridgeport, Murphy said.