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Hugh Russell, chairman and longtime member of the Planning Board, attends Wednesday”s meeting of the City Council’s Ordinance Committee. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Hugh Russell, chairman and longtime member of the Planning Board, center, attends Wednesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Ordinance Committee. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

The petition to transfer special-permit granting authority on large projects to the City Council is all but dead as of this week.

The Council’s Ordinance Committee met Wednesday to debate the petition by councillor Dennis Carlone on the heels of an op-ed piece by four councillors in the Cambridge Chronicle expressing opposition: Craig Kelley, Marc McGovern, Tim Toomey and Mayor David Maher. Six of the nine councillors’ votes are required to pass the amendment, and with only two on the record in favor and four against, the petition cannot pass unless positions change – which does not appear likely from the floor debate. Councillors Leland Cheung (in the midst of a campaign for lieutenant governor) and E. Denise Simmons were absent; Simmons was mourning the death of a friend, it was announced.

The courthouse redevelopment at 40 Thorndike St. in East Cambridge

The courthouse redevelopment at 40 Thorndike St. in East Cambridge, as well as two in the Alewife area, have been the focus of opposition throughout the special permit process.

Proponents of the Carlone petition say it is the city’s only chance to stop three large developments that are throughout the special permit process after rousing considerable community opposition: the courthouse redevelopment at 40 Thorndike St. in East Cambridge; and two large residential developments in the Alewife/Fresh Pond area, 75 New. St and 88 CambridgePark Drive.

Opponents of the petition did not offer alternative ways to address the concerns with those projects. Instead they discussed changes to the process of the Planning Board, which grants special permits on large projects now, that might prevent similar future developments from passing through the process.

The Carlone petition would change the city’s ordinance for one type of special permit – the Article 19 Project Review Special Permit required for most projects bigger than 50,000 square feet. Unlike special permits that allow additional building height or changes to floor area or parking, the project review special permit ensures “that new construction or changes of use in existing buildings are consistent with the urban design objectives of the city and do not impose substantial adverse impacts on city traffic,” the ordinance says. If the petition were adopted, the Planning Board would still review a project and forward a report to the council before a decision.

The Ordinance Committee met July 30 to discuss the petition, but said it had no time to debate or hear from city staff after three hours of public comment. Its meeting Wednesday was a continuation, but with some procedural hiccups. Vice mayor Dennis Benzan began the meeting by announcing he would start with public comment, to the visible surprise of many; he changed course when reminded by councillor Craig Kelley that the July meeting had adjourned with an agreement to begin this one with a presentation from city staff followed by debate among the council. While the meeting was broadcast on cable television, because of a technical error it was not available via the regular link on the city’s website; the livestream was, however, available via an alternate link on the Cable Department’s website.

Benzan announced that Carlone would participate in the debate and vote; at the July meeting, Carlone recused himself at Benzan’s request.

“Obligated to grant”

The meeting began with a presentation by three of the city’s planning staff: Jeff Roberts, Iram Farooq and Stuart Dash. Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy was on vacation.

McGovern raised the record of 49 permits granted, zero denied, and asked the staff to confirm whether the Planning Board is required to grant permits that meet criteria – something Carlone has said they are not required to do.

Roberts, the city’s zoning specialist, replied yes: “If the Planning Board finds that the project meets the criteria and the standards that are set forth in the zoning … they are obligated to grant the special permit.”

Improving the process

McGovern also asked about improvements to the board process, specifically about developers meeting with the community and board early, before a formal application for a special permit. Councillor Nadeem Mazen similarly asked, “Can we be reasonably sure that because we’ve identified these problems they will change? How does [the planning department] look at these known problems and prototype and demo solutions?”

Farooq, the No. 2 person in the planning department, said the city manager has recently asked members of the board, “What ideas do you have about improving Planning Board process?” and that ideas similar to McGovern’s have been raised. The next step is to “have a discussion at the Planning Board about these ideas,” Farooq said.

“If folks have ideas of how we can improve the process, we would love to hear those,” Farooq said, and indicated they could be sent to her.

McGovern went on to mention other ideas for board improvements and highlighted the city manager’s coming committee to review board procedure. He emphasized that this attention was a “very good” use of the council’s time. McGovern also compared Alewife to Medford’s Station Landing community, noting that Station Landing had in many ways achieved the sense of place that Alewife lacks, with thriving retail alongside residential and commercial uses. McGovern praised Carlone, saying he had “pushed the conversation, taken the lead, as you did with the master plan.”

Board problems

In floor debate, Mazen, who supports the Carlone petition, enumerated problems with the board that he hoped would be addressed.

Mazen strongly called for “an interim solution” — whether the Carlone petition passes or not. He seemed keenly concerned with the three ongoing projects.

Mazen highlighted the board’s communication with the community as an area for improvement. He also asked for coordination and visibility after a special permit is granted, and said that “milestones don’t necessarily exist.”

“Zoning is broken on a fundamental level; maybe changing the criteria is very much necessary,” he said, acknowledging many comments from the public at the July 30 meeting. He suggested that not only zoning might need changing, but also non-binding guidelines issued by the city planning department.

Mazen asked for expert consultation to be available to the board, something Carlone has pushed for and said was a tool the Planning Board used in the past “It’s important, that they can match wits with the developer,” he said.

Mazen said it was necessary to “take into account the widest context and community benefit” and cited the concern of cumulative impacts of issues such as traffic.

The board may lack a visionary role, Mazen said, and may be focused on formulaic criteria. He thought the board needed to have policy discussions, but also to receive guidance in the planning process from professional staff.

Floor debate continued but there were few answers offered to Mazen’s list.

Carlone proposes amendment

Apparently recognizing the general lack of support for his petition, during debate Carlone offered an amendment to limit its scope by removing two areas of the city that are under active planning discussions: Kendall Square and Central Square, the subjects of the K2C2 study.

There was some procedural confusion, with the Ordinance Committee uncertain whether it could vote on Carlone’s amendment. It appeared to conclude that it could choose to favorably recommend the amendment to the full City Council, but no councillor made such a motion and no such vote was taken.

Ultimately, after public comment, the committee took a vote on sending the petition to the full council with an unfavorable recommendation, and that vote failed 3-4, with Kelley, Toomey and Maher voting in favor. After the vote, Kelley remarked how notable it was that he, Toomey and Maher agreed, as that is not a frequent occurrence.

The committee then unanimously voted to send the petition to the full council with no recommendation. The council is expected to take up the petition at its next meeting, Sept. 8, when it can choose to pass it to a second reading.

Board asks advice

At public comment, Hugh Russell, chairman and longtime member of the Planning Board and an architect, addressed the council, referring to the three contentious special permits before the board.

“In the event you don’t take over these three cases before we get to decide them … I would be very interested in finding out what six members of this body would recommend to the board. In particular the courthouse. It’s a unique case. Getting your advice would be helpful to the Planning Board.”

Public comment

With public comment coming after council debate, three hours into the meeting, members of the public appeared tired and subdued, and many who signed up were not present. Many acknowledged their arguments and concerns had been raised. A few said they had watched the debate at home and came to the meeting physically to speak.

Jan Devereux, president of the Fresh Pond Resident’s Alliance, asked what the council’s goals and role were. Devereux didn’t mention that while the council has been in office for eight months, it has not revised the formal City Council Goals document issued by the 2011-13 council.

Richard Clarey, of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, complimented Carlone on “doing something I can hardly remember ever being done” since the days of the Cambridge Civic Association, 15 years ago: focusing council attention on dealing with “a very festering problem.” Clarey also said that the current state of the Planning Board is the result of bad legal advice given by the city’s Law Department, and that the board has much more discretion than they have been told they have.

Carol O’Hare, of Cambridgeport, echoed him, noting that the great deference courts afford to planning boards means that the board’s 49-0 record shows “the planning board is according too much weight to the developer.”

Heather Hoffman, of East Cambridge, called out Marc McGovern, saying she was expecting him to “have his pencil sharpened and a sheaf of paper, showing up with proposals to do all of the very good things that he said we can do right now.” But she questioned whether those proposals would do any good for the three large projects in-process today.

“There needs to be something done in the meantime,” said Bethany Stevens, of the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge.

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