Five head-scratch-inducing statements from the battle over big development
This article should have been published Sept. 9, a prompt day after city councillors killed the Carlone petition that would have given them 2.5 years of review powers over a few big developments. When the issue was fresh in people’s minds, maybe more than a few people would care. But I still do, and maybe other people will again – the vote doesn’t end our messy, wide-ranging clash over development.
The Planning Board is under scrutiny and getting a Dec. 1 roundtable with the council as well as, supposedly, an advisory council; battles over zoning resulting from the K2C2 processes and a citywide master plan are inevitable if slow-moving; and there are a slew of projects coming that will involve the council whether it wants in or not.
Regardless, I am having a hard time getting past some of the things said during debate over the Carlone petition, because you want decisions to be based on solid thinking. These statements seemed pretty shaky, and I’m hoping the next round of talks about development in Cambridge come with fewer side-eye moments where I have to wonder if I’m the only one feeling the craziness.
‘This is a terrifying prospect’
Talk about statements based on shaky reasoning. Boston Globe columnist Paul McMorrow weighed in Aug. 12 on the Carlone petition in an opinion section piece with the headline, “Cambridge needs new approach to development” and a strong belief that giving the council those powers was a “terrifying prospect.”
The problem? McMorrow has no idea what he’s talking about – none of the examples he cites to underpin his terror bear out. Here, look:
In recent years, the City Council has threatened to block the office expansion that kept Google in Kendall Square, imposed a lengthy delay on a major expansion by Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and intervened in a battle against an affordable housing development in Belmont.
The council approved the Google expansion in a month, which was actually recklessly fast for what cannot be called too many times probably the single stupidest thing the council has done in recent history, and really marks the council’s credulousness about development, not some hardline threat to it. And it didn’t intervene at all in the development in Belmont – it asked the city manager to look into options, to which the city manager replied there weren’t any. Not only was the development not threatened; it wasn’t even slowed down.
And that “lengthy delay” that was “imposed” on Millennium? It was actually developer Forest City that made a dumb proposal to fulfill promised housing by taking away rare open space, then dragged its feet after taking the dumb proposal away. It had iffy parking numbers and low-balled compensation to the city in the form of benefit payments. To say the city “imposed a lengthy delay” on the company makes it seem as though the poor national real estate development company had nothing to do with the process.
McMorrow’s shorthand research sounds a little like that Robert Weisman article from 2012 that said the city’s new “resistance” to tech and biotech had industry leaders “asking whether the industry is still welcome in Cambridge,” without providing any examples or proof that was true.
The takeaway: The city may well need a new approach to development, and McMorrow’s article got pretty bland immediately after that first paragraph. So much so that the paragraph seems only loosely connected with those that follow.
But read Globe coverage of Cambridge development warily. The newspaper has never paid enough attention to what goes on over here – it doesn’t even have a dedicated Cambridge reporter – resulting in articles and essays whose theses don’t always work.
‘Self-referential in a counter-productive way’
Since councillors opted not to talk about the Carlone petition after three hours of public comment at a July 30 committee meeting, the first time it was actually debated by them was Aug. 27, the day after the publication of a Cambridge Chronicle op-ed by Mayor David Maher and councillors Craig Kelley, Tim Toomey and Marc McGovern. In it, the four officials dismiss the petition by asserting, among other things, that:
to have the council be the final arbitrator on projects that the Planning Board has already reviewed under the zoning the council has approved seems self-referential in a counter-productive way.
So the council would be applying its own zoning to projects it reviewed? Just as the Planning Board would? Maybe that is self-referential. But it doesn’t sound bad. (It was also McGovern who talked Sept. 8 about how “there’s got to be some consistency in the city.”)
The takeaway: Councillors are free to engage in double-speak. Sometimes they do.
‘The Carlone petition has polarized discussions’
The Chronicle op-ed also let four councillors lay misplaced blame in print, disseminated widely in a tidy op-ed, while some slightly more reasoned words got lost amid a five-hour council meeting. (That seems like a kind of polarizing thing to do.) See if you think it’s odd that they wrote in the Chronicle op-ed:
rather than promoting useful discussions of Cambridge’s future, we feel the Carlone petition has polarized discussions about planning and made it more difficult to have useful conversations about topics we need to be considering.
That was repeated Sept. 8 as councillors voted to kill the petition, with McGovern saying “I do worry about a line-in-the-sand, us-vs.-them kind of situation that might develop,” even though he didn’t believe it was the “intent” of the petition.
At least when Toomey talked about how “it pains me to see people pitted against one another” he added his feeling that “this petition just furthers that division,” and McGovern admitted also that when it comes to division about development in Cambridge “we’re already seeing it.”
Damn right we’re already seeing it. Anyone who hasn’t noticed that the city has been polarized for years on development – project by project and overall, leading to predictably hours-long public comment periods and the formation of dueling citizen organizations – just isn’t paying attention.
Meanwhile, the city has kept claiming it has a development master plan despite all practical evidence to the contrary from a series of tortured mass zoning debates, and there’s been literally unaccountable delays for conclusions of the Kendall Square and Central Square planning processes, linkage and inclusionary zoning revamps and even the dead-simple Andrews Petition from August 2011, which aimed to end confusion over developer “bonuses” for affordable housing.
The takeaway: Councillors confuse cause and effect, and they don’t seem to understand how time works, which may be why they blame a “polarized” city on a petition that sprang from an existing debate – including the responsiveness of and representation by the Planning Board – instead of noticing that polarization has grown from the failure to act on those serious issues they keep claiming to want to resolve. Recent development has arrived as citizens know current zoning is outmoded, failing and already set for renewal. If no one wants to be the last person to die for a mistake, neither does a neighborhood want to be the last to suffer from zoning that was already past its expiration date.
Let’s look for who shows up to meetings such as the Dec. 1 roundtable with concrete ideas and who keeps kicking issues down the road.
‘It’s not going to be temporary’
When councillors debated and killed the petition and a proposed amendment Sept. 8, two councillors outright refused to believe its special permit review powers would go away, even though the language of the zoning petition ended its powers Dec. 31, 2016.
“We say it’s temporary. It’s not going to be temporary,” Toomey insisted, without explanation. “It’s going to be coming back, and any project that comes before” the deadline.
Kelley went into more detail. “While there are only three projects now that would be covered now by the Carlone petition, it’s to last 2.5 years and conceivably beyond that if it gets extended, and who’s to say what kind of projects would come under our purview if it were approved at that time?” he asked.
The takeaway: Apparently the council needs to be stopped before it kills again. The only body that could accept more projects than allowed by Carlone’s proposed language revisions or extend the life of the petition is the council itself, but neither Kelley nor Toomey seem to believe they will have the strength of will to reject those expansions once they’ve had a taste of the sweet, sweet power of special permit review over large projects. Or they don’t believe the rethinking of the Planning Board will pan out. Or they don’t believe they will be reelected, and expect to be replaced by council candidates who like the Carlone petition so much that they vote to extend.
Of course, for that to happen, a representative majority of voters would have to elect those new candidates. Any way you look at it, this argument suggests neither Kelley nor Toomey have much faith in their own governing body, other officials or city voters.
‘The neighborhood can start to heal’
Toomey insists not only that the council has no role in deciding the fate of the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge, but that there will be a lawsuit no matter what happens – whether Leggat McCall gets to build its office tower or the residents block construction. Both depend on interpreting a private developer’s right to have a building that never matched local zoning but went up in 1974 because county and state rights trump local law.
“There will be a lawsuit either way. Let it go to the court system and let it play out. Whether we grant the Carlone petition here or not, in my humble opinion there is going to be a lawsuit …The sooner that happens, the sooner the neighborhood can start to heal,” Toomey said, arguing that deciding on the proposal’s validity is outside the council role, but it’s “for the Planning Board to make the decision: Is it legal or not legal?”
It’s hard to see how. The Planning Board has no legal wisdom of its own; it asks questions of the same experts used by the council, and when deciding such things as medical marijuana zoning and net-zero emissions standards has done surprisingly little homework otherwise. The city’s official position also suggests Toomey is wrong, with Jeff Roberts, a land use and zoning project planner in the planning department, saying in August that “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.”
There are citizens who reject Roberts’ interpretation of board powers, citing more than a dozen court findings spanning six decades. But the CDD being wrong would just mean the board doesn’t have to approve the project even if it falls within special permit criteria, not that the board has magic legal powers that the council lacks.
The takeaway: It would have been the council’s role to weigh in on the courthouse if the Carlone petition passed, and it remains the Planning Board’s role since it didn’t, so Toomey is engaging in circular reasoning. Why? Probably because he’s a political pro and doesn’t want to get involved in a decision he knows will be a loser either way.
Still, the sooner there’s a lawsuit, “the sooner the neighborhood can start to heal”? Has Toomey ever seen the aftermath of a lawsuit – even one that doesn’t get appealed and appealed again?
Furthermore, if there’s been any healing over having a 22-story tower in a residential neighborhood since it was announced (and fought) in the late 1960s, it’s hard to discern over all the protests and squabbling.
At worst, this is just ducking responsibility to bring resources to bear on a problem that is, yes, polarizing. At best, it’s a way for the council to focus on getting things done, finally, by not being distracted by a drawn-out legal battle.