Outreach to residents is key improvement, Planning Board says for itself, developers
A better website and broadcasts of meetings were among reforms requested Tuesday by the Planning Board, and there was tentative support for requiring developers to meet with residents before coming before the board, as well as for grappling with questions about the public purpose of special permits.
Seven of the eight sitting board members held a two-hour, wide-ranging discussion about their operations, from small administrative issues to large-looming policy questions – two days before the city manager announced the new membership of the board, dropping two of the current members of the board, and adding three to fill its nine-member capacity. None of the new members attended Tuesday.
The board and its processes – mainly on requests for “special permits” for developers seeking to build above a threshold in the zoning law – have been under siege for months, though there have been some recent changes, with more expected soon. At Monday’s City Council meeting, City Manager Richard C. Rossi told the council he would be convening focus groups about the board in November and producing a report to the council, ideally before the Dec. 1 joint meeting of the board and council.
The board’s Tuesday discussion began with a summary by Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy – who heads the city’s planning department – of recent changes the department had made. Murphy mentioned stricter deadlines for proponents submitting application materials (making those materials available on the city website much earlier), as well as providing a staff analysis memo of each special permit application before the board’s votes.
Murphy highlighted the often-heard concern of developers failing to engage with the community, but suggested there was a balance to be struck: If a developer presents to the community “too soon without enough information, the community feels: ‘How are we supposed to react?’ or ‘You must have plans and you’re not sharing.’ If they come too late, the community feels this is ‘baked,’ and can only tinker at the edges. One of the challenges for us a community is how best to find that sweet spot.”
Jeff Roberts, a land use planner for the city, noted that some changes would be within the direct purview of the board, including changes to its rules. But some changes would be ordinance or zoning changes under the purview of the City Council. Later, there was mention of potential state law changes.
Public comment on process
Fourteen members of the public spoke about process concerns, and several provided written comments to the board. Written and oral comments were later referred to by the board in its discussion.
Nancy Ryan, on behalf of the Cambridge Residents Alliance and other local groups, held a leading role in public comment. Ryan deserves credit for having kicked off much of the board reform process, having written to and met with the city manager over the summer with a list of 30 concerns.
At public comment, Ryan spoke in an optimistic but cautious fashion, saying Murphy’s changes would “create enormous improvement.” Ryan asked the board to “make the best use of all of your skills and wisdom,” and highlighted the recent examples where developers have failed to heed the “strong encouragement” in board rules to meet with neighbors before filing for special permits.
This reporter spoke, referring to his eight-page letter to the board that covered 19 points of process. That included deficiencies of the website, noting that while the information is mostly there, its organization makes it very difficult for those who are not experts: Regular citizens should be given a level playing field. He said he has automated tools that retrieve information from the website and reorganize it, and offered to assist city staff in improvements. Also addressed was lack of detail in agendas and the secret nature of upcoming agendas and the board email announcement list. The board was asked to direct the staff to make administrative improvements, noting that requests from the board are treated very differently than those from the public.
The board itself was asked to take time to periodically consider its planning duties and other business besides special permits and zoning petitions submitted to it. He suggested once a month the board should have such a discussion. It was noted that in the eyes of state law, the board holds a supervisory responsibility for planning functions in the city, even though in Cambridge those functions are executed by staff.
Jan Devereux, of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance encouraged more 3-D models. Later that evening, developers for 1-5 East Street brought a styrofoam massing model of their project, which was praised by the board.
Langley Keyes, a Fresh Pond resident and MIT planning professor, asked the board to think carefully about its mandate. “What is it, in fact, that the Planning Board is supposed to do?” Keyes offered three questions: “Is this an expanded architectural review board, or a planning board concerned with projects in place – in situ?”; “What is the public getting back for the giving of that special permit? Does the private developer simply get it by right?”; and “What is the proactive relationship of the [city planning staff] and how it relates to the Planning Board?”
Carol O’Hare, a Cambridgeport resident who has spoken out regularly about sign variances and antenna permits, praised the board for holding a hard line on such variances, but asked the board to let the public address it on matters of zoning variances. (The board discusses some zoning variances – those with a planning aspect – at the beginnings of its meetings and offers recommendations to the Board of Zoning Appeals. But no public comment is typically allowed by the Planning Board on such topics.)
Ilan Levy, of East Cambridge, expressed his deep frustration for the board’s perceived lack of attention to zoning law, especially the requirement that special permits not be “to the detriment of the public interest.” Levy said “as community something struck us: We felt like the community input had not been taken into consideration.”
Dennis Carlone, a city councillor speaking as a private citizen, noted the bias of PowerPoint presentations in favor of developers and asked the board to encourage large-format poster boards. He also highlighted the need for 3-D models. Carlone asked the board to consider how development “can make the neighborhood better.” Calling it “Urban Design 101,” Carlone asked, “Does the project help create place or reinforce place? Does it make Central Square better? Does it create a place at Alewife, or in East Cambridge?” By trade an architect, Carlone also asked for attention to the materials of buildings and humanizing scale. Carlone said any building getting a special permit should show a high quality of materials, something that he does not feel has been occurring; many recently approved materials won’t last for 20 years, he said, and “we’re asking for water leakage.”
Charles Teague, of North Cambridge, asked the board to strongly consider online streaming of meetings. Teague frequently videotapes meetings, and did so for Tuesday’s meeting. Teague asked the planning staff to assign a staff member for public engagement, noting that a council policy order had requested that. Teague has a zoning petition pending before the council and board that changes some of language about special permits.
Board offers thoughts, responses
Hugh Russell, the chairman and an architect, led off the board’s section of the discussion, and expressed that he was “very interested in the notion of public interest that Langley Keyes brought up.” Russell wondered whether there was something more than what was in the written ordinance that the board should be striving for, and noted that his amazement at what the council is “able to extract from tough guys like MIT” when a zoning petition is before it.
Russell said that by his calculation the city staff does 95 percent to 99 percent of the planning work (as opposed to the board), and that “the notion that we are directing the activities of the staff is not correct.” Russell said this issue “might end up going to the Legislature, because my gut feeling is that we don’t actually do what the law tells us to do on planning.” Russell noted the state law was written for small cities and towns that don’t have real planning departments, and that the city was “trying to be sensible” and that it should take advantage of its big staff in a “rich city” to allow much of the planning to be done by staff.
Russell said the board should simply change its rules to require developers to meet with neighborhoods. It is a strong suggestion, he said, but the board could change it to a mandate “at the next meeting if we wanted to.” There should be “no excuses accepted,” he said.
Russell emphasized the problem of board members not having enough time to do their jobs, and later humorously suggested scheduling various board functions for the fifth and sixth Tuesdays of the month – dates which do not generally exist (four months of the year have five Tuesdays, none have six).
Russell expressed concern about public input, and suggested a real problem was ensuring that public input was germane to the subjects that the board felt it was allowed to consider. He also praised the public for giving strong local insight into real issues, such as the noise from Whole Foods Market loading dock at New Street, and expressed his frustration with the three-minute time limit for speakers, while noting it has a helpful effect in focusing comments.
Russell also praised Murphy for encouraging his staff to speak out, noting that the previous head of planning for the city, “I think, told the staff they shouldn’t open their mouths in public, particularly to the Planning Board.”
“We have an enlightened regime, we’re trying to learn how to make it all work,” Russell said.
H. Theodore Cohen, vice-chairman of the board and a retired municipal lawyer, expressed his pride in the work of the board and noted how in the past year the city went from praising its work (in a February retrospective on Cambridge city planning at the retirement of Roger Boothe, the city’s then-director of urban design) to “the Planning Board is broken,” an oft-heard refrain of late. Cohen said he didn’t believe the board was broken, but agreed “there are a lot of process things we can do to make things clearer to the public.”
Cohen decried the complaint that the board grants all special permit requests: “49 to zero is the most meaningless statistic around.” Cohen said the board and staff have “many, many iterations of a project” until it is compliance with the zoning requirements. “I think it’s important for all of us to remember that if a special permit is denied, it doesn’t mean nothing is going to be built,” he said, suggesting that special permitted projects were often better for the city and neighborhood than the by-right projects they replaced.
Cohen praised the board for generally being unanimous on their votes, despite coming from different backgrounds and having very different ideas. He cited Teague’s point from public comment about broadcasting, and suggested that the website should be better as well, though he himself uses it regularly and has learned to manage.
Cohen mentioned an often-unseen aspect of the board: that “almost all of us make site visits” to projects before the board. “We all live here. We drive the same streets. We take the same T,” he said.
Pam Winters, an artist and 14-year board veteran who will be leaving it in December, praised the new staff memos and encouraged broadcasting of meetings. She also asked why it was that meetings had gotten so long, noting that in the past they met twice per month, but now they meet three or more times each month, “and we’re still getting out of here most times at midnight or 11 o’clock.” Russell, the chairman, replied that the board was taking more time, that there were more cases and also more zoning petitions.
Catherine Preston Connolly, a lawyer and recently appointed member of the board, began by emphasizing transparency. She asked for written decisions of the board to include a summary of public comment and to address those comments head-on. She cited the example of the federal government’s regulations.gov as a model for collecting and organizing primary materials and comments on a proposal. “God knows I’m not usually a good proponent of saying the federal government does something great,” she said, “but this may be an exception.”
Connolly said, on the question of the board’s discretion to deny permits, that “we certainly hear you.” But her understanding is that if a project meets criteria, “it gets the special permit.”
“If that’s not how we’re supposed to be deciding these cases, I need to hear that from our appointing authority, from the City Council, and probably from the state,” she said.
Connolly suggested the board did not spend enough time at meetings on the conditions on special permits that are derived from staff memoranda from city departments such as traffic and public works, and that “we need to say them out loud. It’s important to communicate that to the public.”
Connolly also asked for a timer that speakers and the board can watch, helping keep speakers to appropriate time limits.
Connolly requested that the City Council adopt the local option to permit a board member to read the transcript of a meeting for which they were absent, then be permitted to vote on subsequent hearings of that case. “It would make it easier to get a quorum, make scheduling easier for staff and could help a lot of this go more smoothly,” she said.
Tom Sieniewicz, an architect, kept his remarks brief, but he was bold.
“I believe fundamentally that design matters,” Sieniewicz said. “It changes the way we interact with each other. It changes our values. I believe it can affect out values. It absolutely matters.”
“This Planning Board member understands that we’re planning for growth. The city is going to grow. It has to grow. That’s a fundamental value we have in the United States of America. The economy will transform and grow or the city will die. So we are planning for growth here. Change is sometimes uncomfortable. That is why the conversation can get salty. Make no bones about it; that’s in fact what is happening in this room. Or this city will cease to exist.”
Sieniewicz also responded to Levy’s remarks from public comment about the board seeming to ignore public interest, suggesting they were not civil, and that was “the lowest moment.”
“When somebody gets up in public and tells me that this chairman does not have the public interest in his heart, what do you think he’s doing?” Sieniewicz asked, rhetorically.
“What do you think he’s done for decades?” he asked. “What do you think my fellow citizens on this board are here for? What is their interest?”
He joined the refrain for broadcasting of meetings.
Steve Winter, who works in economic development and will be leaving the board, began by agreeing with many others about the information technology to reach the public: “We don’t have it,” he said.
He raised an issue he has brought up in prior meetings: “a perception that somehow renters are not good for the city,” and that they are “transients.” “That disturbs me right to my core,” he said, “I rent.”
Winter then raised larger issues with the criteria and incentives for special permitting in the ordinance, noting that the current development in Porter Square that replaces the Gourmet Express minimart and eatery never came before the board for review, because it wasn’t large enough. “I think that’s a problem. Maybe a proponent said, ‘I’m going there, I’m going to build something that’s by-right. And maybe we lost something.”
Last to speak was Steve Cohen, a developer and attorney, who concurred with many on the website transparency and broadcasting issues, noting that many small towns broadcast their planning board hearings, even towns “where the population of the whole town is about the same as my block in mid-Cambridge. Somehow or another they can pull together the resources to broadcast. I really think that’s something we should be doing here.”
Cohen noted that often even the board sees development proposals so late that it is difficult to ask developers to make too many changes. “I certainly echo the general sentiment that the review with the public, and maybe even with the board, should begin at an earlier stage where we’re just dealing with some sort of schematic concept.”
Cohen also indicated that the staff needs to build a good working relationship with the board, so that staff can do a good job of predicting the board’s reactions and help developers predict what the board will ask for, improving efficiency. He also encouraged the city planning staff to perform more independent reviews of developers proposals by outside consultants or engineers, noting that it would “enhance the credibility of our process and contribute to the perceived integrity.”
Ahmed Nur, associate member of the board, was not present for the discussion.
Harvard’s Kennedy School
In a long agenda item that pushed the meeting past midnight, the board evaluated the response of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to its Oct. 7 comments. The board noted that while Harvard provided additional details and renderings about its planned intentions, it did not adjust its plans in response to the board’s feedback, and many questions remained open. Harvard did not address questions about whether connecting the buildings in a complete ring was necessary, or the design of the building connectors, referred to as “zippers.”
The board did not look favorably upon an application for a sign variance for the office building at 55 Cambridge Parkway. “What you haven’t told us,” Russell said, “is why can’t you install a conforming sign!”
The board also gave preliminary approval to a height reduction in a proposed development at 1-5 East St. in NorthPoint. Since its first hearing, that long building has been split into two shorter buildings. The application will return to the board for a second hearing. The board, citing the major transit investment of the green line extension and the new Lechemere station, expressed concern about the loss of density at a site so optimized for transit-oriented development.
The board asked that applicant to consider the use of firewalls to allow one section of the larger building to retain height, density and high unit count, while still allowing the rest to built with cheaper wood-frame construction.