The worst of Cambridge in 2014
Happy new year! As always, a dozen months in the life of a city is filled with things good, bad and otherwise, although in Cambridge – where 107,289 people crowd 6.4 square miles – things tend to feel amped up to excellent or terrible (with very little otherwise). Here are some things that felt terrible in 2014:
The License Commission gets weird
Most License Commission decisions are noncontroversial and are handed down with no oversight and minimal comment or reaction from the public or business community – and this year the commission showed why that can be dangerous.
In two meetings in March the commissioners accepted dubious arguments against the opening of a wine bar called UpperWest and even threw in a few of their own, apparently going along with a local business owner’s plea not to get competition. The three commissioners directed questions and complaints at UpperWest’s founders that haven’t been heard before or since for similar licenses, including whether the wine bar jumped the gun on suggesting when it would be open for events and if its oven was big enough to handle 20 customers at a time. First commissioners recommended that UpperWest take back its request for a full alcohol license and ask for only wine and beer; when Kimberly Courtney and Xavier Dietrich took the suggestion, commissioner (and police commissioner) Robert C. Haas pulled the rug out from under them, telling Courtney and Dietrich that their request just gave him “more cause for concern.” Huh?
Commissioners followed up the UpperWest debacle by holding an hourlong hearing in November that ended with Felipe’s Taqueria being granted an all-week 2 a.m. alcohol license – a category of license that literally doesn’t exist in Cambridge. Going against years of history on similar requests, commissioners didn’t ask a single question or spend a minute of debate on the license hours. Then they dragged Felipe’s and its lawyer back in to apologize for the commissioners’ mistake and accept an all-week 1 a.m. alcohol license that was both less than what Felipe’s wanted and less than what similar restaurants offer their customers.
The apparently oversight-less commission has a roundtable coming Jan. 14 that is poorly noticed (on the city calendar, it is labeled as “Round Table,” without even the words “License Commission” attached to help in identification) and vague in purpose (it’s so commissioners can “discuss possible amendments to their regulations relating to alcohol and entertainment”). It keeps the commission a strong lead for a dubious “least transparent public body in Cambridge” award. (Update on Jan. 5, 2015: The commission has updated the city calendar to more clearly label the roundtable as a License Commission roundtable.)
School’s child porn response
When fifth-grade Graham & Parks teacher Josh Wairi was accused in April of videotaping students changing in a locker room and other charges related to child porn, it didn’t affect just Cambridge. Wairi, a Somerville resident, previously taught at Somerville’s Arthur D. Healey School, which is attended by students from kindergarten to the eighth grade.
Wairi was arrested April 17, and Somerville school officials held a meeting with parents the next day. In Cambridge, though, school officials announced there would be a meeting six days later – although the schedule was moved up when there were complaints. Parents have also complained about a lack of communication from officials and a sense they were more interested in protecting the district than helping families.
Parents whose children were in Wairi’s Cambridge classroom called the response by school officials “wanting,” “appalling” and “ridiculous.” When a School Committee member said the district response could be a model for the state, one parent replied, “If this is a ‘state model,’ the state’s in big trouble.”
Delays, delays, delays
If it was frustrating to hear that passage of a plastic bag ordinance was delayed again by the City Council – the first attempt at addressing plastic bag pollution in the city was eight years ago – imagine how people waiting for our first public toilet felt! It was supposed to be installed in Harvard Square by year-end, which would have been good news about a topic that had finished a two-year review starting in 2003 when we started writing about it.
Sorry also to people suffering from any number of painful medical conditions who were excited that nearly three-quarters of Cambridge voters backed a ballot proposal for medical marijuana (that’s 10 percentage points over the 63 percent statewide average at the November 2012 elections) and making dispensaries legal as of Jan. 1, 2013. The state hasn’t helped enact the will of the people either, but officials in a city calling so strongly for medical marijuana deserve special scorn for concocting overly complicated dispensary zoning restrictions based apparently on that respected medical documentary, “Reefer Madness.”
But, hey, what do you expect in a city that can’t even get its own anti-glare laws enforced? If a citizen zoning petition designed simply to keep unwanted light from shining into neighbors’ windows on its third attempt can’t be handled or matched efficiently by the city, what chance does pot have?
Unfortunately, the same could be said about pinning down such issues as keeping the middle class in Cambridge and identifying where community benefits from developers go and figuring out what to do with “linkage” fees – which haven’t been dealt with since a 2002 study recommending action – despite an urgent need and fairly consistent outcry. (Also, nary a peep in 2014 about a pedestrian bridge in Alewife talked about at least as long ago as 2009.)
Harvard goes full Putin
If the administration’s response to Occupy Harvard wasn’t evidence enough that this institution has lost its way on free speech – its approach was to needlessly turn student against student – its handling of protests when Russian violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov played May 11 left no room for doubt.
The protests were about Spivakov’s support of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, and they were about as peaceful as protests get, full of music and flowers. But protesters reported Harvard confiscating blue and yellow flowers (the colors of Ukraine) from paying customers at the Spivakov concert; the Harvard police arrest report of Roman Torgovitsky for going on stage to talk with the conductor didn’t match video of the event, and police declined to explain why; and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust banned Torgovitsky – a Harvard alum – from campus. When he attended a September appearance by members of the Russian art punk band Pussy Riot, he was arrested. Pussy Riot and its supporters occupied the lobby of the Cambridge police building until his release that night.
Harvard, which should be a defender of free speech, is instead setting a terrible, indefensible example of bad institutional behavior in the face of nonviolent protest.
Master plan, less than masterful
As sprawling apartment complexes began popping up in Alewife far ahead of expectations and small streets faced proposals doubling their density, traffic clogged streets and mass transit broke down and developers and “visioning” processes raced to see who could define Kendall and Central squares first, people began to complain about an approach to planning that treated each bid to build as its own stand-alone entity with no aggregate impact. Where was the city’s master plan, they asked, only to be assured that a motley collection of occasionally updated documents from various eras did the job just fine, even if they might not match the state’s definition of a plan.
It took April’s proposed order from first-term city councillor Dennis Carlone (along with councillors Nadeem Mazen and E. Denise Simmons) to get an answer, sort of. Other councillors put in a competing order, resulting in the loss of an actual answer to whether the city had a master plan but a potentially far bigger gain: Getting a for-real citywide development master plan process under way.
The city has a completely different answer now – that the Planning Board doesn’t have to make a master plan because it was created before the law saying it must (although the board won’t be the one doing it, if you’re going to get fussy about it) – and the process is off to an iffy start. In August, the authors of a July preliminary report questioned that a master plan was about development or even that a master plan would ultimately be done. And in November, city officials confessed they were “still trying to figure out exactly how” a master plan process and community involvement would work. There are no dates attached.
Officials knew, though, that work would start in Alewife. Only a few months earlier they’d been citing that area and the 2006 study shaping it as a key part of the city’s de facto master plan; last month City Manager Richard C. Rossi acknowledged with understatement that “the speed of development and specifics of design have caused some to be concerned about the overall direction of development in the area,” making it the best place to hit the ground crawling.
Of course, there’s more. This was the year we lost ManRay (owner Don Holland gave up his dream of reopening the club, selling his liquor license under License Commission deadline) and apparently Prospect, the club All Asia owner Marc Shulman struggled to fund; Cambridge Health Alliance closed its psychiatric emergency room; we learned that the Lechmere T station is due to close for some 17 months as it’s relocated to NorthPoint, for at least its third long-term transportation disruption in a decade; and the city found itself on the wrong side of a First Amendment lawsuit about whether leafletting cars for a film screening equals “defacing public property.” Special mention must also go to the culmination of a long struggle over East Cambridge’s former courthouse, where a developer won redevelopment rights as city councillors Benzan and Tim Toomey threw up their hands over finding a compromise and called a lawsuit “inevitable.” The school district and committee got a dose of perhaps undeserved criticism from state education officials, but one thing is sure: The amount of education experts and consultants being brought in by the district – including experts on recess – is drawing concern from some elected officials and teachers who instead want more “hands and hearts” in classrooms.
This post was updated Jan. 5, 2015, with new information about the License Commission and to add references to an Alewife bridge project and East Cambridge courthouse decision.