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H Theodore Cohen

H Theodore Cohen was elected chairman of the Planning Board on Tuesday. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

The Planning Board elected H Theodore Cohen as chairman Tuesday. Cohen, a 67-year-old retired municipal attorney, replaces Hugh Russell, an architect who has served as chairman for the past five of his 26 years on the board. The board elected Catherine Preston Connolly as vice chairwoman.

The elections were the final element of a four-and-a-half hour meeting that took up a proposal from city planners to rezone the Volpe Center parcel in Kendall Square; looked briefly at the next steps for East Cambridge’s Foundry Building with representatives of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority; and discussed a series of focus groups on improving the board and staff’s administrative processes.

The board took no public comment. Its agenda was marked “general business,” intended for the board to discuss among itself, and it did so. While it can choose to take public comment on general business items, the board frequently avoids doing so to limit the length of its agenda – trying to finish before midnight. Connolly and Cohen joked about the board’s workload, suggesting that additional meetings could be on the “fifth Tuesday” and “sixth Tuesday” of each month.

Elections

Cohen, the new chairman, was first appointed to the planning board in 2007. Aside from Cohen and Russell, the remaining members of the board are newer, with three members just appointed last month and the remaining three appointed in March 2013. “It sounds like Ted is the only one qualified,” said Ahmed Nur, an associate member of the board on holdover status.

Cohen, one of three attorneys on the board, was town counsel for Reading, Mass., from 1972 to 2001. He then served as counsel for the Boston law firm Keegan Werlin, focusing on municipal law, real estate law and land use.

At his appointment, Cohen said he wanted to “re-instill everyone’s faith in the board,” and said that the past year had been especially difficult. Cohen praised Russell, saying he “can’t imagine a better chair,” and expressed the importance of Russell’s continued service on the board and his detail-oriented comments. In the past year, the board and its operations have been repeatedly discussed at City Council meetings and by the city manager; and the recent development boom at Alewife and in East Cambridge have brought an avalanche of public comment and interest to the board.

Cohen is a resident of North Cambridge, near Porter Square. He graduated from Brown University and the University of Chicago Law School and is married to Cynthia J. Cohen, an associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. They have two children.

Catherine Preston Connolly

Connolly

Connolly was elected vice chairwoman on the recommendation of Russell, who noted that of the three remaining members who had served on the board for over a year, Connolly was his first choice because “she used to be an insider” – referring to Connolly’s service as the city’s parking demand officer  from 1999 to 2005.

Connolly is an attorney for American Tower, a wireless communications company based in Woburn, and has a master’s in City Planning and a bachelor’s in Urban Studies and Planning from MIT.

She lives in the Agassiz neighborhood of Cambridge.

Volpe zoning, Foundry

During the first two hours of its meeting, the board received a presentation from city planners on proposed zoning for the Volpe parcel, and asked questions. In addition to technical zoning issues, the board expressed concern about open space and affordable housing.

The board was reluctant to reduce the required amount of open space in the parcel before the completion of the Connect Kendall Square open space design competition, and suggested that the proposed zoning should be pushed back a few weeks to accommodate the final submissions in that process.

Championed by Steve Cohen, the board overwhelmingly suggested that a much stronger approach to affordable- and middle-income housing would be appropriate. Cohen reminded city planners that equal parts affordable, middle income and market-rate housing were required for the courthouse special permit, which is now under appeal. While Cohen said he thought that might not work in the Volpe case, because housing might be a major component rather than a small piece as in the courthouse redevelopment, he thought the board could do substantially more than the 11.5 percent affordable housing that is the standard for new projects in the city.

The board highlighted written comments from architect Barry Zevin and the Cambridge Residents Alliance and asked staff to respond to them. Zevin, who served on the Eastern Cambridge Planning Study committee – commonly referred to as ECaPS  – expressed skepticism about the “emerald bracelet” proposal for a network of parks, calling it “neither sufficient nor completely convincing.” Zevin said there needed to be a public space large enough for performances, protests, picnics and other gatherings.

The alliance’s letter asked 18 bulleted questions about the Volpe rezoning, questioning the timing and asking what responses the government had received to its solicitation to developers. The alliance said the K2C2 study of the future of Kendall and Central squares “was never publicly agreed to” and asked for the community benefits payment to increase from $10 per square foot to a higher number, suggesting a range of $15 to $50 as possible.

While the owners of Volpe – the U.S. General Services Administration and Department of Transportation – were present, they did not speak or answer questions. Asked after the meeting about GSA refusal to release copies of the responses to its Request for Information, regional head Robert Zarnetske expressed concern that it would be possible for competitors to reverse-engineer the cost of submitted proposals.  If a hypothetical proposal was to build a two-story granite building, he said, you could look at the cost of granite and figure out the cost.

Zarnetske said he had not been consulted in the Dec. 19 decision to not release the responses.

The John W. Volpe National Transportation Cente

The John W. Volpe National Transportation Center, right, in Kendall Square, as seen in 1980 from One Broadway. (Photo: Barry Zevin)

Tom Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, presented to the board the Dec. 17 draft project plan for redevelopment of the Foundry building, at 101 Rogers St. in East Cambridge. The presentation was similar to previous presentations made to the City Council and the authority board, and involves having the City lease the Foundry building to the CRA, which would then sub-lease it to a developer. That is advantageous, Evans said, because of the greater procurement flexibility that redevelopment authorities have under state law.

Board process

The board also discussed administrative changes to its process. Stuart Dash, director of community planning, presented an 18-page summary of ideas generated by a series of focus groups, along with tentative responses from planning staff. The focus groups included citizens, developers, former staff, former board members as well as this reporter.

The ideas are expected to be discussed at next week Monday’s roundtable between the council and board, Dash said.

They are divided into six categories: website, meeting logistics, access to information, increasing understanding of the process, strengthening the staff role, and early community engagement.

The board discussed hypothetical ways to improve public discourse. “I am searching for the  21st century version of the town meeting,” Tom Sieniewicz said.

It also praised the caliber of written comment it had received, on this issue and in general, and expressed a desire for more.

Steve Cohen suggested that in some cases, early developer engagement with the Board itself may be appropriate. “Even if the process is great with everybody else, by the time it comes to us, it still comes fully baked,” Cohen said. Cohen and others went on to praise the staff’s ability to predict how the board would react and to communicate that to proponents and developers, but noted that in some cases earlier engagement with the board would save work for everyone.