As I close the book on the second of my two terms as a city councillor, I’m looking back at the past two years as vice mayor and taking stock of what we accomplished, and what we didn’t. In comparison to my first term (see my 2016-17 recap), this term was busier and more contentious, especially during this past election year. Having announced in May that I would not be seeking reelection in 2019, I observed how election-year politics impeded our ability to work together productively to bridge differences. I have to conclude that our system of municipal governance is not serving us as well as it might, but how to improve it is a much larger question, and my goal here is to reflect on our work this past term.

Housing

If you made a word cloud to visualize council debates in 2018-19, “housing” would sit at the center, written in the largest possible font. Though we began the term with a long list of strategies to address the preservation and creation of more affordable units and to strengthen tenant protections, a highly charged debate over one untested approach (a zoning overlay for affordable development) consumed much of the council’s and city staff’s bandwidth, particularly during the second year of the term. After months of committee hearings, hours of emotional public comment, and hundreds of emails pro and con, we ultimately tabled the Affordable Housing Overlay zoning for lack of six votes in support.

The overlay became the hot-button election issue for many candidates and voters and doubtless will be brought back for another go-round. Maybe the next council will manage to find a way to help affordable developers compete for sites and will be able to work through their differences without succumbing to election-year theatrics. I genuinely hope they will find a path forward that respects the reasonable concerns raised by a broad spectrum of residents and that builds on and further refines the revisions we made to the original draft. Otherwise the coming term could get off to a rocky start that will be hard to recover from.

We did succeed in increasing the city’s annual budget for affordable housing significantly, and the next council will debate how much to increase the incentive zoning (“linkage”) fees on new commercial and institutional development. These fees help to offset demand for workforce housing by increasing the available funding to create and preserve affordable units. But more commercial development fuels demand for housing at all income levels and raises land values, and the linkage fees are a drop in the bucket. We are trapped in a vicious cycle that is tearing at the civic fabric.

Other successes this term included tweaking the Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance, which we first adopted in early 2016, to spur the creation of more accessory units. We also added a housing liaison position in the City Manager’s Office, and we increased funding for legal services for tenants facing eviction. The Tenant Displacement Task Force, led by councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, produced some actionable recommendations that the next council can take up, including possibly strengthening the condo conversion laws. A long-discussed real estate transfer tax to fund affordable housing is gaining traction at the state and city level, along with recognition that it may be time to reconsider rent stabilization.

A significant personal victory for me was leading the opposition to a developer’s upzoning petition to replace the Evolve fitness center site on New Street with a giant self-storage facility; instead the site will be redeveloped as 100 percent affordable housing, a much more appropriate use for a location next to our biggest park. Affordable projects permitted under the existing 40B comprehensive permit process are underway at 1791 Massachusetts Ave. (40 units at Frost Terrace) and 675 Concord Ave. (98 units at Finch Cambridge), and another is planned at 362 Rindge Ave. (100 units at Rindge Commons). 

Cannabis

Second largest in the word cloud would be “cannabis” (formerly known as “marijuana”). This term, we passed the zoning and business permitting ordinances to allow adult-use (formerly known as “recreational”) cannabis sales in Cambridge. Adopted at the end of 2018, the zoning took effect on 4/20, and it gives greater siting flexibility to “equity” owners. We spent the better part of 2019 debating how to craft business permitting regulations that would give one category of equity businesses (state-certified economic empowerment applicants) a head start to enter the new adult-use market. The equity debate boiled over at points, and coming concurrently with the acrimonious debates over the overlay and First Street Garage disposition, the political climate of the summer and fall of 2019 was memorably overheated.

But for all our good-faith efforts on the legislative front, it is still hard to buy cannabis legally in Cambridge, even for medical patients. As of this writing, two of the three existing registered medical dispensaries are shuttered due to changes of corporate ownership that voided their special permits. No adult-use store has yet opened, and the lone medical dispensary still operating (Revolutionary Clinics) has sued the city, objecting to the two-year moratorium we imposed on non-equity businesses seeking to sell to both medical and adult-use customers. A couple of equity applicants have received special permits from the Planning Board (one in Central Square and one in Harvard Square), but they still have to negotiate host community agreements with the city manager, and get business and building permits and final state approvals before they can open. 

Traffic calming and street safety

The addition of three new councillors this term brought more support for Complete Streets and many policy orders related to Vision Zero strategies, including protected bike lanes, reduced speeds, truck route restrictions and side guards, flashing signals at crosswalks, stricter enforcement on delivery vehicles and Uber/Lyft drivers blocking bike lanes, reduced parking ratios and educational outreach. This term was a turning point with respect to accepting the inevitable – that our streets must become truly multimodal.

Still, disagreement over the Inman Square redesign prompted appeals that divided the neighborhood and pitted those wishing to protect cyclists and save trees against each other, and the incremental safety improvements to Porter Square were less than many advocates hoped for. And despite adoption in early 2019 of the Cycling Safety Ordinance, hailed as groundbreaking legislation to require protected bike lanes when streets in the bike network plan are entirely reconstructed, the scant additions to the protected network disappointed advocates. A study to revise the Bike Network Plan for 2020 seems to have slowed progress, but the preliminary designs for reconstructing River Street fully in 2021-22 look promising.

We did manage to reduce the speed limit to 20 mph in the major squares and on all primarily residential streets, but installing hundreds of new signs is time-consuming, and citywide enforcement has not begun in earnest. And, until the state allows speed enforcement by camera, it will be challenging to slow drivers without more traffic-calming infrastructure.

This term the number of pedestrians who died on our streets outnumbered cyclists by 4-to-1, and large trucks were involved in all but one of the fatal crashes. A Truck Safety Ordinance, expected in 2019 and which could require side guards and backup cameras on trucks operated by city contractors, still has not materialized, and curbing Uber and Lyft drivers’ disrespect of bike lanes has so far proven a losing game of whack-a-mole. Following the death this fall of a Cambridge woman hit by a large truck in Harvard Square, I asked the staff to review the plan for the Kiosk plaza and the adjacent super-crosswalk, and an improved design has been proposed – but the changes won’t be in place until the kiosk project is completed a couple of years from now.

The next phase of the Grand Junction Multi-Use Path got bundled into Alexandria’s upzoning petition for the former Met Pipe site, which awaits resolution of a location for a proposed Eversource substation. Construction on the Cambridge Watertown Greenway Path creeps along, bogged down by drainage issues.

Electric shared scooters made a brief uninvited appearance in 2018 and won’t be invited back until the state Legislature can agree on safety regulations and the city finalizes its own permitting process for scooter companies.

For all the support voiced for rebalancing streets and prioritizing walking, biking and transit, actual progress in making our streets safer and less auto-centric has inched along, with resistance to taking bolder steps due in part to the continued lack of better transit options to make driving – and street parking – less of a necessity and entitlement. A bright spot was the addition of bus priority lanes on sections of outer Mount Auburn Street and the southern end of Massachusetts Avenue. But the unwillingness to crack down on scofflaw parking by tow trucks to create protected lanes on about 500 feet along Webster Avenue to connect to protected lanes in Somerville shows how much of an uphill ride we have ahead.

Trees

The council’s 2018-19 word cloud also would see “trees” growing in prominence over prior terms, a positive development I am proud to have helped advance. The Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force (initiated by the council in 2017) finally began meeting in June 2018, just as the most recent survey of our tree canopy revealed steep and disturbing losses. The task force dug deeply into the historical data and climate forecasts and released a sobering report at the end of 2019 with recommendations for aggressive tree planting and suggestions for strengthening the Tree Protection Ordinance. As an interim measure we succeeded in imposing a one-year moratorium on removing larger healthy trees on private property; it expires in early 2020, and the next council should extend it until the task force’s suggestions can be implemented.

Greater public awareness of the extent of canopy loss and the importance of trees in mitigating the urban heat island impacts of climate change made tree-planting the top vote-getter in Participatory Budgeting in 2018 and 2019. Still, we continued to permit the removal of healthy mature trees for a variety of reasons, mostly connected to development and street reconstructions. The removal of the Harvard Divinity School Oak caused an uproar on a quiet campus, and the tragic loss of a century-old oak on Gore Street when a utility contractor accidentally severed its roots reminded us that urban trees too often become collateral damage in a growing city.

Legislative scorecard

The Ordinance Committee met more than 40 times in 2019 alone, which may be some kind of record (the committee met nine times in 2018, 29 times in 2017 and 18 times in 2016). After months of hearings and many revisions, New England Development finally succeeded in garnering six votes (though not mine) in support of transforming the CambridgeSide mall into a taller, denser mixed-use complex. We also passed a precedent-setting Surveillance Technology Ordinance and approved the creation of the Central Square Business Improvement District.

A resident petition to require new developments to meet higher climate change resiliency standards introduced in early 2018 was steered into a still-ongoing task force process, and as yet no zoning recommendations for the highly vulnerable Alewife area have come out of either the Envision planning process or climate change preparedness study, even as a major developer seeks to rezone a large portion of the Alewife Quad. Climate change is the most urgent challenge we face as a region, but it feels as if we are nibbling around the edges with half-measures and endless study.

Other petitions that made it through the gauntlet were: the aforementioned cannabis ordinances, the minor amendments to the Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance, the Cycling Safety Ordinance and the moratorium on tree removals. We made some small updates to Green Building Requirements; we tinkered with the density of a small zoning district to allow a hotel development near Kendall Square; and we extended the Demolition Delay Ordinance waiting period to 12 months from six. We also eliminated annual fees for street performers as one of several initiatives to help our struggling arts community.

Alexandria’s Grand Junction Overlay Zoning remains in limbo. The Kroon Petition for Harvard Square was allowed to expire, but its spirit is reflected in a new Harvard Square zoning petition, which has the support of the business and neighborhood associations, and that seems likely to pass next term. The new Incentive Zoning Study was delayed, so now-overdue updates to the linkage fee will have to wait for the next council.

A resident-initiated petition to ban leaf blowers fizzled out, and the developer-led New Street self-storage petition was sent packing. The Urban Agriculture Initiative left hen-keeping and urban farming on the plate untouched all term, and updates to the Commercial Table of Uses fell into a black hole. The Outdoor Lighting Ordinance, last discussed in 2017, never saw the light of day. 

Some wins

I take pride in chairing the committee that interviewed and recommended finalist candidates for a new city clerk; we made a great hire in Anthony Wilson. I chaired a series the committee hearings that appear to have succeeded (knock wood) in stopping Eversource from building a substation on Fulkerson Street. At my suggestion we removed the state flag with its offensive symbolism from the Sullivan Chamber and got a couple of trees planted on City Hall Lawn. We advocated successfully for the creation of a seasonal warming center for the homeless, a police substation in Central Square and an immigrant legal defense fund. We asked for and got funding for: public art to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage; free breakfasts, lunches and T passes for low-income students; and a Universal Design Playground. We fought a federal agency to restore a quiet zone at the railroad crossing at Sherman Street. 

Some misses

Our short-term rental law appears to be toothless; there’s no requirement for landlords to register retail vacancies and no penalty for lengthy vacant storefronts; there’s no ban (yet) on plastic water bottles and other single-use plastics; public election financing and restrictions on municipal lobbying prove the devil is in the details; early voting for municipal elections is stuck in Home Rule purgatory; and further exploration of municipal broadband was co-opted by a digital equity study. Jerry’s Pond remains fenced off and in uncooperative corporate hands, and to my dismay, it appears that the Harvard Square MBTA headhouse will remain an eyesore even after the kiosk plaza is entirely renovated around it. The limits of our power were revealed in failed attempts to prevent the steady displacement of artists, musicians and small retailers. The Council had no say in the cancellation of Cambridge Carnival or in the License Commission’s treatment of UpperWest.

It’s a wrap

This 2,500-word summary barely scratches the surface of a tumultuous term. I will need more time to fully process and make peace with the highs and lows of my experience in public service, and to learn how to engage constructively as a former city official without driving myself and others around the bend.

Here’s a playlist of some of the songs I’ve listened to a lot over the past few years to play us into a new decade in Cambridge’s 390-year history. 


Jan Devereux is vice mayor of Cambridge.