Envision Cambridge, last thing on our minds, should really be a top priority for city in crisis
You should be worried about Envision Cambridge, the citywide master plan awaiting discussion since November – if you remember it at all.
There was cause for concern from the start, which was six years ago. In part because the city manager and staff had to be dragged into doing it; had an aversion to acknowledging it was about development; along the way perpetrated such oddities as trying to ignore a long-discussed pedestrian bridge in Alewife, the neighborhood that was called primary in planning needs; and ended by addressing neither projections nor goals for population as an underlying factor for its 176 new or expanded actions for “where we’d like to be in 2030.”
The presentation of the report last fall wasn’t mind-bending solely because of the absence of a population discussion in some 200 bound pages of planning; there was also the disagreement about concern for Alewife, where residential development was described by a city official as “exactly what was being incentivized and was the intention of the [previous] plan.” This despite Envision focusing on Alewife first mainly because zoning had failed to create anything except residences. It was like saying that seeing a child become morbidly obese was fine because they were still growing.
Cambridge also has a history of tanking its reports; before Envision Cambridge came along, there was a whole process around Central and Kendall squares called K2C2 that was completed in 2013 and stuck on a shelf, a vibrant process turned into reference material for planners to consult – or not, as they wished – without the judgment of the city councillors who’d ordered and allocated $350,000 for it. (See also: The Gates report; and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority audit.) K2C2 followed an earlier Central Square red ribbon commission dating back to 2010. Like the city’s repeated studies of early childhood education, it can look a lot like a perverse cycle of calling for reports that take long enough to complete that by the time officials come to grapple with them, they’re too old to be relevant. Then it’s time to call for another report.
If Envision Cambridge is a road map to 2030, how many years’ value will the city get out of it from a 2020 that’s being lost to a pandemic? The $6 million Envision process is aging into irrelevance.
With a two-year election cycle, the City Council is badly in need of a collective Adderall, though having members active since 1990 hasn’t seemed to help – and now attention is drifting to exploring whether changes are needed to the city charter, a big task grown gargantuan because Cambridge hasn’t thought about it in 80 years. Most cities do it every five to 10 years.
Last year, when Envision arrived before the council, urban planning expert Dennis Carlone urged everyone to send relevant portions to their committees for deep dives into the content, as he did for the Ordinance Committee (and Quinton Zondervan did in 2018 and last year for committees around health and environment and for Neighborhood & Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts & Celebration). The lack of enthusiasm looked a lot like foreshadowing: Probably through some combination of looming election turnover and general distaste for the task, no other committee took it on.
Then coronavirus arrived, halting most work of the council for months and reshuffling priorities.
It’s also hard to use Cambridge’s biggest documents, which is in line with the city’s general approach to government transparency: The data’s often there, but good luck to anyone without specific training in finding it. The annual budget is comprehensively huge and utterly lacking in any information you want in the way you want to use it, a document published in the shape of a tesseract. Envision is similarly clunky, though maybe it’s more accessible for people who speak the language. (Municipal-ese, in the developmental dialect.)
There’s Alewife zoning in front of the Planning Board right now, proceeding ahead of and – through no fault of the developers proposing it – in blithe ignorance of Envision and its supposedly urgent focus on the area. And it’s not even the biggest market force illustrating that the master plan looks doomed to failure.
There are a number of proposals in Envision to address a retail crisis, which is synonymous with a small-business crisis born partially of previous halfway measures: Requiring the creation of ground-floor retail spaces without doing anything to ensure the spaces get or stay filled.
An accounting that shows only about 4 percent of ground-floor retail is empty in Cambridge belies a lived reality: If 4 percent of your refrigerator was empty, you probably wouldn’t see the need to convene meetings on the topic. So the presentation of a percentage doesn’t do anything about the perception of the problem – nor the reality of a Crema Cafe or Black Ink being displaced despite long-dusty empty square footage between them that’s owned by the same company.
Envision’s biggest market force problem is actually the arts, only a few years ago an annual contributor of $175 million to the city’s economy.
Just in the Central Square Cultural District, for instance, the past several years before coronavirus saw the loss of the All Asia, Out of the Blue, Mobius, EMF music community, New Alliance Gallery and Green Street Studios. The East Meets West Bookstore and cultural space went silent last year. More recently the loss of Studio@550, The Cantab and its Club Bohemia and Boston Poetry Slam have become all but certain for reasons having very little to do with Covid-19, just like the Middle East nightclub and restaurant complex, which includes five performance spaces. Rodney’s Bookstore must relocate, and the MIT Museum is slated to leave for Kendall Square.
Since coronavirus, the ecosystem has seen even more challenges: The ImprovBoston comedy club is furloughed and rumors have begun to circulate about the future of the Middlesex Lounge. Other places to spend a night out, from the hot tubs of Inman Oasis to the pool tables of Flat Top Johnny’s, are gone. Harvard Square is still due to lose its theater arts to Allston from Harvard Square, and there is no word of what will take the place of its Loeb and Oberon theater spaces. That follows the loss in recent years of such organizations as the Deborah Mason School of Dance and Bridge Repertory theater company.
Yet Envision cites 11 actions in its scant discussion of the arts in Cambridge, and all but one are listed as “ongoing.” By Envision’s math, the 91 percent of our arts plan that’s underway is equal to the 96 percent of our ground-floor retail spaces that are filled. Could it be that we have no problems?
This is a difficult time, no question. But our retail, business and nonprofit catastrophe has only been accelerated by coronavirus, not caused by it, and if the disaster unfolding before us wasn’t a signal for the need to act, the return of zoning petitions to the Planning Board is. The council cannot get around it anymore. It’s time to make something of Envision Cambridge.