Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Duane Callender, first signer of a citizens’ zoning petition about labs, at Cambridge City Hall. The image comes from a presentation about the zoning seen Wednesday.

Two similar efforts to limit where labs can go in the city will be combined for discussion in committees, with a citizen zoning in effect pausing new lab development proposals in certain areas until it expires April 4 or is voted on.

When the Callender petition arrived before the City Council on Oct. 31, it was sent automatically to the Planning Board, which gave it a thumbs-down Dec. 20 as overly broad and confusingly written, and the council’s Ordinance Committee, where it got a 7-1 vote on Wednesday to be referred to committees focused on economic development and long-term planning. That’s where an almost identical proposal about labs proposed by councillors Quinton Zondervan and Marc McGovern went when brought to the council Oct. 3.

Councillor Paul Toner began debate Wednesday with a suggestion to match the Planning Board’s thumbs-down. “I’d really like to end the parallel process,” Toner said. Some councillors agreed.

The motion reflected annoyance that the petition arrived after Zondervan’s version was sent for committee discussion instead of being put on a track for voting within a zoning petition’s 90-day window. “We wanted to talk about the concepts behind the zoning before we actually looked at actual language,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said, calling the hearing’s meta-debate “a master class in why we don’t subvert that process.”

But the backers of the petition and Zondervan pushed back at the notion the citizens’ petition was the result of skulduggery or a wasted effort – and said that starting the clock on the zoning to jog substantive conversation had merit. 

“We’re not children going from one parent to the other after being told no. We’re citizens trying to participate in a complex democracy. It’s not easy for you, and it’s even harder for us, and we’re doing our best,” said Charles Franklin, a presenter of the petition. Zondervan agreed: “These are the rules of our democracy … Just as the council used its ability to shift the conversation into a different committee, the citizens used the rules to bring this petition before us. If we’re going to hold it against one party, we should hold it against the other.”

The three-hour meeting included extensive probing into the effects of leaving the petition in committee rather than referring it, and various other options, some complicated by questions as to which might invoke a rule against bringing any similar legislation to the council within a two-year period.

Proponents said the effort was needed to keep commercial research-and-development laboratories from outcompeting the creation of housing, and to keep the city’s squares and business districts lively. 

There was skepticism around the need from the council and many of the city’s business organizations, and concern that the zoning would hobble the city’s innovation-industry economic engine without resulting in more housing. But there was also support for the conversation, including from councillor Dennis Carlone, who has also tried to put limits on large labs being built in or near residential areas.

“I had a policy order almost two years ago that the city chose not to act on,” Carlone said. “Even though I’m furious that my proposal was not explored by the city, I think this should continue. This is a credible proposal.”

There was a democratic benefit that was served by keeping the citizens’ petition alive through referral, presenter Lee Farris said, pointing to the fact that discussion of Zondervan’s version included politicians, planners and business interests – but “there wasn’t anybody like any of us sitting at the roundtable.” 

“I hope that if that’s where the discussion happens, that you invite us, because we’ve done a lot of work to bring information to the council that was not presented in that meeting. And we have a different point of view,” Farris said.

The petition being before the Ordinance Committee also means no lab proposal that would be affected by the proposed zoning can be approved by the Planning Board. The petition therefore creates a pause on introducing lab proposals, which Farris said could give councillors time to figure out zoning they would like to pass – with citizen input.

One point of view prominent in the citizens’ presentation that had been lacking from the earlier discussion was that of Duane Callender – the first signer of the petition, which became known by his name as a result – a lifelong Cantabrigian who became homeless for a time and now lives in inclusionary housing on a Section 8 voucher. “The petition was signed by a great number of low-income tenants because we know that if these new lab developments take over in places like Central Square, Harvard and Porter, it is going to get a lot harder to create and preserve affordable housing in this city,” Callender told councillors. “Nobody is afraid of science. We would like to see a better balance of commercial development with housing of all types so that more people like me can come back to Cambridge.”

The next hearing on lab limits – one scheduled for Zondervan’s version of the proposal but now expected to incorporate the citizens’ petition – is a joint economic development and long-term planning hearing Feb. 7.

This post was updated Jan. 15, 2023, to add the element of a pause on lab proposals that are affected by the proposed zoning.