Sunday, June 16, 2024

One of the Eversource power utility’s two stations around Fresh Pond in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge City Council candidates debated energy policy, historic preservation and transportation infrastructure, among other issues, in a Sunday forum.

Sixteen candidates out of 24 participated in the forum, including two of the six incumbents running for reelection – councillors Patricia Nolan and Paul Toner – despite it being the first of the 2023 election season and a co-production of seven city groups, including two of its oldest.

Kerry Costello, president of Boston’s League of Women Voters chapter, moderated, joined by Chuck Hinds, president of the East Cambridge Planning Team, and Suzanne Preston Blier, who leads the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association and Cambridge Citizens Coalition, a group of local leaders and activists, and who helped start Indivisible Cambridge, the city’s second group inspired by or affiliated with the anti-Trump group of the same name. The forum was also co-sponsored by the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association and newer organizations: Cambridge Streets for All and Cambridge Voters for Good Government.

Much of the forum centered on city energy policy, especially the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance.

The council passed Beudo in 2014 as a step toward reducing Cambridge’s greenhouse gas emissions. The ordinance requires the owners of large buildings to report their annual energy consumption to the city and to gradually reduce their emissions.

Nine years after its passage, Beudo returned to the spotlight in 2021, when city staff submitted amendments and councillors began discussion of earlier net-zero timelines for commercial buildings: large commercial properties, according to the ordinance, must reach net-zero emissions by 2035, whereas small commercial buildings must do so by 2050. The amended ordinance largely exempts residential properties.

Energy use exemptions

To begin the debate on Beudo, Costello asked the candidates if they would support a Beudo exemption for nonprofits and historic buildings. Many of the candidates answered with an emphatic “yes.”

“They should proceed at the speed that fits them,” Federico Muchnik said. “I don’t want it to move so fast that it ends up yielding negative or less-than-desirable results.”

Carrie Pasquarello agreed with Muchnik, stating that the city should “absolutely” exempt nonprofits. She also said that the city needs to do a better job of explaining Beudo to residents. “We need to be transparent with the whole process,” Pasquarello said.

Joan Pickett said that the council should have exempted religious institutions when it was drafting its most recent amendments “so we don’t put any more administrative burden on our staff,” Pickett said. “This seemed like an easy one for us to tackle up front.”

Some candidates answered with an equally emphatic “no.” Nolan, who worked on the Beudo amendments, said that the city should not base exemptions on a building’s use – that because some nonprofits have the time and money to abide by the ordinance, exempting them would be counterproductive.

“If you have a financial issue or if you have a historic building issue or you have some technical reason why you can’t do this, apply for a waiver,” Nolan said.

Dan Totten agreed, emphasizing that there are already avenues for nonprofits and historic buildings to get exemptions. “I completely reject the premise of the question,” Totten said. “This policy goes after the biggest commercial properties in our city. Sixty-six percent of the emissions in our city come from 6 percent of the buildings.”

Questions draw agreement

Following this discussion, Costello asked the candidates whether the city should place liens on properties that do not pay Beudo’s fines. Robert Winters said that instead of fining property owners, the city should work with them to find the best possible solution 

“No fines. Please, no fines,” Winters said. “Work with them the way other city departments work with people all the time.”

Doug Brown echoed Winters’ sentiment. He also suggested that the city use incentives instead of fines, a plan that a few other candidates supported. 

“I’d say no. I don’t think the city needs the money,” Brown said.

Some questions were peculiarly bland, generating not just a lack of controversy but no marked disagreement at all. Costello asked if the candidates believed that the city should consult residents when Eversource or another utility places transformers in their neighborhoods (“We should critically and carefully think about the placement of substations, and I think neighborhood associations could help that,” Vernon Walker said. “It’s good common sense,” Peter Hsu said) and whether candidates supported a hypothetical program in which Cambridge would pay to train the skilled workers who would construct the city’s energy infrastructure (“Absolutely,” said Ayesha Wilson, an incumbent member of the School Committee. “Our young people need to have the skill to be effective and efficient in doing this work.”)

Preservation and development

Another thread of the forum focused on preservation and the city’s history. Costello asked the candidates to rank how important historic preservation is to their platform. Joe McGuirk started the conversation by noting the importance of Cambridge’s history but raising concerns about housing development. “I don’t want it to be a barrier to creating the housing density we need to make sure that lower- and middle-income folks get to stay here,” McGuirk said. 

John Hanratty agreed that history is essential to the character of Cambridge, though the city should be “judicious” when deciding what to preserve. “Not all history needs to be saved,” Hanratty said.

Hao Wang ranked historic preservation as one of his highest priorities. He explained how Beijing, where he grew up, saw much of its history destroyed by industrialization.

“We don’t want the same mistake to happen here,” Wang said, arguing that housing and preservation are not necessarily at odds. “We can find solutions to preserve both.”

Transportation

Transportation, local and regional, came up toward the end of the forum, much of the conversation centering on the shortcomings of the MBTA and steps the city could take to augment the commonwealth’s transportation services.

Adrienne Klein said that the city should continue to develop the fare-free bus pilot, especially on the MBTA’s No. 1 bus line, and “think about creative solutions to connect areas that are no longer served by the MBTA.”

Cathie Zusy agreed that the city ought to further develop its existing transportation infrastructure. She pointed to Newton and Salem as examples of communities that have used local van fleets to supplement bus service.

“I also want a commuter rail stop at Alewife,” Zusy said, following on Brown’s remarks about working with state transportation staff to build a long-discussed stop there.

Toner said that he has been working to improve the city’s transportation on the council. He filed a policy order about a year ago intending to work with Harvard, MIT and the Kendall Square businesses on a community shuttle program, a topic that was discussed by the council over the summer and returned Monday in its first meeting back after a summer break. He also noted the importance of electric vehicles.

“I agree with the folks who talked about us having our own electric vehicles, at least on the main corridors to supplement the T,” Toner said.


This post was updated Sept. 12, 2023, to clarify a detail about the formation of Indivisible Cambridge. It was updated Sept. 14, 2023, to correct that Doug Brown had raised earlier during the forum the issue of an Alewife rail stop.