Monday, July 22, 2024

An unhoused man lounges on garbage bags Sept. 1 in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Returning Central Square to its status as “the jewel of our city” after an increase in homelessness, drug use and public intoxication, violence and aggressive panhandling is being made a top priority for the city manager by Cambridge city councillors – and the path they recommend in a Sept. 18 order is to simply pay attention to recommendation made over the past decades.

“Central Square has been the focus of numerous studies and city action plans for over 40 years,” an order by councillor E. Denise Simmons says in an amended version crafted by councillor Marc McGovern with Simmons and councillor Paul Toner. The original was introduced Sept. 11.  “Many of the plans arising from these sessions remain unimplemented, leading to a frustratingly continuous cycle of task forces being convened, studies being commissioned, recommendations being issued and the city’s failure to fully and coherently follow through.”

A history of studies dating back to 1980 is cited by Simmons, with the most recent being the council’s red ribbon commission “on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square,” which wrapped up work in 2011, and recommendations from a two-year, $350,000 process called C2 by consultant Goody Clancy that followed Nov. 28, 2012.

In her original version, Simmons asked the city manager to convene a task force and report back monthly on quick fixes for “low-hanging fruit” and longer-term solutions; McGovern aimed to change how the city got there, asking: “Rather than forming a new task force to look at Central Square, that the city manager work with relevant departments to look at the reports that have already been made.”

There was confusion Sept. 18 around presentation of the amended version; what the council adopted doesn’t read differently in the section calling to convene a task force, aside from the addition of a hyphen, though councillors agreed to the shift away from creating a new group.

A more concrete change is in removal of references to the square’s unhoused population, “as there is already a task force that has been working on those issues,” McGovern said, noting that he, the mayor and city manager “have already been in discussion about how to move those conversations forward.”

Around the general thrust of the order, “I share the frustration,” McGovern said. “There have been numerous studies and rarely do we move forward on them.”

It was a theme echoed by the head of Central Square’s Business Improvement District, Michael Monestime, on Monday. He pointed to an action plan for the square published in 1987 from work led by Carl Barron – the businessman who was unofficial “mayor” of Central Square until his death in 2014 at 97. “Everything is having these anniversaries. It’s been decades of convening and studying the square, and I would love to see action in my generation,” Monestime said, “I hope the city responds quickly.”

The C2 report included a number of suggestions for public places, retail, housing stock and “connecting people to the square,” ranging from the creation of small parks to encouraging “green walls” and rooftop restaurants and gardens, adding a farmers market space and retail stalls, affordable offices for nonprofits and small businesses and live-work housing models.

The lack of concrete, clear action around the report and a matching one for Kendall Square raised an outcry that has only been repeated with the lack of coherent response to the three-year, $6 million Envision Cambridge development master plan process, for which a final report was presented in November 2019.

Still, no part of Cambridge has drawn as much concern as Central Square in the past several months. The red ribbon and C2 reports make note of the challenges of the square hosting social services but precede a recent influx of homeless and the violence resulting from people preying on them, which leads to a perception of crime throughout the Central Square area.

“The real emphasis here is to make Central Square a top priority,” Toner said, calling for city staff under new City Manager Yi-An Huang – now on the job for just over a year – to review past work and “come up with an action plan.”

Councillor Dennis Carlone sounded a note of caution that no task force – “or non-task force” – will be able to turn Central around rapidly. “As long as it’s taken for Central Square to change, it will take almost as long to bring it back to what people deserve,” Carlone said.

Still, Central Square should at least be moving forward, Simmons said.

“I see it as the jewel of our city,” Simmons said. “How do we improve it?”