Tuesday, July 16, 2024

With the state of the world as it is just days before a local election, it may appear disingenuous to find Cantabrigians arguing over bike lanes, income disparity, the height of our buildings and the need for more open spaces. As outraged as we may be over the countless horrors of war occurring abroad does not mean we ought not keep democracy running at home. And while it may appear we are acting callously by focusing on local issues, Cantabrigians know that tending to our corner of the planet is as important as speaking and acting on global matters. Or do we?

There are roughly 60,000 registered voters in Cambridge, of which only about 20,000 vote. It’s a disturbing statistic for a city once known as “the people’s republic,” but I get it. People have lives, jobs, dates, spouses, grandparents, kids, cars, travel plans, mortgages, rents and plenty of errands. Meanwhile candidates for City Council, 24 of us, are asking you to research our lives and our platforms. Most of all, we’re asking for your vote – preferably your No. 1, vote but we’ll take your No. 2 two or 3. Four, not so much, but okay.

Three words: Civil. Civic. Citizenship. Taken together they offer us the chance to remain civil while performing our civic duty as citizens. Voting is one part of that duty, but there are other areas where we can exercise those three words. It starts with our morning coffee, continues on the street when we greet one another, picks up steam when we check in on the latest gossip at the corner store, ambles on as we (pardon the cliché) help an elderly person cross the street, extends into the office as we work collaboratively and winds down after we pick up our kids at school and thank their teachers. Put simply: Living our localist and routine lives is a form of good citizenship not too far removed from that other civic act of voting.

To the two issues that have dominated this election cycle:

The buildings

I stand for gentle density, midrise quality affordable housing. What do I mean? Simply, I am for increasing population density, but not along the numbers the Affordable Housing Overlay 2.0 suggests through its outsized towers rising as high as 12 and 15 stories in our corridors and squares. I am for housing that rises not more than six or seven stories. Midrise structures align better with the rest of the neighborhood, making for happier, more cooperative neighbors. They respect the existing canopy, generate milder wind tunnels, provide more sunlight, sidestep heat islands exacerbated by climate change and deliver better living conditions to low-income residents. And gentle density midrise buildings pollute less. Build above seven stories and the cost of construction goes up. Way up. One has to bring plumbing, electrical, energy-sucking air conditioning, heat, two elevators and tons more glass and steel up there, which begs the question: Is it a good deal for the developer, the city, its residents and the climate?

Folks, “building higher” is an indicator that the majority of this council could not come up with a better solution and so took the easy way out. The easy solution of “building higher” might be a short-term fix, but in the long term it’s no good, and I believe the council knows this. But it is this council that gave us the choice-less choice to either “build higher” or “exclude low-income people.” This is a false dichotomy. It does not have to be this way. A plan can always be improved upon.

We can build the affordable housing we need through midrise housing, rezoning single-family lots into three-deckers, requiring the city to buy more land expressly for low-income housing, stepping away from developers looking to build more offices and labs and engaging every ward and precinct in a pro-development conversation that includes topics such as open spaces, sites for schools, libraries and retail.

I don’t believe in draconian measures that affect an entire city =the way the AHO does. It reminds me of centralized state-planned policies that in the past led to a world of long-term problems such as overcrowding, poor building management, neglect, decay and a host of urban ills. Folks, when a tall building goes up, it’s there forever. I don’t believe in bold schemes that promise to fix things through sudden changes. Positive change, when it comes, is often unacknowledged and is the result of deep work done by a committed group of folks uninterested in the spotlight and novel or grand plans. I believe in working on a solution that makes sense, takes time and doesn’t damage the city’s ecosystem (in every sense of the word) the way the AHO 2.0 does.

A few days ago our own humorist for humanity, the great Jimmy Tingle, who remains above the election year fray by wisely choosing not to endorse any of the candidates, reminded us of the importance of caring for the poor and the homeless. He told a room full of mostly older white voters to “welcome the stranger.” In this age of displacement is there a better maxim? Not since World War II have we seen so many refugees on the move. Of course Cambridge must – and does – welcome the stranger. It’s an epic, biblical phrase and one to which we must add, “Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself.” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

How, then, do we square our unlimited and benevolent desire to welcome the stranger with our limited physical capacity to house her? Well, the state wants municipalities to set aside 10 percent of its housing inventory for low-income families. If a municipality is not at 10 percent, under Chapter 40B a developer can build something that does not comply with local zoning regulations, and no one wants that.

With its 15 percent of total occupancies set aside for low-income families, Cambridge already does more for affordable housing than our neighbors, surpassing Medford, Arlington, Watertown, Belmont and Somerville. That’s more than 8,500 units out of nearly 58,000, which covers everything from Cambridge Housing Authority housing stock to units from nonprofit and private housing providers.

Fifteen percent. Should we go higher? I say yes. To 20 percent? Twenty five? Higher, still? The idealist in us always says “more, because more is always better.” The realist asks: “What’s the limit”? Let’s ask: How many midrise gentle density affordable-housing units does the city need to permit to reach – say – 20 percent of total occupancies? How much rezoning from single-family to multi-unit (as in triple-deckers) needs to occur? Where can we repurpose existing structures to allow for more housing? What can we learn from success stories such as Lincoln Way and Roosevelt Towers? Seen through this lens, we not only welcome the stranger but also “treat them as well.”

I’m standing in Kendall Square on the corner of Broadway and Binney. To my left, the Akamai tower, 25 stories of opaque glass and steel. To my right, the nine-story Google building, done colonial style with red brick and a facade that wraps around the corner on which it sits. A friend of mine stares at both structures. She’s a 30-something life-sciences worker, and she tells me she doesn’t care about height. “Why should new housing be in sync with the surrounding neighborhood and why are tall buildings bad and short ones good?” she asks. “I’d live in a glass and steel high-rise tower if the price was right.” I don’t tell her she probably wouldn’t qualify, what with her salary and her being single. Yet when I tell her the taller building will pollute more than the shorter one, it brings out the environmentalist in her. She opts for the midrise, eco-friendly choice. Everyone has their own politics and, as we know, all politics is local.

The bikes

I stand for separated bike lanes but I won’t sign the “pledge” because it leaves the signer/councillor beholden to the bike lobby and not city hall or the average Cantabrigian. Bike lanes (most of them, anyway) are here to stay and we should applaud the folks that worked long and hard to bring them to us. But everyone agrees they and the city did a deplorable job of telling the rest of us, notably businesses and non-bikers, what the effin’ heck was about to happen to our streets. Were I a shopkeeper on the avenue I’d be [insert expletive here]. But I bike everywhere, and often, and the lanes have made our streets safer, though cyclists, e-bikers and folks on scooters need to slow down at intersections just as cars and buses do. And we must listen to small businesses’ legitimate complaints about on-street parking or we risk losing our locally owned shops to chains who’ll open up stores they don’t need to sell from; stores that are actually brick-and-mortar billboards for national brands. We see this happening already with banks. Who actually uses banks anymore?

I believe we can all get along on the avenue, and I’m proposing a “Courteous In Cambridge” campaign as a way to remind everyone we’re in it together. Signs along congested corridors helps. A yellow, triangular caution sign, the image of a biker, a pedestrian and a car will go far in planting the idea in our minds that we need to respect the road and each other. Additionally, bring on free, half-sized, agile electric buses. They are better for our newly downsized streets than the full-sized clunkers provided by the T. Run these shuttle-sized buses from MIT to Alewife. Implement a pilot program and watch how quickly folks return to mass transit. And doubling this smaller, electric bus fleet means less wait times at our bus stops – which, by the way, need better lighting and more shelter from the elements.

The choice

On the matter of open spaces, energy and sustainability, education, public safety and the arts, I refer people to our campaign website. Our platform page is worth a look, as are the videos on the homepage and a dedicated film page. You may disagree with our vision or policies, but at least they are presented clearly and easy to pick up. By checking us out, you’ll be better positioned to choose who you’d like to see on the next council.

Those 20,000 voters I mentioned earlier? I’m sure they’re well aware of the bond between their everyday lives and their vote. Their vote does make a difference. I only wish the 40,000 registered nonvoters would understand this as well. To the folks who do vote, vote as if the future of your neighborhood and your everyday lives, from your morning coffee to your evening spirits, depended on it. Because it does.

Federico is endorsed by councillor Dennis Carlone, the Cambridge Citizen’s Coalition and North Walden Neighbors. More endorsements are on his website.

Federico Muchnik is a candidate for Cambridge City Council