Yes on Inman Square

Tonight I will be voting yes to move forward with the Inman Square redesign. It is not a decision I have come to lightly, or without doing my homework. I have talked with my neighbors at multiple community meetings as well as sitting with them one on one to hear their individual perspectives. I have met with City leadership over the past few weeks, and had detailed conversations with our City Manager, Traffic and Parking, the Assessors’ Department, and more, and asked tough questions about the proposed plan. I have talked with commuters of all kinds, whether they be drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. I have been in constant contact with the East Cambridge/Inman Square Business Association and individual small businesses to truly understand the impact on retail that a multi-year construction plan will have. And with regards to the Inman Square firehouse, I spent this past Friday night shadowing our Fire Department to see their equipment needs and challenges first-hand, and understand what firefighting looks like in 2018 so that I can support them in successfully serving our community.

I want to respect the City’s community engagement process surrounding this redesign, particularly because the majority of it predates my time on the Council. But contrary to what has been said, not only is it okay to critique the process, especially when it yields a less than desirable outcome, I believe it is my job as a City Councillor. When I ran for office, people often asked me what set me apart from other candidates, and why, in such a crowded field, I was the one deserving of their support. My answer was always that I had the ability to truly listen to multiple perspectives, sit at the table with opposing stakeholders, bring people together, and have the difficult but productive conversations that lead to results. That’s why being a City Councillor is like putting together a puzzle. When I hear from constituents or advocacy groups, they are each presenting me with their piece of the puzzle, and through their lens, their piece is always the most important. But when all of these pieces are laid out on the table in front of me, they are equally important, and it’s my job to put them together and form the big picture. I have taken my Inman Square decision seriously, especially as the only Councillor who lives in this neighborhood. This issue represents the largest puzzle I’ve gotten yet: pedestrians, cyclists, businesses, neighbors, environmental activists, Public Safety officials, and the City all have their own pieces, and it’s my job to take a holistic approach and thoughtfully put them together.

Projects like the Inman Square redesign require leadership that is methodical and thoughtful, and they require someone that’s willing to engage every stakeholder, ask tough questions and hold people accountable. I’m proud of the work I’ve done to do this. Since my comments last week, I have been able to address many of my concerns, and I hope, yours too. Retail will no doubt take a hit from the two year construction timeframe, and I have worked with our Assessors’ Office to spearhead an active engagement process, especially with our small businesses. City staff will be actively seeking out small business owners to offer tax abatements to ease cost burdens during construction. Our Economic Development Department will also be considering a number of “rapid response” methods to respond to unforeseen concerns during construction, and the City is committed to working on streamlining the permitting process for outdoor dining in anticipation of the new Velucci Plaza. Seniors and those with disabilities who regularly access the Health Alliance, Urgent Care, and the Inman Pharmacy have expressed concerns about the sidewalk design, and I have worked with the City to ensure not only ADA compliance, but to create a friendly environment for those who have impaired mobility. The loss of the large, mature trees in Velucci Park will have an adverse effect on the direct abutters of the park, whose residences used to benefit from the buffer between noise, traffic particulates (emissions), and general public view. I am working with Traffic and Parking and other City staff to add additional greenery to the remaining park that will protect those residences from increased exposure. And lastly, the size of the trees we plant in the new Velucci Plaza need to be large enough to recover our tree canopy in that area more quickly, and reduce the heat island effect.

This plan is far from perfect. It was not the first choice of the neighborhood, or even the City, and to some groups, such as the cycling community, it was the last choice. Earlier and more popular alternatives such as “the peanut” were thrown out immediately due to the needs of the firehouse, but ironically at this very same meeting tonight, we are approving $575,000 for a new, smaller fire truck that’s more suited to urban environments. I won’t repeat my thoughts about the future of the Inman Square firehouse here (to read my previous statement, look here: https://alannamallon.org/inman-square-redesign/), but had a more holistic approach to this design been taken from the beginning, the City may not have been caught in the “this or nothing” situation we are in now.

I ran on a platform of making streets safer, and I cannot justify a complete rejection of this plan, which does include protected bicycle infrastructure and shorter pedestrian walk times. But future projects cannot take this piecemeal, zero alternatives approach. As your City Councillor, I will always stay involved in a thoughtful, methodical way to ensure that the City approaches projects holistically in the future.

Inman Square Redesign

As a resident of Inman Square for the past 14 years, I feel a special responsibility to my neighborhood to make the right decision regarding the proposed redesign. This is not a vote I am taking lightly. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and talking with my neighbors at community meetings where I have listened to both concerns and excitement about the redesign. I can empathize with my neighbors who are skeptical of the plan, because as a member of the Inman Square community, I too feel the frustration of being presented with design options, only to be told that any alternatives to the current plan were impossible. So I share my neighbors’ concerns that impossible “alternatives” are not alternatives at all.

 

But much has been made about the long process the City has undertaken to get to this final design, most of which pre-dates my time on the Council. I want to respect this, as it’s a process which has earned support for the plan from many of my neighbors. I have concerns about the current plan, but that does not mean I am in favor of the status quo. Inman Square requires improvements: first and foremost the addition of enhanced pedestrian crossings, protected bicycle infrastructure, as well as a complete revitalization of Velucci Park as an updated community space.

 

It is abundantly clear that we need much better infrastructure for the 600 cyclists during the peak travel hour that move through Inman Square on their way to Kendall Square and Boston. But as I have been saying on Cambridge Street, good design is imperative. We’ve seen in other parts of the City how counter-intuitive bike infrastructure is either misused or not used at all. In a simpler design, we would create protected bike infrastructure in Inman Square that would allow cyclists to move quickly and safely on the same path that they follow now, which would maximize the already efficient path straight through the intersection that they have mapped out for themselves. We could even have separate bike lights that allow cyclists to get a head start on cars to avoid conflicts, especially at the intersection of Hampshire and Inman Street.

 

Velucci Park has has long been neglected, but has the potential to be revived and turned into a real community meeting space. The existing mature trees provide greenspace and shade that would be greatly enhanced by tables, chairs, public art, or maybe even a water feature. While moving the plaza across the street comes with some benefits, any new trees added to the newly created plaza would need to provide the same high quality atmosphere. Although I don’t want to prioritize trees over safety, many of my neighbors who I have known and respected for years, feel a deeply personal connection to these trees after decades of caretaking, which I cannot trivialize or dismiss.

 

I have had detailed conversations with City Officials who are involved in the redesign, and at this point, I am wondering if there are other, less impactful, less expensive ways to create a safer intersection. I talked at last Monday night’s meeting about the fire station that’s located in Inman Square, and I want to further explain my comments. This station has become a focal point and major factor of concern in the redesign due to the large vehicles entering and exiting the station on a regular basis. But the future of firefighting is changing, and so too may the future of this station. We had multiple conversations during the budget hearings about both the need for a new firehouse in the Alewife area while at the same time, the need for massive capital investments in our current firehouses, including the one in Inman Square which was built when horses were still being used. Firefighting is evolving rapidly, becoming less about firefighting (although this is still important!) and more about responding to attacks, being prepared for climate change events, and more. To back this up, the Council recently approved smaller fire equipment, boats, and even bicycles for our firefighters, and I wonder if this station could evolve to be for smaller vehicles and tactical units that would require less of a turning radius. This would have a major impact on any Inman Square redesign outcomes, and may open up several additional, true alternatives that may have been off the table before.

 

If we are starting a two year, six million dollar project that will deeply impact our community, we need to be sure we are implementing the right solution. Over the next week, I am looking forward to continuing my detailed conversations with City Officials, my neighbors, and the Inman Square community about how to move forward with creating a safer, more manageable intersection. We all want a Square complete with safer pedestrian crossings, better bicycle infrastructure, and an upgraded public park that is deserving of the people who surround it.

 

Central Square Arts Overlay

Yesterday, the Economic Development Committee had its first hearing on my policy order that asked for zoning language which would create an Arts Overlay District in Central Square. Central Square is in the middle of it’s Cultural District designation (it’s one of only 43 in the entire state) but we are losing artists and arts related spaces at the same time. Yesterday’s conversation was about how to address the displacement, while also talking about attracting new arts uses in our cultural district. Central Square is changing, and will change even more in the coming years. Mass and Main will bring hundreds of new, market rate units to Central Square. We will soon have at least one boutique hotel in Central if not two. Kendall Square is marching up the street and bringing their innovation technology with them, while on the other side, Harvard Square holds our history, and keeps the look and feel of Old Cambridge alive. Meanwhile, Central Square is the heart of our City, but we are losing the cultural assets that give the Square its own, unique identity. When artists are displaced, it comes with all of the usual negative side effects of people being forced out of their homes and communities. But we as a City also experience a loss – as we now live in a community of less artists, writers, performers, musicians, and creators. The recent displacement of artists in Central Square is the loss of a public good, and while it’s true that Cambridge has a broader culture of enjoying art, there is less of a focus on retaining and attracting artists, and making a real commitment to the arts with public policy and resources. One of the goals of yesterday’s meeting was to implement a concrete action plan to support our cultural district, and save the heart of our City.

 Zoning is a powerful tool to achieve this goal. There are local examples of arts overlays in nearby cities and towns, such as in Somerville and Lowell. Although these serve as good examples, we need to recognize that the challenges and opportunities Central Square faces are much greater. Somerville and Lowell simply needed to convert and repurpose old buildings, but thanks to the Central Square Restoration Petition, we have all of the FAR we need. In order to make substantive change and have a lasting benefit for the arts community, we need to reform our zoning in more extensive ways. First, we need to talk about and define artists and the spaces in which they live and work in an accurate way which respects the diversity of their crafts. Second, we need to revisit height, subdistricts, and outdated design guidelines. And lastly, we need to specifically outline design guidelines and requirements for developers so that they build arts spaces that are state of the art and allow our artists to create. The way to think about this conversation is to frame it within “what do we WANT for Central Square,” and then zone and plan for that. Some of what we are talking about in terms of this arts overlay was addressed in the C2 draft zoning language from May 2013, but was never implemented. This could prove to be a useful tool to not to start a new conversation, but to pick up where the last restoration petition left off.

Now is a turning point: we can let the identity of Central Square be claimed by outside development forces, or we can let the identity of Central Square be created by a thriving local arts community.

Source of Income Anti-Discrimination

Too often I sit across the table from Section 8 tenants who have been denied housing because of source of income discrimination. At the mere mention of using a voucher, many low income tenants are denied the opportunity to fill out an application, denied apartment showings, have phone calls and emails go ignored by realtors, or are told outright that they are unable to rent a particular apartment. These discriminatory practices are illegal on the local, state, and federal level, but are often so difficult to enforce. In that moment, Section 8 holders often feel shocked, powerless, and alone; many of them may not even be aware this practice is illegal, because real estate applications and realtors themselves don’t inform tenants of their rights, so these incidents go unreported.

Our Human Rights Commission is the body that is tasked with enforcing our local anti-discrimination ordinance, and for tonight’s Council meeting, I have co-sponsored an order with Councillors Siddiqui and Simmons which asks for information from the Commission. At last week’s Housing Committee meeting, I brought up the fact that we need more information regarding how many complaints the Commission has received, how many housing cases it has mediated, how many tenants were successful in challenging discriminatory practices, and how many mediation sessions, if any, were appealed to the Courts.

This order is a small step, but it is the first of many to end this malicious practice. Eligible tenants are illegally being denied housing based solely on their source of income, and it’s exacerbating our housing crisis. Mobile vouchers are supposed to enable them to find market-rate housing, but instead, Section 8 tenants are often relegated to certain neighborhoods or buildings, end up sitting on the long wait list for an inclusionary unit, or are forced to leave Cambridge altogether.

The Council needs to be empowered with information about these cases so that we can empower tenants and protect their rights. Our anti-discrimination ordinance helps maintain the diversity of our City, and the Council needs to do our part to work with the Human Rights Commission to enforce it if we want Cambridge to be a truly welcoming home to all.

Inman Square Parking Pilot

Last week, I introduced a policy order that would begin a pilot program to allow small businesses in Inman Square, the only Square not served by a major MBTA subway line, to issue temporary passes to a small number of employees. This is an especially pressing issue since the Inman Square Redesign construction project will result in an even greater loss of parking spots for both employees and patrons of businesses. I have supported these kinds of temporary parking programs in the past, such as when Councillors Kelley, Devereux, and Zondervan introduced their order to allow day parking for teachers at schools without parking lots.

We all agree on promoting more sustainable forms of transit that are not single trips in cars, but we need to be equitable in our transit policy, and recognize that a one size fits all approach does not work in a diverse City. Many employees of small businesses or teachers cannot afford to live in Cambridge due to the high cost of living, and though our City itself is transit rich, we need to be asking ourselves “from where are people coming?” Not everyone who works in our City lives in an area that is accessible by the MBTA or another mode of public transit.

The reality is that Inman Square lacks the kind of transit infrastructure needed for businesses to thrive, which is why the 2016 Retail Strategy report emphasized that parking in retail districts like this was “crucial to business success.” Employees are using the very parking that customers are supposed to use to patronize the stores – the meters out front, and employees are having to move their cars every two hours, wasting valuable time on the clock, and increasing the number of car trips made in the City each day. All of this negatively impacts the already fragile retail business economy. We can’t control the high cost of rent, we can’t control the fact that people are increasing using Amazon and other online venues to shop, but we can make the cost of doing business with the City of Cambridge a little less onerous, which goes a long way with our small businesses.

Unfortunately my order was charter written last week, which means it did not come before the Council for a vote, and will appear on the agenda again this coming week. The Cambridge Day has coverage of the discussion that we had between the Council, Mayor, City Manager, and Director of Traffic and Parking regarding the proposal and how to best move forward. Transit inequity is a persistent problem in Cambridge, both for residents and non-resident employees alike, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Council and City Departments to find the best solution.

 

Moving Forward on Cambridge St.

Today I was given an update about the Cambridge St. Bike Lanes from the City, and wanted to share it with you. I’ve gotten many questions from all sides of the issue, such as:

What are the responsibilities of this group?

1. Provide a space to review recent bike safety projects, including Cambridge St. Brattle St., and sections of Massachusetts Ave. This review is about the *design* of, not the existence of the lanes.
2. Give input on how to improve the community process when moving forward with future bike lane projects.

Who will be facilitating the working group?

Our community has expressed interest in ending the “us vs. them” rhetoric that bike lanes have caused in the past. To help make progress on this, a 3rd party facilitator called the Consensus Building Institute, will be helping to guide the conversation.

How will the group be formed? Who will be on it?

The Consensus Building Institute will identify key stakeholder groups on this issue, and conduct 30-40 interviews with a representative sample of these stakeholder groups. Based on these interviews, CBI will make recommendations to the City Manager about appointments to the working group. After the group is formed, CBI will use their neutral viewpoint to lead a constructive, productive conversation.

When will the group be formed, and what is their timeline?

The City is finalizing the contract with CBI now, and we should hear more about a timeline at the May 14th Council meeting. Once the working group is formed, expect their study and feedback process to last about 12 to 18 months.

I want to thank everyone for their active engagement on this issue, but also your patience as we come together and ensure that this process is done right. I’m confident that the foundation laid by this group for a robust community conversation will be helpful as we move forward towards Cambridge’s Vision Zero goals.