Housing and the Environment: It’s Not a Binary Conversation

Crisis is a word that describes the two of the most pressing issues we face today – the skyrocketing cost of housing and the current climate emergency, but at a recent health and environment committee hearing about the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay, I was struck by the binary conversation we were having surrounding these two issues. For those new to this discussion, the City’s Community Development Department (CDD) has produced this innovative proposal to change our Zoning Ordinance which would allow us to increase the number of affordable units for low and middle income families. The simplest explanation of the Affordable Housing Overlay is that it would relax some zoning rules solely for 100% affordable housing projects, which lowers land and legal costs for nonprofit and affordable housing builders. Since the proposal was unveiled, one of the top concerns from residents has been how this proposal, and the potential new residential buildings that would be built as a result, might affect the preservation of our tree canopy and green space.

I’ve written previously that the overlay presents us with a unique opportunity to transform abandoned and vacant lots, whose gray infrastructure contributes to our urban heat island, to energy efficient buildings complete with green infrastructure and landscaping plans that would yield a net increase in our tree canopy. You can read more of my comments on using these lots to their full potential and transforming them from gray to green here.

Since then, I’ve heard from many residents who are concerned about what the proposal might do to individual lots, if the affordable housing projects built there were to have greater density and height, and what that would mean for the amount and quality of open space. But the benefit of living in an urban environment is the dense, walkable neighborhoods that are close to amenities, like public parks, and when it comes to evaluating open space we should think at a more macro-level, rather than a lot-by-lot mindset. Cambridge is lucky to be home to the highest quality and variety of urban open space: pocket parks and neighborhood tot lots, as well as vast green areas like Danehy Park, Fresh Pond Reservation, the banks of the Charles River, and Joan Lorentz Park. Most residents and families, including mine, don’t play on isolated green lots immediately surrounding their homes, and a front lawn isn’t the only way to enjoy the outdoors, especially in a City. Instead, they walk to their nearest open space which not only gives them more room to enjoy the outdoors, but gets them out into the community to socialize with friends and neighbors.

The urgency of our climate crisis demands that we not get caught up in the micro – where we can get a few more feet of grass or one more tree – but instead, look at the big picture: the net benefit of redevelopment, green buildings, and 100% affordable projects. Neighborhood resiliency in the face of future climate events has been a priority of our City in every major planning study. Just like shared green space is better for socialization, so is increasing the amount of affordable units that promotes housing stability and strengthens our families. At the hearing, our DPW Commissioner affirmed that affordable housing buildings act as socialized housing because of the communities that live there. When we talk about climate mitigation, conversations about green infrastructure and stormwater management are critical, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of building and maintaining socially resilient communities.

We also have to look beyond the borders of our City. An often repeated talking point is that Cambridge cannot solve the housing crisis alone, but we cannot solve our climate crisis alone either. The Affordable Housing Overlay would also allow for taller buildings (80’) along some of our city’s corridors and thus near transit. One of the benefits of transit-oriented development is the lower carbon emissions that come from a reduced demand for single-car trips. This is illustrated on the interactive carbon emissions map, developed by UC Berkeley, which visually represents how dense cities emit significantly less carbon than their suburban counterparts.

A State Wide view of emissions by zip code. Greater Boston is much lower than its suburban counterparts.

State-wide, our highest-emitting zip codes are from Boston suburbs where people are likely to commute into the urban core.

The fact that density and urban living lower carbon emissions isn’t just true in Greater Boston. You can explore carbon emissions zip code by zip code nation-wide with UC Berkeley’s interactive map here.

Cambridge has some of the highest green development standards in the State, but they are nullified when the high cost and low supply of housing forces people to the outskirts beyond the reach of alternative transit, making single car trips into the City a necessity. In fact, 80% of Cambridge congestion is from out of town traffic through the City, not from current or new residents. The Greater Boston Area is a desirable place to live, and no zoning ordinance – no matter how restrictive – will stop the tech boom, job creation, or new residents from moving into the area. Those that are wealthy are increasingly competing with lower and middle income families for what used to be “naturally occurring affordable housing”, and without units to meet the demand for all income levels, it’s the middle and low income families in our community who are increasingly priced out.

A zoomed in view of emissions by zip code. Greater Boston is much lower than its suburban counterparts.
A close up of Greater Boston and its surrounding suburbs.
The lowest carbon emitting zip codes are from Boston’s highest density neighborhoods. Suburbs of Boston emit at significantly higher rates and are some of the highest emitters in the State.

Alarming reports about the health of our planet make environmental concerns justified, and as a policy maker, I’ve been particularly concerned with the balance between a need for new affordable housing and a need to be good stewards of our environment. Too many times thought, we’ve gotten stuck in false perceptions of conflict between trees vs. housing, open space vs. affordability, dividing our community between two critical priorities. We can promote environmental justice by giving low and middle income residents opportunities to live in affordable housing in low emitting communities with access to green space. Current residents will see abandoned lots transformed with new neighbors that are both people and trees. As the Ordinance Committee begins its work this summer alongside interactive, community meetings, we have the opportunity to think about these priorities in tandem and see the Overlay as a tool to make a positive impact on both housing affordability and climate change.

For more of my comments on housing and the environment, watch my remarks from the June 4th Health and Environment Committee hearing.

Bias in the High Arts

I have to admit, the story in this week’s Boston Globe about a racial incident at the Museum of Fine Arts, where students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy were subjected to racial comments and slurs by patrons and tour guides didn’t shock me. It didn’t even surprise me. As someone who has chaperoned many field trips to Boston area “High Arts” institutions for my children’s very diverse elementary school classes, I have seen this bias first hand. We have long known that there is deep institutional, structural and implicit bias in what’s considered the “High Arts”, and their institutions have had a long history of keeping the status quo for wealthy, mostly white patrons and donors. Until recently, ballet dancers of color have had to color their ballet shoes with dye to match their skin because there were no manufacturers that provided them, and curators of large art institutions face many challenges to display diverse art on their walls, mostly due to fear of their major donors and the members of their boards. These are but a few examples where bias exists in the high arts, and it’s no wonder that artists and patrons of color don’t feel welcomed in these highly vaunted arts spaces. Ballet dancers are literally being told “you don’t belong here”, and patrons of color do not see themselves reflected on the walls of these institutions.

Nine months ago, I was chosen to chair the Mayor’s Arts Task Force here in Cambridge, to look at ways the City could better support the Arts and the artists who create it. Choosing a diverse group was key to the groups success; both racial diversity and diversity of arts mediums. Once the members were finalized, I took on the daunting task of speaking with each of the 20+ members by phone to better determine what they each wanted to cover during the nine months of meetings we would have together. During those conversations, every single member made it clear that without a real discussion how racial bias would show up during our meetings, this work would not have the foundation necessary to deeply and honestly cover the topic of the arts in Cambridge. The fundamental questions of “what is art, and who gets to decide?” and “who is represented and reflected in art?” needed to be carefully considered in each and every conversation we would have. Whether the topic was public art, licensing and permitting, zoning, funding or others, these fundamental questions needed be answered, and an equity and inclusion lens needed to be used by all members. In order to ensure that our work as a Task Force had that foundation, early in our schedule we dedicated an entire meeting to diversity, equity and inclusion in Art with a skilled facilitator, Malia Lazu from The Urban Labs. Ms. Lazu laid the foundation for our work by asking these questions, helping us understand where we might discover bias in our work, and how we could confront bias with a shared language and understanding. She taught us how to work together as a diverse group, dealing with difficult issues with a solid understanding of the inherent racial bias in art, and how to move through our conversations with that as a prominent lens.

The Arts Task Force undergoes an anti-bias training/discussion at its second meeting.

That shared foundation Ms. Lazu laid has been critical to us having difficult conversations about race, inclusion and equity in art. That conversation has allowed every member of the Task Force to speak up forcefully when issues of bias arise, not leaving it to our members of color to do that work — as often happens in group dynamics. This led to incredibly productive conversations, and immediate outcomes. Without that initial training with Ms. Lazu, I often wonder if we would have had the successes we have had together. My guess is no. The truth is, any healthy committee, task force, or organization needs to be doing this incredibly difficult, but ultimately rewarding work to fully realize their potential for inclusivity and bias free outcomes.

The Museum of Fine Arts and other “high art” institutions; The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Boston Ballet, The Isabella Stewart Gardner and others have an absolute responsibility to be on the forefront of this anti-bias and inclusion work. The institutional, structural and inherent biases that exist in large, high art institutions need to be addressed wholesale. Their employees, from the executive leadership level to the guards and box office employees, need to have intensive anti-bias training. Their Boards of Directors themselves need to be diverse and each member clearly needs to understand that what is inside their buildings must reflect who comes to visit, and that all must feel welcome. Their curatorial staff must feel supported in choosing diverse works, diverse artists and exhibits. These institutions must have a no tolerance policy for patrons who make others feel that they don’t belong, simply because they don’t look like them.

I was not shocked to hear that Museum of Fine Arts employees and patrons were racially biased, but I will be if the MFA rises to the challenge to deal with this head on, and lead the way for other high art institutions. It’s high time, and I am ready to be shocked. Your move MFA, we are all watching.

Update on the 2020 Budget

On Monday night, the City council passed our FY20 budget of over $680M. Funding reflects our values as a City, so during this year’s budget season, I wanted to ensure that our arts funding in particular was being used effectively. As Chair of the Arts Task Force for the past 8 months, I know that arts is an economic driver in our City, responsible for millions of dollars of revenue each year. During the budget hearings, I used the opportunity to highlight and identify some structural changes that could be made to help strengthen our economic development and the Arts through the Office of Tourism, as well as better use the Arts resources the City financially supports, specifically at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge. 

The annual operating budget for the City is over $678 million for FY2020.


 At the budget hearing, I was pleased to hear that the Office of Tourism announce its’ intentions to shift their focus to better support our small businesses and retailers, and I wanted to take this opportunity to create the connective tissue between 3 City departments:  CDD’s Economic Development Division, the Office of Tourism, and the Cambridge Arts Council. Each of these offices are a key support of the “3 legged-stool” that keeps our economy strong and healthy. The arts, tourism, and our small businesses not only rely on each other to thrive, but are part of what makes Cambridge unique, which is why I asked that CDD convene these three departments in a monthly working group. Our small businesses are facing a tough retail climate, but all of them see sales rise during festivals and arts events, and the Office of Tourism can provide that “missing link” to bring in more visitors so that we’re supporting both arts and small business in an impactful way.

The Multicultural Arts Center is located at 41 Second St. in East Cambridge and receives $200,000 in funding from the City annually.


Another area where I placed funding under review was at the Multicultural Arts Center. The additional information from the Multicultural Arts Center (MAC) in their answer to my review left me with more questions than answers. The $200,000 that the City provides to the MAC is vital to its survival, but this only increases the MAC’s responsibility to provide an accessible and affordable community arts space. To achieve this goal, operational practices need to change, and funding can no longer be unconditional and unsupervised. The MAC relies on private events for much of their funding, and these events have taken precedence over the arts in recent years. Artists have dealt with logistical conflicts, inadequate infrastructure, and the expense of buying out the MAC when their performances “interfered” with potential private events. As a result, I proposed that we preserve the space by allocating the funding, but the MAC will not receive the $200,000 in a lump sum like usual. Instead, they will receive $100,000 up front, and to unlock the rest of the funding, will have to meet quarterly with the City Manager and staff to report on their progress, and I also asked that a member of City leadership join or attend the MAC’s board meetings this year, a proposed which they welcomed.


 I’m grateful for the opportunity to champion the arts not only during these budget hearings, but at Council meetings every week. Institutions like the Multicultural Arts Center and the City as a whole need to make a more robust effort to accommodate artists, engage the community, and make space accessible to artists – both logistically and financially.

Affordable Housing Overlay

For too many in our Cambridge community, the cost of housing has reached a crisis level, and I am reminded of this nearly every week when I get emails from residents at their most vulnerable. They often face dramatic rent increases that create emergency situations, or are in danger themselves: a mother trying to escape a domestic violence situation, an elderly woman whose long-time home was just sold and is facing a no-fault eviction, an entire building of Section 8 tenants who were living affordably, but without leases and the legal standing as tenants that could protect them from displacement – and they are in immediate and dire need for housing.

As a Councillor, I have some, but not nearly enough, power to help them. I’ve written letters to vouch for Section 8 tenants’ credit to get them into inclusionary housing, or I’ve made calls to every realtor I know, trying to get an apartment for a single mom so her child can stay in Cambridge, finish high school, and graduate from CRLS. But these are band-aids on a systemic problem: that there’s just not enough housing to keep our most vulnerable residents in our community.

Many Cambridge residents have been following the Affordable Housing Overlay proposal with interest, and I have received hundreds of emails, particularly from residents who have questions, concerns, and those who outright oppose the proposal. To reassure residents, provide them with more details, and stem the tide of misinformation, I have replied to virtually every email and taken any meeting with residents who have questions about the Overlay to address their personal and specific concerns. But not all of you can, or feel comfortable, emailing the Council or showing up in person to Sullivan Chamber to speak at public comment. I’ve also noticed several recurring themes to residents’ concerns when they express them to me so I’m hoping to use this post to talk to our community all at once, not only to answer questions but also to be transparent in my thinking about this proposal as we move forward with this conversation as a community.

Why will there be different rules for affordable housing builders?

One of the reasons why we’re seeing a proliferation of luxury condo development is because of high land costs, an unpredictable and expensive zoning and permitting process, and the high costs of legal challenges to building projects. Affordable housing builders and nonprofits rely on already scarce Federal/HUD funding, State and City funding, with occasional contributions from other sources as well. Though the City has dramatically increased our contributions to affordable housing, we are not the sole financer of these projects, or even the largest ones. For most low income and affordable projects, nonprofits can apply for Federal and State funding, the source of the bulk of their financing, once a year in November, and zoning and permitting are required to be in place. If zoning complications arise, a single permit is denied, or they face a legal challenge, funding isn’t awarded, and they must wait an entire year before reapplying. Unlike large, for-profit developers, nonprofits cannot carry the expensive land costs for an entire year, which means the project doesn’t get built, and our community has lost a vital opportunity to produce low and middle income units. This is how we get the luxury-centered development that has frustrated so many in our City, including myself.

How long will units be affordable?

Developers reneging on their word and turning a profit on housing that was intended to help our community is a deep worry, and after what is happening with the Fresh Pond Apartments, what we call “expiring use” was a concern even before this draft zoning language was written. To ensure this never happens, every unit in every project will be deed-restricted, so that it remains affordable in-perpetuity and can never be converted into market-rate housing. This housing is protected specifically for individuals making between 30%-100% of the Area Median Income, or between $32,000-$107,000 annually, which means that residents like teachers, police officers, firefighters, retail shop employees, and home healthcare workers can have the housing stability they need.

How tall will buildings be in my neighborhood?

Building height is a concern for many who worry that their low-rise neighborhoods will be overwhelmed by larger structures. The proposal would allow buildings only up to 4 stories in residential areas, and they could only go up to 50’ if they contained an active ground floor use, and are located in a part of the neighborhood that is already home to businesses. Buildings that could reach up to 7 stories, or 80’, would only be allowed in major transit corridors, such as Massachusetts Ave. I have been advocating for a “middle tier”, because I think there are some identified “major transit corridors” that are too close to residential neighborhoods or are home to only 2-3 story buildings now, and would be more appropriate at 60’ rather than 80’. A good example of this is on Cambridge Street, between Inman Square and Lechmere station in East Cambridge. While these small, local businesses would benefit from the increased traffic that new residents would bring, the existing structures, even in the business district, are only 2-3 stories tall, and in my opinion, too closely abut residential neighborhoods to allow 80’. Instead, 60’ would allow the additional units without being out of context in these types of neighborhoods, which are typically located in BA districts on the zoning map.

Will the overlay take away green space?

Increasing the amount of green space in our City is something that’s important to me, as I think that residents who live in affordable developments should have just as much access to high quality green space as those who do not. Locating more residents in our City and near rapid transit will decrease the amount of “through traffic” and single car commuting trips, which is vital to reducing the effects of climate change as it allows residents to bike, walk, or take transit to work. Affordable and non-profit builders generally look to build on unused hard surface parking lots, or on lots with dilapidated buildings that could be rehabbed into energy-efficient housing, which would need to meet our City’s high green building standards. The Overlay would require that for fully affordable projects 30% of the lot to be green space, and half of that space must be permeable. If you look at the most recent Affordable Housing projects, sites like the old Kentucky Fried Chicken on Walden and Mass Ave., and the Concord Highland project on Concord Avenue, as well as missed opportunities due to this overlay not being in place, such as the Rite Aid in Porter Square or the Hondar House on Prospect Street, these were all previously lots with zero permeable or green space. By utilizing these lots to their full potential, we have a great opportunity to turn more space in our City from gray to green.

Will the overlay add too many new residents and deplete our resources?

Many residents are concerned about overcrowding, but the truth is that most of the units the Overlay produces will benefit people who are already residents of Cambridge – low and middle income people who are facing displacement or eviction, which is a concern of so many residents who are active in conversations about housing. The housing crisis is becoming so acute that both low and middle class families are shouldering housing costs that are so high, that they’re going without other essentials like food, proper nutrition, and medical care. As someone who has spent over five years in the non-profit sector, delivering food right into the homes of our most vulnerable residents, I’ve seen how disproportionately high housing costs have been detrimental to the quality of life of low-income seniors and residents with disabilities in particular and the devastating life choices they are forced to make when choosing home costs over critical medical care or food.


There are many other questions that residents have asked, but these are the most common themes and issues I’ve seen regarding the Affordable Housing Overlay. When so many emails voice similar concerns, those with starkly different tones stand out. I recently received yet another housing email from a resident in Cambridge, but the perspective and  questions in this one were unique. It was from a lower-middle income family, living affordably now, but are just one untenable rent increase away from displacement. Unlike so many other emails, this is not an emergency situation, but the expression of a constant, nagging fear – an anxiety that lies in the back of their minds as they live their everyday life that home might not always be home. This resident wrote that while they want to keep living in Cambridge, they are increasingly seeing that it is not a community where everyone can thrive and participate fully. They also said something that resonated, and it’s what our overall messaging should be about the Overlay as a community: that they “wanted to know what they could do to help” in this time of crisis for so many, because “it’s not just about me.” They’re right. The Overlay is not just about us as individuals, but is one of our tools to remedy a systemic problem: that our overly-complicated Zoning Ordinance, which is intended to “preserve our community”, has not in fact, done that. Combined with the hot housing market, it has instead become a contributor to exclusion and displacement, and it’s our job as City leaders and policy makers to confront this challenge head on, and consider all opportunities to reverse these harmful effects.

The Affordable Housing Overlay proposal is one I support, but is still just that – a proposal. In my mind, it’s not perfect, and while nothing ever is, there are several aspects that need to be refined to make it a better fit to implement in our community. The draft zoning language continues to be a living document while it undergoes edits, and I am looking forward to the next step in this process which is discussing it in the Ordinance Committee amongst the full Council. I am grateful for the input and comments from our residents as we have had, and will continue to have this community-wide conversation.

Enhanced Tree Protections

Overview

On Monday night, the Cambridge City Council voted to enact enhancements to our tree protection ordinance which will help decrease the loss to our tree canopy, and safeguard the valuable work that our Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force is doing until they come out with their formal recommendations in a few months. Until they do, the ordinance is applicable for up to one year, or until the recommendations of the Task Force are enacted, whichever comes first. You may be hearing about a tree “moratorium”, and even though this ordinance is designed to slow down tree-cutting to mitigate the negative affects of climate change, “moratorium” is not exactly the correct word. There are still avenues for property owners to remove trees over the next year, especially when trees are dead, dying, dangerous, or are negatively impacting their immediate surroundings. 


Under the updated ordinance, property owners may not remove a “significant tree” from their property, unless otherwise approved through a permitting process, and no permits shall be issued for one year. A “significant tree” is any tree that is 8″ in diameter or more at breast height (DBH). These trees are usually taken down by certified arborists and landscapers, as individual property owners seldom have the experience or tools to remove them on their own. Landscapers operating in the City of Cambridge are already being contacted by DPW, and will be made aware of the ordinance and proper permitting procedures so that they can advise their clients about the removal of significant trees. 

Exceptions

There are exceptions to the prohibition on removing significant trees from a property over the next year:

-Dead/dying trees: an independent arborist can certify that a tree has died or is dying and is a candidate for removal. They will need to complete a certification form after an inspection, which is standard procedure for an arborist. The “ISA Basic Tree Risk Assessment” form can be found here

-Dangerous trees: an independent arborist can certify that the condition of a tree makes it dangerous to its surroundings, such as trees with branches that are entangled in power lines, or trees with diseases that could spread. They will fill out the same ISA form (see above) which is also standard procedure.

 -Trees that “pose significant negative impacts to an existing adjacent structure”: the intent of this ordinance is to prohibit developers from removing large amounts of significant trees from our canopy, but existing homes shouldn’t be threatened by dangerous trees. This amendment allows homeowners to prevent potential damage to their homes, that dangerous trees could cause such as trees with roots growing into foundations, by making an exception for their removal after being approved by an arborist. 

 -Overly dense canopy: in areas where several trees are tightly packed together, removing trees may be beneficial to the health of the entire canopy. Removing these trees would be allowed after inspection by a certified arborist. 

-Emergency removal: if a permit cannot be applied for beforehand because of an emergency situation, residents can apply for relief from the ordinance after the fact. One member of the public who spoke at Monday’s meeting shared that she had taken down already precarious trees in her yard ahead of the dangerously high winds that week. Had the ordinance been in affect at this time, she could have still taken down the trees and applied to the City for emergency relief.

Other exemptions to this ordinance include: city park projects, all projects over 25,000 sq. ft. that have already been granted permits to move forward and 100% affordable housing projects, regardless of size. 

Penalties

Because it takes decades for a significant tree to take formation and thrive, the City will levy financial penalties for violating this updated ordinance. If a significant tree is removed in violation of this updated ordinance, the replacement fee is the equivalent of “purchasing, planting, watering, and maintaining” the replacement tree for at least five years. For projects over 25,000 sq. ft under the current ordinance, that fee is approximately $800-$1,000 per inch diameter at breast height (DBH). These projects are being undertaken by typically large, commercial developers who have deeper pockets than a Cambridge homeowner and can afford to pay a fine of $8,000-$10,000 per tree into the City’s tree fund. I advocated strongly that the penalty for private owners would be far less. For those who qualify for a City of Cambridge residential tax exemption, the fee will be only 10% of the previously mentioned sums. There will be no fee for property owners who are on financial assistance. In addition to the fine to replace the tree, a resident who removes a significant tree in violation of the updated ordinance will owe a payment of no more than $300 per day until the fine is paid. All fines levied will go back into the City’s tree fund for the express purpose of increasing city owned trees to protect and grow the tree canopy in Cambridge.

This ordinance takes effect on March 11, 2019, and the DPW is hard at work to inform property owners of its requirements. If you’ve found this post helpful, please share it with friends and neighbors, and reach out to my office at (617) 349-4263 or amallon@cambridgema.gov with any questions. 

Arts Task Force Meeting #1

Introductions, Mass Cultural Council, Cambridge Arts Council 

Overview

Artists are asked to volunteer their time and crafts more than most, so I am grateful to the artists in the Cambridge community who have once again volunteered their time to serve on the Mayor’s Arts Task Force. I’d like to start by thanking Mayor McGovern, who put this task force together to respond to issues of funding, lack of affordable studio and live/work space, and creative placemaking, particularly in our Cultural District. This work began before my time on the Council, when then Mayor Simmons put in a policy order to ask the City to come up with a comprehensive plan for the arts. She often says that “if you don’t know where you’re going, any train will get you there”, so I am looking forward to getting on this train with our arts community to find solutions to these pressing issues. 

This work is near and dear to my heart, as someone whose previous life was a clothing designer, I am an accidental politician with a creative soul. And I know this issue is deeply personal to all of our artists as well, because so many of them have faced the loss of affordable studio and creative space, barriers to permitting and licensing, lack of funding, and left out of the creative placemaking process. I was struck at last night’s meeting by how many of our artists connected the arts with their families, talking about the prominent role that arts played in their childhoods, or how they engage their own children in the arts today. To me it’s so indicative about how the arts is something that connects us all together as a community, which is why I was so grateful to be able to sit around a table with all of the important stakeholders and serve as a connector for our arts community, City leaders, and those who can provide more resources.

Cultural Council

Last night’s meeting served not only as an introduction for all of our members, but also as an orientation to State and local perspectives. We were joined by Greg Laikos, the State Communications Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, who gave us an overview of best practices such as New Bedford’s use of the hotel/motel tax to fund their arts programs, and Lowell’s Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL), which provides a one stop resource shop for all local artists. Greg also spoke to the task force about the various grant and funding programs MCC provides to cultural councils and individual artists – the organization gives out about $5 million to help individual artists and partner institutions, $3.5 million in funding to local cultural councils, and has its own program dedicated to Creative Youth Development, an after school program that engages teenagers in the arts to teach them both art and workforce skills.

Arts Council 

The Executive Director of our arts Council, Jason Weeks, gave a presentation to orient us at the local level, emphasizing the role of the Arts Council as a “connector, presenter, and funder.” Cambridge is unique in that we were the first City to directly fund our Arts Council, but Jason and Task Force members all emphasized that it’s time to think bigger and more innovatively about the way we invest in the arts in our City. The Envision Cambridge master plan is a great place to start with this, and the draft recommendations already have multiple areas that relate to the arts, whether it’s culturally diverse programming or streamlining licensing and permitting processes, especially for performances or displays in public places. Our Arts Council is also the curator and maintainer of about 300 pieces of public art, and this will be a further topic of discussion as we delve into who is represented, funded, and prioritized in our public art projects. 

Lastly, there was a robust discussion on how city planning can be more intentional in promoting the arts without gentrifying neighborhoods and displacing the creative community. Developers can be resources, not adversaries, to our arts community, but only if artists are able to get in on the “ground floor” of the process – this is something both the City and Arts Council need to actively facilitate. Our municipal percent for art program is an innovative start, but we are in need of a more sustained funding source to keep our arts community thriving and local.

 

The Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Arts Task Force will be on November 8th at 5:30PM. City Hall is not an equitable place that encourages creativity, and I am also striving to bring these meetings to the arts community instead of requiring them come to us. Therefore, our meetings will be held at creative spaces around the City – the November 8th meeting will be held as Spaceus at 20 Brattle St. It is a vacant property repurposed as a studio space, the result of work done by one of our Task Force members, Ellen, who is a co-founder of this innovative company. Because race, equity, and diversity are so foundational to constructive conversations and representation in the arts, our next meeting will be facilitated by an expert in this field, Malia Lazu. The meeting is open to the public for observation, so be sure to join us at Spaceus at 20 Brattle St., November 8th at 5:30PM.  

Welcome Members of the Mayor’s Arts Task Force!

The Office of Mayor Marc McGovern is proud to announce that members for the Mayor’s Arts Task Force, chaired by Councillor Alanna Mallon, have been selected. The Mayor’s Office received approximately 50 letters of interest highlighting each applicant’s unique perspective and passion for improving arts investment in Cambridge. Through a collaborative process between the Mayor, Councillor Mallon, and the Executive Director of the Cambridge Arts Council Jason Weeks, task force members, many of whom are renowned for their crafts, were selected to represent a diversity of disciplines and the socioeconomic diversity of our City.

“I’m grateful to Councillor Mallon for her willingness to lead on this important issue. I want to thank all of those who applied to participate” Mayor McGovern said.  “The Arts in Cambridge are important to the fabric of our community, which is why this Task Force was formed. I’m looking forward to this work.”

The Mayor’s Office is proud to announce the following appointees to the Mayor’s Arts Task force: Christopher Hope, founder of The Loop Lab; Ben Simon, EMF musician; David DeCelis, architect and Public Arts Commission; James Pierre, muralist and manager of the Community Arts Center’s Public Art Program; Kelly Sherman, working visual artist and innovation consultant; Olufolakemi Alalade, working visual artist as a member of MatriArts, a museum shop curated to promote African women’s arts and materials; Peter DiMuro, Executive Director of the Dance Complex; Olivia D’Ambrosio, Director of the Bridge Repertory Theater; Eryn Johnson, Executive Director of the Community Arts Center; A representative from Spaceus, an arts space rehab startup founded by Ellen Shakespear and Stephanie Lee; Martha McKenna, Director of the Creative Commons at Lesley University; Jero Nesson, Brickbottom Gallery; Kristina Latino, CEO of Cornerscape and music festival organizer; Sarah Gallop, Government Relations at MIT; Geeta Pradhan, Cambridge Community Foundation; and Michael Monestime, Executive Director of the Central Square Business Association.

This group includes working artists in the disciplines of dance, music, music production, theater, and visual arts, as well as specialists in developing arts spaces like studios and housing. Members will bring their expertise to help solve some of the most pressing issues facing working artists in Cambridge: lack of affordable creative space, sustainable funding, and strengthening Central Square as an Arts and Cultural District. The group is also representative of the diverse communities we have here in Cambridge, because both the arts and arts policy must be reflective of the communities they affect.

“I’m excited to lead this group in a substantive and collaborative discussion about how the City can increase investment in our arts community,” Councillor Mallon said. “The arts are more than just something to be appreciated – they are an economic driver, an outlet for individual and community expression, and a major contributor to the very identity of our City. It’s vital that we have our working artists and those with extensive arts management backgrounds at the table contributing to the policy process, and that their expertise in their fields be a key element of City policy making.”

In addition, our arts community will be supported on the Task Force by City Staff, including representatives from the City Manager’s Office, Community Development Department, Office of Budget and Finance, Mayor’s Office Liaison Afiyah Harrigan, and Executive Director of the Arts Council Jason Weeks.

The Mayor’s Arts Task Force meetings will be held monthly and will begin in October and conclude in June of 2019. In addition to our appointed members and City staff, the task force will welcome additional guest speakers to add their expertise on policy issues such as artist live/work space, diverse cultural programming, or funding sources.

“I applaud Mayor McGovern, Councillor Mallon, and City Administration for recognizing the critical role that the arts play in the City, and for establishing an Arts Task Force as a means to hear directly from the community on need, and translate that information into tools and resources that will allow the arts and creative sector to remain local and thrive”, said Jason Weeks, the Executive Director of the Cambridge Arts Council.

The goal of the task force is to present an arts plan with well-informed, actionable policy steps that will ensure our arts community thrives in Cambridge.

 

Expanding Free Food Programs in Schools

As Cambridge Public School District students head back to school this week, I wanted to highlight the steps we’ve taken as a City to reduce childhood hunger and economic insecurity. In my former role as Program Director at Food For Free, I worked with then Vice Mayor Marc McGovern and School Committee Member Kathleen Kelly to reassess our income guidelines as they relate to free and reduced lunch. The cost of living in Cambridge is so high that a family of four needs to make $108,000 to meet all of their needs, however the federal poverty guideline is only $32,630, and doesn’t take into account the cost of living when assessing need.

As a result, too many families fall through the gap where they don’t qualify for assistance, but are still struggling to put food on the table. This all happens in a city of seemingly abundant affluence, and especially with the issue of hunger, the true need can be invisible. By bringing together two different City branches and a local nonprofit, I helped write a set of recommendations in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program Report that proposes allocating additional funds for free breakfast for all students in K-8 and DHSP programs. We are also eliminating the “reduced lunch” category so that the cost burden on needy families is zero, which will allow children to receive the nutritional assistance they need.

From my years of experience in combating childhood food insecurity, and also living it myself, I know that well fed kids are better students, more engaged in their school communities – and of course, happier and healthier. I’m proud of the collaborative process that Mayor Marc McGovern, School Committee Member Kathleen Kelly, and I undertook, and the result that collaboration has engendered. Free breakfast for all and increasing access to free lunch will allow our students to thrive in our schools without the anxiety of missed meals or nag of constant hunger. I ran for office on my ability to connect the dots between the many resources of our City and the stakeholders that can solve problems. I’m looking forward to continuing to address childhood hunger and other issues by being a connector in our community. For more information about this initiative, read here.

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.