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.