Working for a Livable, Affordable and Diverse Cambridge;
Forum on Cambridge Governance Engages and Mobilizes Residents
More than 120 Cambridge residents from neighborhoods across the city braved a snowy,cold winter day to attend the January 31 Forum on Cambridge Governance, “Will You Be Forced Out of Cambridge? Who Decides?”. After a warm welcome from Shelley Rieman on behalf of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, Renae Gray of the Area 4/Port Coalition (below right) reflected on the continuing loss of friends and neighbors forced out of Area 4 by increasing rents and housing costs. “Who is driving the train?” she asked. “Is it development or is it housing? Who is driving the train?
The Situation Many Current Cambridge Residents Face (Chairs Kathy Watkins and Barbara Taggart):
Cambridgeport resident Barbara Taggart, founder and long-term principal of Cambridgeport Plumbing, drew on her decades of professional experience to describe the sad and systematic loss of clients as they were forced to leave Cambridge, after the abolition of rent control. Several of Barbara’s former clients were in attendance and two recounted their particular stories.
Stephanie Guirand, one of the leaders of the recent Black Lives Matter Cambridge march, emphasized how bleak the possibilities are for young people wanting to stay in Cambridge and raise their children here. Her ally Robers Armand from Goree House (below right) described the frustration of living in a world center of innovation and technology, surrounded by MIT, Pfizer, Novartis, Google and other high tech giants, yet having very little access to their resources, jobs, or technical training.
Richard Krushnic reported on the large real estate corporations and trusts operating in Cambridge. He pointed out that four corporations -- Boston Properties, Forest City Ratner, Alexandria, and Biomed Realty -- own and operate one quareterof all commercial space in Cambridge, about 9 million square feet commercial, and also one million square feet of residential space. Three of these entities are REITS – real estate investment trusts – which distribute their profits to investors who may come from all over the world. Forest City Ratner is not a REIT, but is controlled by the Cleveland-based Ratner Family. Other large developers include HYM (Northpoint) and Twining/Normandy Partners. In the latter case it is Normandy Partners who are the major investors. Similarly the major investment behind the Rich McKinnon projects near Fresh Pond come from the multi-national Blackstone Corporation. Read his report here.
John Ratliff reminded the audience that many critical housing and human needs programs depend on tax dollars that are returned to Cambridge from the federal budget. Unfortunately almost half of the discretionary spending – under Congressional control – still goes to the military. Many of these military programs, such as nuclear weapons modernization or military excursions in the Middle East, destabilize national security. And the failure to invest adequately in the domestic economy is lowering our standard of living and our children’s prospects. Mass Peace Action is organizing a Peace and Planet campaign to press the US to get rid of its nuclear weapons, and save a trillion dollars that can be invested into local needs of housing, healthcare, education, infrastructure repair, and environmental protection.
City Government Roles in Responding to Resident’s Needs (Chairs – Jan Devereux (right) and Peggy Lenart):
Gary Dmytryk led off and explained that in Cambridge, the City Manager hires and fires all city personnel and directs all city agency activities. The Plan E form of Government in Cambridge seriously limits the ability of the elected City Council to oversee the manager. This form of government, in which the actual leadership of the city is neither elected by nor directly accountable to the voters, is probably one of the least democratic forms of municipal governance. Indeed, when former City Manager Robert Healy left after more than 30 years tenure, there was no national or other search for a replacement. The City Council simply appointed Healy’s long time assistant Richard Rossi, essentially continuing business as usual.
Heather Hoffman described the functions of the City Council, and its limitations. The Council hires the city manager, approves the budget, decides zoning changes, and makes suggestions called Orders to manager. Heather emphasized the importance of residents attending to Council decisions, communicating with them, and voting. She provided the legislative basis of City Council function under Plan E.
Nancy Ryan described the increasing frustration of residents trying to get the appointed Planning Board to respond to their concerns, rather than just rubber stamp developer proposals. Her detailed critique is here. Nancy concluded that a more active, more responsive City Council would be needed, to get substantial reform of the planning, zoning and permitting, and called on people to engage in the 2015 election.
How Can We Make City Government more Democratic and Accountable (Chairs Gary Dmytrk and Peter Crawley):
The final panel offered a range of actions:
Lee Farris proposed establishing a form of shadow cabinet, with committees monitoring city manager, city council, and planning board activity, and regularly reporting back and creating counter-proposals. Read her proposal.
Paul Steven Stone called for an aggressive campaign to elect two or three more progressive City Councilors who would put the interests of residents before developers. Contribution data collected by Doug Brown shows clearly the large sums real estate interests contribute to some councilors. Paul recommended that this information be widely distributed. Read his call.
Ilan Levy argued that the appointed City Manager was the least accountable and least democratic form of government, and that Cambridge needed to change back to having a Mayor who is directly elected. That doesn’t guarantee accountability, but at least the citizenry have the opportunity to vote for someone else if they are not happy with governance.
Michael Hawley, one of the group which has filed a lawsuit challenging the disposition and reuse of the East Cambridge Courthouse, reminded the audience of what an egregious error the original construction of this project represented, how it had avoided normal oversight, and how important it was, 50 years later, to actually correct the mistakes. He noted how dangerous a precedent is established if a project that is uniformly considered to be damaging to the community, is allowed to go forward.
Small Group Circle Discussions: What Changes Are Needed to Sustain a Livable, Diverse and Affordable City for Cambridge Residents?
In one of the high points of the afternoon, each small table engaged in a lively discussion about the issues that had been raised. Cogent report backs were presented to the body as a whole. Reporters included Phylis Bretholz, Lee Farris, Susan Markowitz, Cathy Hoffman, Heather Hoffman, Alison Juma, Richard Krushnic, Peggy Lenart, Marie Saccoccio, and Sheli Wortis, We hope to make the summaries availablon our website soon.
Several common themes emerged from the circle discussions: We need to make our city government more accountable to the people who live here! Many expressed the need to elect more City Councilors who are concerned about unplanned and overheated development and will be more responsive to neighborhood groups. Some called for a challenge to the Plan E form of government. Many stressed the need for more affordable housing to preserve and expand the diversity of the city. Others discussed the need to reach out more effectively to constituencies most affected by rising housing costs, including youth, low-income residents, public housing tenants, and others. Many talked about exploring more creative use of social media and other forms of outreach.
A full video of the forum, courtesy of Mark Jaquith, can be viewed at:
All are welcome to the next General Meeting of the Cambridge Residents Alliance on Sunday Feb. 22, 4:30 to 6:30 pm at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Harvard Street near its intersection with Prospect. All photos courtesy of Phyllis Bretholtz Jonathan King