Divesting From Nuclear Weapons—
One City at a Time
by Jonathan King, with photos by Phyllis Bretholtz
In an effort led by Mayor E. Denise Simmons, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously in March to call for the Cambridge pension fund to divest from stocks in corporations that profit from the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear weapons. The resolution was brought to the Council by a coalition including MIT physicist Max Tegmark; students from Harvard, Tufts, Boston College, and MIT; Mass Peace Action; and many others. They are concerned about the billions of tax dollars being siphoned from crucial civilian programs such as housing, transportation, environment protection and biomedical research, in order to build and maintain thousands of dangerous and expensive nuclear weapons on high alert.
On April 2nd, several hundred people, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, gathered at MIT for a conference “Reducing the Dangers of Nuclear War.” A highlight of the conference was Mayor Simmons’ announcement of the Cambridge divestment vote. “It’s my hope that this will inspire other municipalities, companies, and individuals to look at their investments and make similar moves,” Simmons said. A number of other community and campus groups are now following this path. Conference participants discussed, among other topics, the real and growing danger of an accidental nuclear launch and subsequent exchange; and the global “nuclear winter” that could ensue from even a “limited” exchange, such as one between India and Pakistan.
Cambridge Vigil Mourns Orlando Shooting
--From the Editors
More than 250 people gathered for a vigil in front of Cambridge City Hall on Monday to mourn the victims of the Orlando mass shooting. Speakers expressed sorrow for those wounded and killed, anger for the continuing failure to reform gun laws in this country, disgust with those who would use the tragedy to spread more xenophobic fear and racist hatred, and solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
Mayor E. Denise Simmons ended her comments by saying, “In the words of the old Black spiritual: We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around!”
Councilor Marc McGovern deplored the deliberate misinterpretation of the Second Amendment by some to mean “that everybody should take up arms.” City Councilor Nadeem Mazen said, in a private comment after the vigil, that leaders of the local Muslim community met all day Sunday to try to come to terms with the horrific event and to figure out how to go forward in solidarity with others “to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, and we’re all able to be safe.”
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Somerville Did It – 20% Affordable!
After months of door-knocking, meeting, organizing and testifying, Somerville housing advocates and low-income tenants won a significant victory when the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in May to require a much higher percentage of affordable housing units in new projects.
All new developments with 6 or more units will be subject to inclusionary zoning. All developments with 18 or more units will be 20% affordable. The affordable units will be distributed among low-, moderate- and middle-income tiers, allowing Somerville residents of varying incomes to find housing within the city.
“This is a huge victory,” according to a message from the Affordable Housing Committee of the Somerville Community Corporation. “Somerville now has one of the strongest inclusionary zoning ordinances in the country. When we fight, we win!”
We in the Cambridge Residents Alliance salute our sisters and brothers in Somerville and urge the Cambridge City Council to adopt policies at least as progressive as those Somerville just passed. Given the sky-high value of real estate in Cambridge, we have even more leverage to demand more affordable housing from developers who are making enormous profits.
Above: Somerville residents testify; photo courtesy Van Hardy.
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More Affordable Housing on the Horizon
by Jackie Dee King
Affordable housing in Cambridge will get a boost within the next year or two, if the City Council heeds the advice of a recent consultant’s report.
The percentage of affordable units required in new housing developments could jump from the current 11.5% to 20%, while still remaining economically feasible for developers, according to an analysis by David Paul Rosen and Associates (DRA).
The city released the long-awaited consultant’s report in April, after hiring the firm in 2014 to update the “inclusionary housing” provision of the city’s zoning ordinance. The formula has not been changed since 1998, when the affordable housing requirement was set at 11.5%. *
“I support the conclusions you’ve reached,” Councilor Nadeem Mazen told the DRA representative at the City Council’s May 31 Housing Committee meeting. “These [developers’] profit rates are unseen in almost any other industry…We have incredible latitude to push toward a more just and equitable housing development policy here in Cambridge.”
The Cambridge Residents Alliance and others have been pressing the city for years to raise the percentage of affordable units required in projects filled mostly with expensive market-rate apartments. “We have lost so many people already,” Kathy Watkins (photo left) said. “It’s vital that the city move ahead with all due speed to increase the amount of affordable units required in all new projects. It’s one way of combating displacement.”
A Changing City
While the city has been slow to act, housing prices have soared in Cambridge.
Between 2007 and 2014, according to the report, area median income increased a total of 14%, while the median two-bedroom asking rent increased 31% and sales prices of homes increased even more sharply. The percentage of rental households that are cost-burdened (meaning they pay more than 30% of gross income on housing) rose from 40% in 2000 to 45% in 2014. A full 24% of households pay more than 50% of their income on housing.
These housing prices have clearly affected the demographics of the city. Thousands of people—longtime families, low and moderate income tenants, immigrants, young people, —have been squeezed out. The decline has been especially sharp in those households with incomes between 50 and 100% of area median income, falling from 27% to 18% -- while households with incomes above 120% of area median income increased from 35% to 47% of the Cambridge population.
The Cambridge Residents Alliance supports a 25% inclusionary requirement: 20% set aside for low and moderate income tenants, 5% for middle income. We also want at least 20% of inclusionary units to be three-bedroom, to help keep families in the city. However, as we study the report, hold meetings of our members, and participate in the citywide discussion, we will keep an open mind about the issues raised.
Councilors Weigh In
Many of the comments from both the public and councilors revolved around the implied threat of developers to either leave the city, or develop commercial instead of residential space, if affordable housing requirements become too high.
Councilor Dennis Carlone questioned the consultant about ways to re-zone certain sections or sites in the city with a required percentage of residential, as a way to sidestep that threat. He also raised concerns about height in relation to the surrounding area. “Height is an issue, and will continue to be,” he noted. “We are a relatively low-rise city…We want buildings that fit in with the neighborhoods.”
Councilor Marc McGovern, after noting that developers are primarily interested in maximizing their profits, said, “There are two things I care most about: Let’s get the highest possible percentage of affordable units. And let’s set a required amount of larger 3-bedroom units so that families can stay here.” He added, “We want to do as much as possible, so that the developers might scream, but they won’t leave. We have to find the sweet spot.”
Councilor Mazen noted that the demand for housing in Cambridge was “almost infinite” and that therefore the City Council had tremendous leverage in setting the conditions for development. If one developer did decide to leave, he said, there were many others coming down the road, eager to build in Cambridge.
Inclusionary Zoning Just Part of Solution
Another major theme to emerge from the Housing Committee May 31 meeting was that inclusionary zoning—important as it is—should be just one part of an overall plan for affordable housing in Cambridge. The Cambridge Residents Alliance strongly agrees. For example: 1) We support the development of 100% affordable housing on city-owned lots. A recent development of 100% affordable, at Port Landing on Harvard Street, shows that it can be done. 2) We also helped generate much of the civic engagement that pushed the City Council to nearly triple the “linkage” contributions developers of large commercial properties are required to make to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust. We believe the linkage formula should be revisited and increased periodically.
These additional affordable housing measures are important, because tall towers of mostly luxury priced units—even with their inclusionary units—drive prices up in surrounding neighborhoods, as a Lincoln Land Institute study showed.
Key Questions Remain
Many issues remain to be debated and resolved in the coming months. Some of the following were raised at the meeting; others are concerns of ours:
- Will the city move quickly to adopt the new inclusionary zoning formula, given how fast new residential developments are coming on the market? (Some 7,000 units have been built or have entered the pipeline in recent years. Most of these developments include only the currently required 11.5% of affordable units.)
- Will the new, increased affordable requirement be applied to developments under discussion but not yet under contract? For example, how about housing proposed for the Volpe site?
- How can the city best include height and density considerations into the mix of decisions, in order to promote development of housing while at same time respecting the character of surrounding neighborhoods and quality of life?
- Is it wise to reserve “premium” units (for example, top floors) for high-end renters, thus excluding “inclusionary” tenants, in exchange for requiring more affordable units in a project? Some current tenants of inclusionary apartments fear that such a measure could further the feeling of second-class citizenship they sometimes experience, Watkins said.
*The city called the inclusionary requirement 15% but that figure was misleading because it did not take into account the extra density bonus developers received for adding the affordable units. The net amount of affordable units required was 11.5%.
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Traffic and Transit Forum Grapples with Tough Issues
by Mike Connolly and Jonathan King
More than 80 local residents gathered at the Central Square Senior Center April 30 to participate in a timely forum, “Solving Traffic and Transit Problems in the Cambridge Corridor.”
The forum, hosted by the Cambridge Residents Alliance, Mass Budget for All Coalition, Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, Green Cambridge, and other groups, focused on how investments, expansion, and upgrades to our transit system have failed to keep up with rapidly growing commercial and residential development in Cambridge and the surrounding metro area. As the panelists documented, this crunch is true for the Red Line, bus services, auto and truck traffic, and even cycling.
The panels included some of the state’s leading transit and passenger advocates, as well as elected representatives concerned about the issue. The panelists engaged in a candid and fruitful discussion. Participants also met with each other in small groups to identify their major concerns and suggestions.
Transit and Traffic Needs
After an introduction by program chair Mike Connolly and a warm welcome from Mayor E. Denise Simmons, State Senator Pat Jehlen (photo right) explained how public transit service and expansion has been severely compromised after decades of massive underinvestment. Senator Jehlen made clear that the primary focus should be on raising revenue to address a $7 billion maintenance backlog, and she also stressed that Gov. Baker is wrong to think that we can catch up on the backlog of investment through “reform alone.”
City Councilor Dennis Carlone said, “Beauty, joy, and harmony are three words never said at public meetings,” and he encouraged “thinking about the broader picture.” To that end, he noted the necessity of integrating transit improvements with new building construction in order to maintain the livability of the community. The lack of such coordination in the past has led to cases of severe and increasing congestion, such as that in the Alewife Parkway / Route 2 area, described by City Councilor Jan Devereux. Devereux pointed out that the problems are not due to a lack of study, but rather, inadequate regional cooperation and inadequate regional and state funding.
Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation gave an overview of the shortfalls in investment for the coming years, revealed in the current MBTA’s and Department of Transportation’s (DOT) capital investment budgets. The full report is available here.
Though the plan includes 2800 projects over next 5 years, another 6,000 projects identified as needed won’t be funded. Ten are listed for Cambridge, but twenty other Cambridge projects are left unfunded. As Rafael noted, if the blanket is too small to start with, pulling it one way just leaves another part uncovered. Though 66 Green Line Cars are at the end of their useful lifetimes, there are no funds for new cars. This is also true for aging Red Line and Orange Line cars. Also unfunded are: the South Coast rail service connecting Boston to New Bedford; Boston to Springfield passenger trains; and a much needed maintenance facility for the Pioneer Valley.
Mares and Elechi Kadete (photo left), speaking about the needs of young people, pointed out that the close to 10% MBTA fare increase, coupled with reduced service, falls heavily on the youth. Thousands of students need the T to get to and from school; and late night service cuts also disproportionately affect young riders. “We’re not increasing equity, not actually solving problems,” Mares said.
Kirstie Pecci of the Massachusetts Public Interest Group (MassPIRG) and Steven Miller of Livable Streets described the many ways the current transportation system – still focused on private auto use – is damaging to the environment and is harmful to public health.
Miller focused on the need to “make streets safe for everyone,” and advocated for adoption of Vision Zero principles, which seek to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries in road traffic. Meanwhile, Pecci discussed MassPIRG’s recent report that documented how decreasing car miles 1% over the next fifteen years would bring $15 billion in savings to citizens and their communities.
She made it clear that, given the threat from global warming driven by combustion emissions, the state needs to plan for a 50-year horizon, if we are to achieve carbon neutrality. “The transportation system we have now is incredibly harmful to the environment and health,” Pecci said. “We have to think big because Governor Baker is focused on reform, on the small stuff,” she added.
John Attanucci of MIT’s Transit group, who serves on the 20-member Cambridge Transit Advisory Committee, described in some detail the needs of the Red Line and buses. These components of public transit have experienced a 30% increase in usage since 1990, with no increase in capacity. The Red Line is the most efficient component of the MBTA system, with a subsidy of less than 50 cents per passenger, while the commuter rail, for example, requires a subsidy of $5 per passenger.
Attanucci described the integral relationship among the cars, signaling systems, and power supplies of the Red Line, such that a serious upgrade in service would require new versions of all three. Though this would be an optimally efficient transit investment, the money required is not in current budgets. He called for improving headways from 4.5 minutes to 3 minutes for the Red Line, and for priority bus lanes and priority signals in most heavily used bus routes.
Almost all panelists noted that the root problem is inadequate investment and a lack of revenue. Two panelists offered solutions. John Ratliff described the RaiseUp Coalition’s Fair Share campaign, which has collected over 65,000 signatures to initiate a ballot question in November, 2018. The Fair Share proposal, which requires an amendment to the state constitution, would add an additional 4% tax to annual incomes over $1 million (about 3,000 to 4,000 state taxpayers). The additional revenue of more than $1 billion would be dedicated to public transit and public education. (That said, it should be noted that overall, the state budget is some $3.3 billion less than it was on an annual basis circa the year 2001, when adjusted for inflation.)
Jonathan King pointed out that the major progress in Massachusetts transportation had depended on federal funding, including the Red Line, and that this largest pool of capital was left out of the current city and state debates. He showed the distribution of income tax dollars in last year’s Congressional budget, more than half of which, $625 billion dollars, was devoted to Pentagon spending and weapons contracts. Congress financed the $625 billion in large part by cutting investments in domestic needs such as transportation, housing, environmental protection, and other essential programs. King called for “building subways not submarines.” He showed that maintaining our current 14 nuclear weapons submarines – vast overkill – rather than spending $100 billion to build twelve new nuclear missiles submarines, would free up far more money than was needed to upgrade public transit nationally. Boston’s share of these savings would comfortably provide the $150 million needed for new Red Line cars, signaling systems and power supplies.
Mike Connolly, Nancy Ryan and Torgun Austin played valuable roles chairing panels. The forum was organized by a Program Committee of Torgun Austin, Mike Connolly (chair), Jonathan King, John MacDougall, John Ratliff and was co-sponsored by the Cambridge Residents Alliance, Mass Budget for All Coalition, Green Cambridge, 350MA, and Fresh Pond Residents Alliance. Thanks also to those who chaired the table discussions.
Readers who would like to participate in the continuing work of the Transit and Traffic Committee can e-mail email@example.com to express your interest.
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Mothers Out Front: Mobilizing for a Livable Climate
by Shelley Rieman
The feisty grassroots group Mothers Out Front has been raising a stink in Cambridge!
“Sign by sign, flag by flag, we have built a successful campaign to raise awareness about the harm caused by leaking methane gas from pipes in Cambridge,” the group proclaimed in a recent message to supporters.
Mothers Out Front, joined by several city councilors, held a lively kick-off event at City Hall on May 2 to launch its latest campaign (photo above). Then volunteers fanned out across the city for the next two days, tagging gas leak sites. Major leaks—ones that could cause explosions—are addressed by Eversource but these smaller ones are significant too because of the harmful methane emissions. I took a photo of one leak at the corner of Sidney and Pacific Streets, a sports field where many Cambridge children play soccer.
Some 2.7% of the gas delivered to Massachusetts is leaked, and most of it is methane, a powerful contributor to climate change. (Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.) There are 20,000 gas leaks statewide. Mothers Out Front has identified and tagged 231 in Cambridge alone.
Mothers Out Front sprang up in the same period as the Cambridge Residents Alliance, during 2012. (Grassroots activism and civic responsibility must have been in the air!). Kelsey Wirth, a Cambridge resident and mother of two co-founded Mothers Out Front with Vanessa Rule of Somerville. Vanessa is a veteran climate organizer and also a mother. In Dec. 2012, they brought together a small group of mothers for an initial meeting to hatch a plan. A month later, Kelsey hosted the first house party at which half those attending volunteered to host a party. In the next fifteen months, MOF facilitated 80 house parties with over 600 attendees.Mothers and grandmothers and other caregivers came together, determined that their children and future generations will live in a world that still resembles the one we know.
They want to stop and reverse climate change by replacing fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—with only renewable energy resources to power our electric grid. This means Mothers Out Front (MOF) is committed to stopping the building of any new infrastructure for fossil fuel sourced energy: here in Massachusetts, opposing the pipeline tax and saying no to the construction of the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline.
MOF now has 5100 names on its mailing list and is active in four states—Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and California. They have launched three major campaigns here in Cambridge. The first was “The Switch” which asked households to change their energy supplier. I am among the 950 who have subscribed to Mass Energy through Mothers Out Front. I now pay about $5 a month more to help add renewable energy to our electric grid.
MOF found that Cambridge contracts with Trans Canada for the electricity in all of our municipal buildings. Trans Canada is the owner of the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmental groups actively oppose. Rachel Wyon facilitated a meeting with City Councilor Dennis Carlone to talk about changing our energy sources here in Cambridge. He was right on board. Shortly after the meeting, he drafted a Renewable Energy Policy Order.
The order was brought before the City Council and referred to committee for more study. MOF used this time to meet with all of the city councilors. They urged each councilor to make “The Switch” and lobbied for their support of the policy order. In three months, all the councilors were on board and the policy order was adopted unanimously on Feb. 20, 2015. There is now a research group studying how to implement the order. They decided to spend three years investing in solar and other renewable electricity projects to feed clean energy into the electricity grid.
The goals of Mothers Out Front dovetail with our organization’s objective of working for a livable, affordable, and diverse Cambridge.
MOF is also pushing for Cambridge’s citywide planning process – called Envision Cambridge – to keep issues related to climate change front and center in planning for the future. One of the members of the Cambridge MOF team, Zeyneb Magavi, is on the Envision Cambridge Advisory Committee. Zeyneb would like to ensure that the Envision Cambridge discussions around housing, transportation, infrastructure, health and employment all include sustainability and lead us to a livable and equitable future for all.
In future newsletters, we will cover other environmental action and justice groups such as Green Cambridge, Livable Streets Alliance, and 350.MA.
To contact or learn more about Mothers Out Front, visit their website at:
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Housing Added to Mass & Main Project
by Nancy Ryan
Remember the Mass & Main fight last year? Many community residents were passionately opposed to the planned 19-story Normandy Twining residential tower filled with 80% luxury-priced units at the intersection of Mass Ave and Main Street on the edge of Central Square.
Developers won that zoning battle decisively, although residents won meaningful improvements. Now the project is moving forward with some changes that may prove beneficial to the surrounding neighborhoods. We in the Cambridge Residents Alliance are trying to keep an open mind, while we continue to push for the best outcomes for affordable housing and retail.
Our Executive Committee met recently with the developers of Mass & Main to discuss the new options being explored for this huge and complicated project. The meeting was part of their community outreach, and we appreciated the opportunity to hear their potential new plans early on. We hope they continue to reach out to the neighborhoods.
Here’s what we learned in summary: The ownership structure has changed, the parking situation may be improving, the amount of housing may increase, and the new ideas for land use along Bishop Allen Drive are intriguing. (These changes, however, do not allay our central concern: that the agreed-upon 20% below-market apartments do not compensate for the increased land prices and rents that inevitably result from 80% luxury-priced units, many of them likely micro-units and studio apartments.)
The Normandy/Twining corporate partnership that received special zoning to create the “Mass and Main Residential Mixed Income Subdistrict” in Central Square has dissolved, but the project is moving forward one year later. Normandy Real Estate Partners has sold most of its interests and Alex Twining of Twining Properties is now the principal owner of the property between McDonalds and Café Luna. He and senior Vice President Bob Flack are presenting revised proposals that hold some promise of improvement.
The Mass & Main project includes a 19-story residential tower on Massachusetts Avenue at the corner of Columbia and five-story apartments along Columbia Street to Bishop Allen Drive. The number of housing units has increased from about 230 in 2015 to about 260 to 275 now with the acquisition of additional property. No tower designs were presented but the owners will be filing plans for design review in July 2016, starting the clock on the process of final approval. They hope to begin construction in Spring 2017, beginning with the lower-rise building.
The agreement signed with the City in May 2015 requires that 17% of total units be affordable to low and moderate income people and 3% be set aside for middle income households. The City agreed to purchase an additional 3 apartments using Affordable Housing Trust funds of a “mutually acceptable value and unit size.” In addition, 10% of all units will have three bedrooms. Controversially, the side letter signed by the City Council allows a “minimum” of 8% of all units to be “residential micro-housing” measuring between 350 and 550 square feet. We objected to this last-minute change because it does not limit the allowable number of these units that we believe will attract short-term residents and not serve families.
We are pleased that Twining is now proposing to build two levels of underground parking along Mass. Ave. that will accommodate about 95 spaces. Previously all parking was to be provided on two surface lots and an unsightly above-ground garage, all on the residential side of Bishop Allen Drive. The owner noted some conversations have taken place with City officials about putting public underground parking beneath what is now City Lot #6, making that space available for potential city-developed housing and some open space behind the tower. Twining will replace the garage with additional luxury-priced housing that also includes 20% below-market units. If the city reduces the ratio of required parking, according to Twining, one parking lot will no longer be needed and will be deeded to the city for additional city-funded housing.
Twining and Flack are interested in “activating” the retail spaces that will be on the ground floors of the buildings and integrating them with Jill Brown Rhone Park, which has become a very popular destination. They say they are seeking creative small businesses to occupy storefronts on Massachusetts Avenue as well as possibly along one or both of the passageways that will connect the Avenue to Bishop Allen Drive and the current space that is City Parking Lot 6. They are considering concepts including a “maker space” or “maker library” or possibly a new Central Square public library.
Finally, we asked about the configuration of unit sizes throughout the two buildings. Twining responded that except for the required three-bedroom units, they have not developed a plan and are looking to see what sizes are in demand in the “market.” Bob Flack said currently the demand is for studios, 1BRs, and 2BRs, and they are considering roughly equal amounts of each.
We remain uncomfortable with the height and density of the high-rise tower and the impact of 80% luxury-priced apartments on rents and land prices in the surrounding neighborhoods. The immediate abutters of Central Square have been some of the city’s largest communities of people of color, immigrants and individuals and families raising children on modest means.
We appreciate the owner’s plan to place parking under ground and his interest in getting more affordable housing onto Bishop Allen Drive. We also appreciate the effort to keep the city informed so that the city’s option to construct affordable housing on Lot 6, as the Cambridge Residents Alliance has requested, is still possible. We will let you know about upcoming events where you can learn more about the developers’ plans and express your views.
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Table of Contents
June 2016 Articles:
Thanks to muralist David Fichter for the photos of details from his "Potluck" mural.
April 2016 Articles:
Welcome from the Editors
Somerville Affordable Housing Moves Ahead
MBTA Raises Fares, Riders Protest
Green Extensin is Sorely Needed
Come to Traffic/Transit Forum April 30th!
Volpe Up-Zoning on Hold for now
Thanks to muralist David Fichter for the photos of details from his "Potluck" mural.