Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I saw on Pearl Street

I was on Pearl Street talking to a voter the other night.  He had been trimming the hedges in front of his house. The sun had set but the summer's evening light was lingering.  Our topic was the development pressures in Central Square.

A young man walked by us with a backpack on his shoulder.  He looked like a college student.  We paid him no mind but when he got to the corner, he started to shake his bag violently, distributing the contents onto the sidewalk.  It's the kind of thing a crazy person might do, but he didn't look like the type of person who'd be losing his mind on a Cambridge street.

He then approached the two of us, and asked "do you hear something ticking in my bag?"  As preposterous as it sounded, we did.  Loud enough to hear from five feet away, and persistent.   Should he call the police?  Well, yes, if you have no idea where this sound is coming from.  So he called the Cambridge police and explained his unlikely tale.

The police showed up within a couple of minutes and cordoned off the area, blue lights flashing and all.  There we were, standing a few feet from this bag, waiting for someone to do something.  I think none of us was particularly sure who or what.  But we waited.  Even the police waited.

Then a plain clothes officer arrived.  His chinos and his madras shirtsleeves and his shaved head would have allowed him to slip innocuously into any crowd, his only giveaway being the radio attached to his hip.  He walked past the uniformed sergeant and approached the bag at a deliberate but unaltering pace.  It was neither a professionally trained caution nor foolhardy bravado.  It was however bravery. Few things are truly scarier than the unknown, and he was walking toward it. The rest of us stood around and watched.

He kneeled over the bag and leaned his head toward the sound.  He began to peel back the top flap, looking for the source of the tick.  I looked down the sidewalk at him in the fading July light.  His head was no more than two feet above this thing and I thought to myself -- if there's a bomb in there and it goes off, he's dead.   

What kind of job is it that takes you from a coffee break to a possible backpack bomb within minutes just as part of your everyday work?  It's impossible to be there and not to feel the tension of the moment. 

He pulled out a ticking black box from bag and announced "I don't know what it is, but it's not a bomb".  The student approached and realized that it was a metronome, something musicians use when they are practicing.  Maybe his friend had put it in his bag.  The situation had defused. I started to walk away, but it didn't escape my thinking that for the police, this constitutes a normal day on the job.  Acts of courage are seen as nothing more than doing your work. And they go largely unknown, unnoted or unnoticed by the public at large. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Koontz decision and planning in Cambridge

(Below is a letter I submitted to the Cambridge Chronicle)

While the Supreme Court's recent rulings on the Voting Rights Act and on the Defense of Marriage Act were getting all the attention, an equally important but much less noted decision came from the Justices on land use.  The case, referred to as Koontz, has wide-ranging implications.  "The Court's decision today has jeopardized local governments' ability to ensure that the costs of new development are fairly born by its developers and users," wrote W. Paul Farmer, the head of the American Planning Association. Professor John Echeverria added in a separate opinion piece, "The decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground.”

What does this decision mean for Cambridge? As many would agree, the challenge in this city today is not how to attract investment.  The challenge is how we maintain a sustainable community, a community that will thrive in its diversity and vibrancy in the 21st century. Talk to any real estate agent and they will tell you the same story -- a condo for sale receives multiple offers all above asking price.  The winner in these sweepstakes is the one who can pay cash up front.  This is not sustainable in the long run.

One of the ways that we are countering these pressures, not just in housing but across the range of needs in this community, is through agreements that the city and developers reach during discussions over development.  The message has been clear: companies in Cambridge must focus beyond just their workforce and see themselves as partners of the whole community. Ultimately, their success depends on the city's success.

To achieve this, we must strive to create predictability in the process, where companies and the city know what the ground rules are.  Make no mistake, these agreements provide significant benefits to the city and its citizens.  The Foundry Building is just a recent example.  

It’s a set of challenges that most municipalities would welcome, but to navigate these waters successfully requires real leadership and vision about how this city can be vibrant, diverse, and eclectic while holding on to its role as an epicenter of economic activity. Negotiated agreements have been an important part of the answer.  Now, let’s hope Koontz doesn’t bring to Cambridge something else that everyone is predicting from this decision: litigation.