Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Renae Gray

I am very sad to learn of the death of Renae Gray, a Cambridge resident and strong voice in the Port neighborhood, who died yesterday following a series of medical complications.

Renae was tough, determined and fair. She was also kind, caring and had a wonderful sense of humor. She will be missed.

Renae at Port Pride Day, September 2016

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Grab Bag: Prediction; Robert F. Wagner Jr. and housing

It's Friday, so it's Grab Bag time.

First, let me make a prediction.

It should come as no shock that I do not like the man who will become our president later today. Nor should it surprise that I fear what he will do once he's in office. But I take some comfort in these beliefs ... he will prove unable to master the complex task of lawmaking and will turn out to be only a moderately competent administrator. He will unsettle his enemies and terrify his friends to such an extreme degree that members of his own party will first try to reign him in, then will walk away from him entirely.

In our tripartite form of government, executive-legislative-judicial, this will produce an unexpected result: the legislative branch will assert itself in ways not seen in years, and some bi-partisan comity will emerge on the toughest issues of the day. This working-together will not be the result of good-will between electeds but the result of raw necessity. Dealing with the 20 million insured under Obamacare, or shoring up the NATO alliance will require some congressional heft. Meanwhile, the foolish child-king will sit at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue playing with his toys.

In short, Donald Trump will be a failed president. He will be one of the worst in the history of this nation.

That deals with our president-to-be. Next, since it is a grab bag day, I want to spend a minute talking about another New York politician, Robert F. Wagner Jr.

Robert Wagner was mayor of New York from 1954 to 1965. The son of a U.S. senator, Wagner started his mayoral career with a strained but working relationship to the Tammany Hall power bosses. Eleanor Roosevelt's support put him at odds with Tammany chief Carmine DeSapio. By his final run, Wagner broke with DeSapio entirely and in so doing brought about an end to the Tammany grip on City Hall.

Robert Wagner also supported the creation of housing in New York City. This he did with gusto. In his twelve years in office, he oversaw the creation of 423,000 units of housing. Considering that New York currently has 3.4 million units, that increase 60 years ago is astounding. It speaks to the boldness of post-war planning, and the power of the mayor's office at the time. Housing advocates can remember these days fondly if wistfully.

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ADDENDUM #1 ... can't resist ...

From a church, no less!
ADDENDUM #2 ...

Watching 2 minutes of Trump's inaugural speech online, I can't help but notice that the crowd appears to be exclusively white, seemingly angry, and some of them look downright shady. It makes me think that yesterday's NPR shows discussed A. Trump's cloudy ties to Russia, B. Trump's mountain of conflicts of interest. This was BEFORE he was sworn in. Trump today says "Now is the hour of action!" or words to that effect. Classic strongman rhetoric. This country's in for a wild ride.

ADDENDUM #3 ... Later in the day, after the deed has been done ... you can tell how excited we all are ... courtesy of vox.com


Monday, January 16, 2017

Rep. Katherine Clark celebrates MLK Day in Cambridge

As the country nervously awaits Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday, Cambridge came together to remember slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. today with multiple celebrations in and around City Hall in Central Square.


Brian Corr
At St. Peter's Episcopal Church along Mass Avenue, the Peace Commission under the leadership of Brian Corr convened a ceremony of commemoration, with songs and writings from Dr. King. The standing-room-only crowd listened with hope and some anxiety as speakers read King's words about racism, materialism and war, the scourges that consumed him in his day and which many noted were equally relevant fifty years later. 

Keynote speaker Representative Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), a leader in the US House of Representatives who led last year's sitdown on the House floor to protest gun violence in this country,


Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons with Representative Katherine Clark


















spoke proudly of her work with Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon who changed America by bravely walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, only to be beaten by Alabama state police as he tried to complete his journey. Lewis is very much in the news these days after he questioned the legitimacy of Trump's presidency to which Trump tweeted a slew of derisive attacks in response.


John Lewis, on ground, being beaten by an Alabama state trooper, 1965


Rep. Clark observed that it is not enough simply to remember Dr. King. It is important that we bend the arc of history towards justice if it does not want to bend that way on its own. Her presence was comforting to the crowd in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. Democrats are debating how best to respond to the incoming Trump administration. 

After the event at St. Peter's, people crossed over to Cambridge City Hall for the eighth annual Day of Service, a chance to celebrate Dr. King by serving. Numbers topped 2,500 volunteers, according to event organizer Lori Lander. The day reflects Dr. King's vision for a peaceful society but it also points a way forward in very uncertain times. Many noted that there is strength in numbers and it is critical that communities show how a peaceful, respectful society can function.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Foundry Building update: add another two years (at least)

Efforts to revitalize the Foundry Building in East Cambridge appear to be back at square one. Cambridge Redevelopment Authority executive director Tom Evans announced at last night's CRA board meeting that he is considering a whole new strategy after his initial attempt met strong opposition in the City Council last fall. 

That attempt encouraged private developers to generate ideas on refurbishing, maintaining and programming the hundred-plus-year-old structure in a cost neutral way. The process ran into immediate challenges when only one of the original five teams actually submitted a proposal. That was the Cambridge Innovation Center group in conjunction with Graffito SP and Hacin Associates.

While the CIC team worked hard to calculate the cost of the structural work that allowed a tenant mix the community could support, in the end the Innovation Center team failed to win city councillors' approval. The building needed too much expensive repair work.

Last night, Director Evans in as much acknowledged this as a reality, and said he is considering an approach involving greater city investment that decouples construction costs from operation and programming costs. He has already started down this road by hiring HMFH Architects to reexamine the Foundry to document all of the building's structural demands.

Regardless, last night's meeting convinced audience members that the process has just added another 18 months to three years. While it's pointless to try to assign fault for the long delays in getting this off the ground, CRA board president and former city councillor Kathy Born expressed a Zen-like patience when she calmly observed that the main library took about 20 years to complete but produced a jewel of a building in the center of Cambridge. The community can only hope that the Foundry's long, arduous and on-going experience will produce an equally valuable result.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The 2017 Boston Auto Show is in town, starting tomorrow

The 2017 Boston Auto Show comes to town tomorrow with a line-up that's unfortunately a little underwhelming compared to previous years. The show, which also goes by the name of the New England International Auto Show, is the chance for car enthusiasts in the region to see the latest models and concepts from automakers around the world. Toyota, Honda, Kia, BMW and the Big Three (GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler) will all be there, but there will be other specialty cars as well.

The show always comes right on the heels of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, so everything gets previewed in the Motor City before some of them make the trip east to Massachusetts. By the looks of it, there appear to be only a few head-turners this year, making 2017 a light one in the automotive world.

Nevertheless, there are some note-worthy aspects of this year's event:

  • Autonomous cars continue to progress, with some very interesting entrants there, including the Chrysler Pacifica self-driving minivan.
  • For the high end models, where horsepower meets design, producing beautiful fast sculptures, there is usually something to look at, including new cars from Bentley and Aston Martin.
  • The Bolt, the all-electric SUV from Chevrolet recently named Motor Trend Car of the Year, will be there.
  • The Kia Stinger looks like an interesting car in the affordable sedan/GT car market.
  • The Boston Cup, the region's premier classic car show, will have some impressive historic cars there as well. 

And ... The overall winner of the "Strange But Interesting" Award goes to Volkswagen. Still battling their diesel emissions cheating scandal, VW decided to come back with a sentimental favorite updated for the digital age. The old hippie microbus has transformed itself into a self-driving concept called the ID Buzz.




Also, be sure to check out my short preview of the new Bentley Flying Spur W12 S and the Aston Martin DB 11, two British beauties making their East Coast debut at the show.






Doors open at 4pm. More information and tickets can be found at http://www.bostonautoshow.com/.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A conversation about the Abbott building and developers, planning and influence in Cambridge

Recently, someone wrote me in frustration about the Abbott building in Harvard Square that was bought for the outrageous sum of $85 million with the intent of turning it into a shopping emporium of sorts. The writer asked me about this, but also about Wasserstein hall, a behemoth Harvard Law School building designed by Robert A.M. Stern on Mass. Ave, about corruption and about the influences that universities have in communities like Cambridge and Princeton, NJ, another community he mentioned. This is what I wrote in response:


As for the Wasserstein building, I agree, it is not my version of a good piece of urban architecture. It's a bad version of monumental architecture for an institution and it doesn't help the community much and does nothing for that stretch of Mass. Ave.

Having said that, Harvard is allowed to have its own taste when it comes to buildings, hire its own architects and come up with its own design, as long as it complies with the parameters laid out in the zoning code and other city restrictions. While I was not a party to the discussions about Wasserstein, I imagine Harvard worked very hard to comply with all city rules and regulations (height of building, amount of open space required - if any, etc. etc.). In that sense, there is no corruption here. Just a well-heeled institution doing its homework about what the rules do and don't allow and complying with those.

More generally, Harvard is integral to Cambridge. It's an almost exact contemporary of the community itself (1636) and plays a big role in how this community behaves and how it is perceived around the world. I strongly believe that the city's very favorable financial status owes a lot to the presence of the universities that are in our midst. I should add that Harvard is the largest single employer in the city. 

Still, Harvard doesn't own Cambridge and needs to have a symbiotic relationship with the community where it resides. That is especially true in Harvard Square and in the case of properties where it controls the rents. 

As for the Abbott building, I haven't followed it closely, but I gather the building was purchased for $85 million and it's supposed to get a gut rehab. Those kind of economics change a community overnight, and that's in part what's been happening in Harvard Square and throughout Cambridge for a while now. These battles tend to come down to what's allowed under the rules, how far the plans diverge from those allowable uses, and what happens in the public negotiations on these issues. 

Again, that is not corruption so much as it is a developer with deep pockets, a good team and a clear goal in mind. That combination tends to work in favor the proponent/developer -- not because he is breaking the rules, but because he is following the rules. This can be very frustrating to neighborhoods who throw up their hands in disbelief, asking their elected and appointed boards, "how could you allow that to happen?" 

This doesn't mean bad stuff doesn't get built. It does, often. But it's not corruption. It's a tension between a property owners right to change their property in accordance with a set of agree-upon parameters, and a neighborhood's desire to preserve, protect and maintain a certain look and feel in the community. 


When he asked if the City Council had any control over this, and whether I thought people in Cambridge were concerned about this, here is my response ...

There is some hope that the citywide planning effort currently underway will address some of these issues by laying out a template for future development that has broad agreement by the citizens, but also allows for change to occur in the city -- which is a healthy balance between preserving/protecting what we like but not freezing us in time, making us into a historical fossil. I think the planning process will do that. 

The Council does have say over this, at least at the end of the process. It is up to the Council to adopt any zoning changes and put in place both policies and procedures about development. 

The people in Cambridge are certainly aware of the development going on in this city and in some neighborhoods, they are quite concerned about it. I know in Central Square, some neighbors are very worried about new construction there. Equally, in Porter Square, some neighbors have expressed strong concerns, just to name two examples. 

But the issue gets more complicated when we think about our broader need for more housing in Cambridge, both market rate and affordable, as well as the amount of underutilized land near T stops (think of the parking lots near Porter Square and Central Square), and social and environmental benefits that come from having a lively, active street life with commercial activity in close proximity to housing, which encourages pedestrian uses over car use.

The job of the Council will be to sift through the recommendations of the planners and then pass a series of ordinances to govern the behavior and type of development happening in the city. Some of the tension between developers who want to build more and residents who don't is a healthy one, at least because it indicates a city where people want to be. The opposite problem, a city where people don't want to be, is much worse. 

Relating this to the Abbott building requires some good skill and some good luck too. Harvard Square is an odd beast in that it feels very much like a village, but has land values like a major metropolitan area. Striking the right balance there will be difficult and will require some good hard work with a little bit of good fortune.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Scooby Doo where are you? In Stockbridge, MA -- no kidding!

After a rough 2016, the new year kicks off with hope for better days and unseasonably mild weather in the Massachusetts. It's time to look on the bright side. There are many wonderful things happening in the Bay State right now. Chief among them is a show at the Norman Rockwell Museum, "The Architects of Saturday Morning."

The marvelous cartoon genius of Hanna-Barbera, the creators of The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, Scooby Doo and many other Saturday morning treats is on display at the Stockbridge, MA institution, and what a treat it will be.



For kids of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Saturday mornings were a world filled with lovable characters and mad hijinx. People of my generation spent hours in front of television sets watching cartoons. Sure, maybe our screen time was a little excessive but with their antics firmly etched in our minds, these adorable types will live in our generation's collective memory forever. A trip out to Stockbridge offers the chance to revisit them and to reflect on the imagination that was William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

Hanna-Barbera: The Architects of Saturday Morning runs through May 29, 2017.