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 Committee Report

Committee Report #4


In City Council June 17, 2013

Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair  
Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves  
Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom  

The Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee held a public meeting on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 6:55 PM in the Community Room of the Robert W. Healy Public Safety Facility at 125 Sixth Street.

The purpose of the meeting was to conduct a joint public meeting with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) to review the powers and potential of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority as it pertains to future development plans throughout the City of Cambridge.

Present at the meeting were Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair of the Committee, Councillor vanBeuzekom, Richard Rossi, Deputy City Manager, Nancy Glowa, City Solicitor, Iram Farooq, Zoning and Land Use Project Planner, Community Development Department (CDD), Rebecca Rutenberg, Aide to Councillor Cheung and Interim City Clerk Donna P. Lopez.

Also present at the meeting were CRA board members: Kathy Born, Chair, Margaret Drury, Barry Zevin, Christopher Bator, Conrad Crawford and Jeffrey B. Mullan, Legal Counsel, CRA board, Susan Glazer, Acting Executive Director of the CRA, Heather Hoffman, 213 Hurley Street, Tom Stohlman,18 Channing Street, Steve Kaiser, 191 Hamilton Street, Charlie Teague, 23 Edmunds Street, Mark Levy, Cambridge Day, John Hawkinson, independent journalist, Gary Dmytryk, 2440 Mass. Avenue and Carolyn Shipley, 15 Laurel Street.

Councillor Cheung opened the meeting and stated the purpose. There is a vigil tonight at City Hall for the tragedy that took place at the Boston Marathon.  He asked for a moment of silence.

Councillor Cheung stated that his desired outcome of this meeting was an examination of how the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority worked, the scope of the CRA's powers and how they can be used as a tool or an entity to help the City.  This discussion was prompted by the K2C2 studies, and he hopes to better understand how the CRA can be used as a vehicle to help the City to realize changes throughout Kendall and Central Squares.

Jeff Mullan, General Counsel for CRA, stated that Foley Hoag has represented CRA since 1956. In his experience, he has found that redevelopment authorities in general function best when they work cooperatively with the city and do not operate in a vacuum. Most redevelopment authorities are primarily concerned with implementation, not planning. Although redevelopment authorities are granted funding through the City appropriation process, they have tremendous powers that are separate and distinct from the municipality that enable them to clean up decadent, substandard or blighted open areas in the city.  Although redevelopment authorities primarily deal with large-scale urban renewal projects, they also have the power to construct demonstration projects outside of urban renewal areas.  Property can be taken by eminent domain within an urban renewal area and for the purpose of conducting a demonstration project.  The redevelopment authority will create a plan. Christopher Bator asked Mr. Mullan to explain whether the CRA and redevelopment authorities in general have the authority to incur debt.  Mr. Mullan noted that traditionally, redevelopment authorities had raised 50 percent of the funds needed to implement projects through local sources and had obtained 50 percent funding from the state.  He noted that state funding is generally not available for these purposes any longer.   Mr. Mullan also noted that although redevelopment authorities have the power to incur debt, it is not often practiced.

Ms. Born asked for an example of demonstration project.  Mr. Mullan responded that Fenway Triangle in Boston is a demonstration project.  The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) selected the streets it sought to use for a demonstration project and conveyed the land to a redeveloper that is responsible for completing the project.

Councillor Cheung questioned the difference between the CRA and the BRA.  Mr. Mullan stated that the BRA also has planning powers for the City of Boston. Should the CRA want to add this planning function, it would need to do so through a special act of the Legislature.

Mr. Rossi asked if on a demonstration project if the land would have to be declared blighted.  Mr. Mullan responded in the affirmative, but noted that, in some cases, it has been argued that should a demonstration project should not occur to fix certain conditions, it would have created a blighted area.  To be more specific, he noted that the law with respect to demonstration projects permits actions by redevelopment authorities to both eliminate a blighted condition and prevent it from occurring in the first instance.

Ms. Born asked if demonstration projects need to be applied for.  Mr. Mullan remarked that there are no universal guidelines on how this process should be initiated.

Mr. Bator asked if it the CRA had the power to assess a property as blighted. Mr. Mullan responded that that to find a blighted condition, there must be supporting documentation consistent with the law and the regulations and a vote of the board to either eliminate the condition or (in the case of demonstration projects) to prevent the property from becoming blighted. Most powers to be excersized by the CRA would be confined to urban renewal areas.

Mr. Rossi asked if city approval is required for the CRA to initiate a demonstration project. Mr. Mullan responded in the negative.  Ms. Born asked if when a redevelopment authority defines a demonstration project, is the next step eminent domain.  Mr. Bator commented that such projects do not always require eminent domain.

Ms. Born asked what the typical size of demonstration projects and urban renewal projects are. Mr. Mullan remarked that typically none are smaller than a couple of city blocks.  Every urban renewal plan has a clearance or spot clearance plan, together with areas marked for rehabilitation or other public improvements consistent with the goals of the plan.  Ms. Farooq asked if the redevelopment area has to be contiguous or if parcels can be separate.  Mr. Mullan responded that the area should be continuous.  Demonstration projects are more surgical and do not require an urban renewal plan which is a large undertaking.

Councillor vanBeuzekom asked if there is a definition of "blight."  Mr. Mullan responded that, per Chapter 121B in the state law, there are definitions for "substandard", "decadent" and "blighted open" areas.   Often, these areas have high numbers of foreclosures, rapid turnover, and small lot sizes. Mr. James Williamson, 1000 Jackson Place, asked if there is an area in Central Square that would meet the definition.  Mr. Mullan stated that he could not say.

Councillor Cheung spoke about parking lots in Central Square and asked what powers the CRA had to make use of the lots.  Ms. Farooq stated throughout the planning study, the C2 advisory committee worked with Goody Clancy and CDD and that there was a lot of emphasis and interest in seeing surface parking lots transform into more positive space. There were ideas encompassing middle income to affordable housing, open space, and indoor or outdoor public gathering space. She stated that there are three parking lots on Bishop Allen Drive.  Many are adjacent to private holdings that are significant in size, and she can imagine that there would be future private interest in developing there.

Tom Stohlman stated that Chapter121B specifically refers on remedying substandard or blighted private property when private owners are not doing their jobs; not public property. Mr. Mullan confirmed his statement, and commented that not all urban renewal plans are comprised of entirely private property.  Larger areas can have public properties within them, and that the statutory phrase used when considering whether urban renewal is appropriate is whether the would be redeveloped by the ordinary operations of private enterprise.

Councillor vanBeuzekom asked about the parking lot under the Inn at Harvard.  Mr. Rossi stated that it is still owned by city, but air rights were given to Harvard.  The CRA was involved in the demolition of the city incinerator.

Councillor Cheung noted the Central Square Advisory Committee's recommendations, and asked how the CRA can help the City with the parking lots in Central Square.  Mr. Mullan responded that the CRA would complete an initial review of the data to determine whether the area is substandard, blighted open or decadent. If that were the case, the CRA would develop an urban renewal plan.  Ms. Born asked if the City has three parking lots and the City Council has the will to redevelop the lots, then what measures can be taken with the CRA's involvement or without the CRA's involvement.  Mr. Rossi stated that a Request for Proposals (RFP) would be written outlining the objectives of the plan.  If CRA is involved in the process, it would be a more comprehensive plan. Mr. Mullan stated that first data collection would be needed, then a survey and then action steps to meet the goals.  A recommendation from the City Manager is required and then the City Council has to approve the urban renewal plan.  Ms. Born asked what the advantage is for CRA involvement versus the City.  Mr. Mullan stated that the CRA is the implementation arm.  The City can do great planning.

Steve Kaiser stated that Constitution takes precedent over state law, and that taking property by eminent domain runs into problems with Article VII. Mr. Mullan stressed that safeguards are built into the statute so that nothing could be done without some form of approval from municipal officials. Mr. Bator added that if local governance approves the process, then it is unlikely to be challenged constitutionally.  Mr. Stohlman stated that when one public entity transfers something to another public entity, it is not eminent domain.

Councillor Cheung commented on MIT giving the City the Cherry Street lot.  Mr. Rossi stated that the City could have taken it as eminent domain, but that this would have been a very difficult process. Mr. Mullan stated that although this could technically happen through a very long process, and that there is no history or established pattern of this occurring in the City of Cambridge.

Heather Hoffman asked about disposition of city property. If property were given to the CRA, would it be subject to general ordinance 2.10. Mullan stated that he is not familiar with the municipal ordinance.  Mr. Rossi added that the City would have to look at it.  Mr. Mullan further stated that if the City's objective is to convey the property to the CRA it could be structured around financing.  The CRA powers and the City objectives would need to be examined.

Councillor Cheung asked if demonstration projects can be done on city-owned buildings, like the Foundry Building, to have it more intensively used by the City.  Mr. Mullan asked why the city would not do this.  He noted that although the CRA has no record of doing demonstration projects, that it works the best when the board has a clear vision and something they want to do well.  Mr. Bator stated that the CRA board has been focused on Kendall Square thus far, and that they have not yet concentrated on other areas. Mr. Zevin stated that there was one building taken by CRA many years ago. Ms. Born asked if an area such as Bishop Allen Drive between Prospect and Columbia would be most effective with an urban renewal area or by picking off smaller demonstration projects. Mr. Mullan stated that either could be done.

Councillor VanBeuzekom inquired about the use of smaller parcels for demonstration projects, and asked whether the First Street Garage and the restaurant could be used in this manner. Mr. Rossi stated that this property has different needs in the community.  The First Street Garage is valuable to the city.  Ms. Born questioned if the City looked at this parcel of land and determined that the parcel is not being used to its fullest potential and wanted to transfer it to the CRA, what would be the advantage to working with CRA or the City.  There is more flexibility with the CRA responded Mr. Mullan.  The CRA acquires property to dispose it to a third party.  It would be determined which entity has the best skill set.  Ms. Born stressed that this is a purely hypothetical situation.

Ms. Farooq asked if the CRA is able to use planning and data collection work that was completed by CDD. In Cambridge, having the City planning arm and CRA development arm seem very defined; how can they work jointly together? Mr. Mullan responded that it came down to how the city municipal officials opt to use it.

Councillor Cheung asked if there is a possibility that Volpe will convey the land back to the CRA.  Mr. Mullan responded that he does not see the property coming back to CRA due to the limitations of government. Volpe has a priority of meeting its own base needs, and their objective is to ensure that what they have today will remain.  If they were to give the site away, they would not be able to get it back because they would have to go through the federal appropriation process.

Councillor Cheung asked if the Foundry could be conveyed to the CRA as a demonstration project.   John Hawkinson asked that if this were to happen, would the CRA still be required to find a blighted condition? Mr. Mullan stated that without a plan that was approved by the proper officials, they would need to comply with chapter 30B for disposition.  Ms. Born asked what would the city get if the Foundry Building were conveyed to the CRA; how would this affect the outcome?  Councillor Cheung stated that there has been concern about how the City will maintain ownership and manage the building to achieve its goals for the building. At present, the goal is unclear.  Councillor vanBeuzekom stated that the City Council would need to figure out what the goal is prior to conveying property over.  Councillor Cheung added that the First Street Garage is an example of why the city should not be in the business of property.  Mr. Rossi stated that the City could put out an RFP prescribing the uses, lease the building, and hire a management company to manage the property.  Ms. Born stated that redevelopment authorities are not in the business of being landlords.

Mr. Hawkinson asked what the CRA could do better than the City with the parking lots.  Mr. Bator responded that once the CRA had the land, it is removed from the political process that it would undergo if it were done in a more conventional way through the City.

Carolyn Shipley noted that she admires the new CRA board for taking on such a process, but that she is concerned that the city wants to have them take property by eminent domain at such an early stage.  Mr. Rossi cautioned that there are no discussions between CRA and City to take city property by eminent domain.

Catherine Madden, Strategic Planner for the CRA, stated that this is a beginning process and the CRA is looking to define their goals for the future.

Charlie Teague, 23 Edmunds Street, asked Mr. Mullan to explain small takings to complete a larger parcel.  Mr. Mullan stated that urban renewal is many parcels to achieve the goal.  He stated that Union Square in Somerville is a spot surgical approach.  To complete land assemblage would involve the use of  an urban renewal plan.  In demonstration projects there are small takings.  Mr. Rossi stated that Cambridge property has value and eminent domain taking is not free.

Councillor Cheung stated that this has been helpful to understand the powers.  CRA is undertaking strategic planning and the CDD has its planning process.  Ms. Born stated that all properties discussed were strictly hypothetical. Councillor vanBeuzekom stated that if the CRA is the development arm and CDD is the planning arm this discussion has helped.

Councillor Cheung thanked those present for their attendance.

The meeting adjourned at 8:28 PM on motion of Councillor Cheung

For the Committee,

Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair
Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee 

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