Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Across the River: A View of Cambridge

By Stephanie Butler

City leads way in green initiatives

By Stephanie Butler

CAMBRIDGE – The city may be bound by concrete sidewalks and brown brick buildings, Cambridge officials plan a greener look by 2011.

Last year, Governor Deval Patrick launched the Cambridge Energy Alliance, designed as a model for Massachusetts to reduce energy waste. The organization, partnering with the city, is trying to reduce electricity and individual vehicle use.

In February, the magazine Popular Science ranked Cambridge six out of 50 U.S. cities based on the availability of renewable energy, public transportation, green space and recycling. Cambridge was ranked below Boston at number four. Lower marks for renewable energy and transportation brought the city’s ranking down, according to Popular Science.

The alliance hopes to reduce electricity use in the city by 10 percent in 2011. The city’s overall goal is to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by the same year.

“The alliance was created to save Cambridge residents money, while reducing the city’s carbon footprint,” said Deborah Donavan, the alliance’s project manager.

One of the newest ways they are trying to accomplishing this is through energy audits, she said.

Inspectors will visit businesses and residences to determine how buildings can reduce waste, in hopes of reducing energy bills by up to 30 percent this winter.

The city is also trying to promote public transportation. City employees are encouraged to carpool and use shuttle buses. They also receive subsidized MBTA passes.

Increasing the budget for sidewalk repairs is also on the City Council’s agenda, in hopes that it will allow more people to walk and bike.

Cambridge was named the “Best Walking City in America” in April by Prevention magazine. The city is seeking a goal of 50 percent resident participation in the greening of Cambridge, according to the alliance website.

Cambridge hopes to lead by example, and encourage other cities to launch their own green initiatives, according to the alliance website.

City maintains its sanctuary city status

By Stephanie Butler

CAMBRIDGE – The conversations of residents overheard while walking around Kendall Square are all in English, except for one couple engaged in a heated argument in Spanish. While the city may not have a substantial number of immigrants, officials do want to protect the ones it does have.

When Congress was debating in 2006 an immigration bill that would have made it a felony with up to 20 years in prison for immigrants who enter the country illegally, the City Council unanimously issued an order at a meeting calling for the defeat of the bill.

While the City Council reaffirmed its status as a sanctuary city, where immigrants cannot be questioned about their immigration status, the joke was that no illegal immigrant could afford to live in a city as expensive as Cambridge.

City councilors first declared Cambridge a sanctuary city in 1985, in response to the FBI’s treatment of Central American illegal immigrants during the Reagan administration.

The sanctuary city status means that Cambridge officials cannot inquire about a person’s immigration status when providing government services.

Not everyone takes the City Council’s side though. Blogger Garrett Harding thinks supporting illegal immigrants will only harm legal, tax-paying residents.

“As a resident and tax payer of Massachusetts, I am absolutely against the position the Cambridge City Council is adopting. I have no desire to have my tax dollars going towards services for illegal immigrants,” Harding said.

In 1985 illegal immigrants could afford to live in the city. However, since the repeal of rent control in the late 90s, the cost of living has increased substantially, and is now 203 on the cost of living index, about 100 percent more expensive than the national average (100 on the index), according to a report by Yahoo Real Estate.

Councilor Craig Kelley acknowledged the disparity, saying that the resolution would be “irrelevant” if affordable housing is not made available for immigrants.

Cambridge Republican City Committee chairman Henry Irving thinks the resolution is irresponsible.

“It encourages illegal immigrants to stay undercover, postpones any resolution of their status and makes future citizenship improbable,” Irving said.

So while the City Council said that the “current U.S. immigration policy does not reflect our standards of what is just, humane and moral” and that it “affirms the basic human rights and dignity of every human being,” many saw the gesture as merely symbolic.

While more than a quarter of city residents declared themselves to be foreign born according to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are no figures for how many, if any, illegal immigrants reside in Cambridge.

Local businesses fight to protect city's economy

By Stephanie Butler

CAMBRIDGE – Blue and white stickers are ubiquitous in the store windows of Harvard Square. Each sticker symbolizes that the business is independent and locally-owned.

While local officials have long stressed the benefit of supporting local businesses, their reasons have more resonance due to the growing economic crisis. Cambridge Local First, an organization that includes more than 250 independent businesses, argues that buying locally strengthens the city economy, and will help buffer the city from a major economic disaster by ensuring that more money is funneled into the community.

The campaign was co-founded in October 2005 by owners of several independent stores in the city, including Frank Kramer, former owner of the Harvard Book Store.

Local businesses spend nearly 45 percent of their profits in the community, compared to 14 percent by national chains, according to a 2003 study in Maine sponsored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Local businesses also offer the most new jobs to residents in Cambridge, and are the largest employer group nationally, according to Cambridge Local First.

Independent businesses also help preserve the city’s character, and cities that are more unique tend to attract more investment, residents, and tourists, according to the website.

Not everyone thinks that buying local is better for the city economy though.

While the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce encourages residents to support local businesses, it doesn’t hold that the presence of chain stores negatively impacts the local economy.

Long-term superintendent to retire; city searches for replacement

By Stephanie Butler

CAMBRIDGE – A few students dash through Harvard Yard, holding a book in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other. Some just stroll lazily past the historic campus buildings, seemingly ignorant to the chilly winds whipping the tree branches.

While known for the world’s most renowned institutions of higher education, such as Harvard, the city’s public school system has consistently ranked at the bottom of the state’s assessment list. Now, the city is searching for a new superintendent to raise the quality of the public schools to the level Cambridge's universities are famous for.

Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn, who has held the position since 2003, announced his retirement earlier this year after his contract expires in July 2009. The School Committee voted 4-3 in January to renew his contract for one year.

Fowler-Finn’s term has rattled parents. In April he acknowledged that he had accessed e-mails from parents meant for school committee members.

In a statement, Fowler-Finn said he considered the e-mails to be public records, but he took responsibility for the mix-up.

“I am in the process of notifying those whose e-mails were received, and consider this matter resolved,” he said.

Fowler-Finn boosted the district's ranking, removing it from near the bottom of the state’s education list.

Ten out of the city’s 12 elementary schools remain on the state’s assessment list, titled “2007-08 Massachusetts State Report Card Part V – Schools Identified for Improvement, Corrective Action, or Restructuring” list.

Peter Schweich, creator of, said residents should push the School Committee to consider candidates who will improve the school system.

“Cambridge residents should use whatever little influence they may have to encourage the School Committee and city councilors to hire the best, not the least expensive, search firm to find talented and experienced candidates for the position,” said Schweich, who is a former vice president of Boston University.

Meanwhile, committee members expect the cost of the search to exceed $100,000, Mayor Denise Simmons said at an August meeting. The search will be nationwide, but the committee has not ruled out hiring from within the school district.

City searches for answers to the homeless question

By Stephanie Butler

CAMBRIDGE – A man wearing tattered clothes rests on the bench in the Harvard Square MBTA station, his eyes closed, oblivious to the impatient people around him who are waiting for their rides to work.

Up on the street, another man with a shopping cart full of black garbage bags sits on the sidewalk and surveys the pedestrians passing in front of him.

The number of homeless in the city is on the rise, and with the faulting economy city officials think it could worsen.

At the Oct. 20 City Council meeting, Mayor Denise Simmons requested the City Manager to report back with a plan on how to lessen the "short and long-term impact the current economic crisis will have on homelessness" in the city.

The city already offers a 21 page resource guide for homeless people, which includes information on shelters, medical care and other services needed.

Councilor Henrietta Davis said that eliminating the state’s income tax, which is Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, would only worsen the problem because it would reduce the funding for homeless services.

In January, a census counted 487 homeless in the city, a nine percent increase from last year when officials counted 432.

The crisis even extends to students - 249 were listed this year as homeless or living with relatives after losing their home, according to a November report released by Cambridge Public Schools.

The tough economic times the country is also impacting people who might not be homeless, but can't afford to feed their families.

Food costs have almost doubled, and almost 200 new people have registered with the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee pantry, director Elaine DeRosa said.

“Whenever the economy is hurting, people in lower-income jobs are at risk,” said Fred Berman, a planner with the Department of Human Services.

Greenline extension project faces massive delays

By Stephanie Butler

CAMBRIDGE – The train pulls into Lechmere, the last stop of the MBTA Green Line, and a large group of passengers heads through a small tunnel to the other side of the station and begin to make their way to the Cambridgeside Galleria. Starting in 2014, these passengers will have a little farther to walk to get to the mall.

While the station has been the last stop of the E branch of the Green Line since 1922, developers broke ground for a new station in October 2006.

Some residents think the station is long overdue for improvements. Blogger Jon Petitt said it looks like a "crappy amusement park ride entrance."

Some were less than enthused about the move, especially East Cambridge residents, who will have to cross the Monsignor O’Brien highway to get to the station.

However, the construction of the $70 million new station, which will be called Lechmere at NorthPoint, has been plagued with problems since the beginning.

The city had extended a special deal to NorthPoint, a real estate developer, to build the station at the new site in exchange for giving the corporation the old property.

The company had planned to build condominiums at the old site.

Ongoing litigation is causing massive delays for the station which was slated to open in 2014 (pushed back from the original date of 2010), and the city is anxious to correct the problem. City Councilor Tim Toomey expressed his exasperation at the October 6 City Council meeting.

He requested the City Manager Robert Healy examine whether the city could rescind the special permit issued to NorthPoint "for not complying with mitigation efforts."

The NorthPoint development is jointly owned by two corporations, Cambridge NorthPoint LLC and Boston and Maine Corporation, and last year the two companies sued each other over the project. In July, a judge ordered them both to sell their interests in the project.

To prevent further delays, the state’s Executive Office of Transportation agreed in late August to take over construction.

“We are committed to ensuring the timely completion of this project and to holding the developers to all the commitments they have made,” spokesman Adam Hurtubise said.