Cambridge City Council fights over payment from developments

 

by Brian P. Nanos, Cambridge Chronicle

Education First received the zoning change it needed to go forward with a planned expansion of its Cambridge headquarters — but not before members of the City Council debated how the city should allocate the more than $900,000 in mitigation money the company was providing to the city.

Mitigation funds are often paid to the city by a developer in order to counteract any negative impact of building.

Councilors were expressing their frustration with the process used to allocate mitigation funds.

Councilor Craig Kelley called the current process “very broken.”

“This is just nonsense, at this point,” Councilor Marjorie Decker said of the debate over mitigation. “That’s just, it’s not a good process.”

“It would be great if we could focus on fixing that before we get more of these proposals down the line,” Kelley said.

Later in the meeting, the Council turned its eye to creating a better process for spending mitigation when it passed an order asking the city manager and city staff to provide a report on the law relating to mitigation in zoning amendment petitions.

For a project that caused so much debate, the EF expansion was not controversial among the Council.

The company has been planning an expansion of its current headquarters at 1 Education St. that would include a new building across the street.

McKinnon filed a zoning petition on behalf of EF Education First that would allow the proposed development to be built under the same zoning provisions as the last building. The minimum size of a development parcel, under current zoning laws, is 100,000 square feet.

Additionally, EF is asking that the Planning Board be given the right to waive a requirement that 35 percent of the development be residential.

When councilors spoke about the project itself, it was often to praise the company, its adding jobs or the union construction jobs that would be created by the expansion.

“I would like to urge my colleagues to support the adoption of this zoning petition this evening,” Mayor David Maher said. “I think that this is a good thing for EF, it is a good thing for the City of Cambridge.”

The debate came over how the city would spend the $914,000 in mitigation funds offered by EF. The order passed Monday night called for those funds to be spent in a manner to be decided later by City Manager Bob Healy.

Councilor Tim Toomey was unhappy with that. He wanted assurances that the bulk of the money would be spent in East Cambridge, the neighborhood that would be most affected by the new construction.

“I’m talking about being used as a fool here, and I just can’t allow that to happen,” he said.

He said that he had been led to believe — as co-chairman of the Ordinance Committee that had met on the zoning amendment — that there was already a deal in place for mitigation.

He said $250,000 should be given to the Cambridge Citywide scholarship fund; $250,000 to the East Cambridge Scholarship Fund; $75,000 each to the Fletcher-Maynard Academy, the Kennedy Longfellow School and the King Open School; and $25,000 to the Cambridge Energy Alliance.

“For some reason at the last minute that was changed and the rug was pulled out,” he said. “To pull the rug out from that neighborhood is just unconscionable.”

Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis suggested that Toomey’s concerns would be addressed when the city allocated the money and most of it went to East Cambridge.

“As much as I would like to believe that, after I went through that process that level of trust is no longer there,” he replied.

In response to Toomey’s complaints, both Councilors Ken Reeves and Marjorie Decker suggested that mitigation funds should be spent citywide, so that neighborhoods with less construction aren’t left out.

 

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