Cambridge City

Committee Report
CRT 2019 #16
Mar 18, 2019 5:30 PM

A communication was received from Paula Crane, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, Chair of the Economic Development and University Relations Committee, for a public hearing held on February 13, 2019 to receive an update on the progress to date on the retail strategy plan and vacant storefront initiative.


Department:City Clerk's OfficeSponsors:
Category:Economic Development & University Relations


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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT & UNIVERSITY RELATIONS COMMITTEE MEMBERS    Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, Chair Councillor Craig A. Kelly Councillor Alanna Mallon Councillor Timothy J. Toomey Jr. Councillor Quinton Zondervan

In City Council March 18, 2019


The Economic Development and University Relations Committee held a public hearing on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at 12:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Chamber to receive an update on the progress to date on the retail strategy plan and vacant storefront initiative. 


Present at the hearing were Councillor Siddiqui, Chair of the Committee, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Mallon, Councillor Simmons, Councillor Zondervan, Mayor McGovern, Lisa Hemmerle, Economic Development Director, Pardis Saffari, Senior Economic Development Manager, Jeff Roberts, Director of Zoning and Development, Community Development Department, Liz Walker, Aide to Vice Mayor Devereux, Matt McLaughlin, Aide to Councillor Carlone, and Paula M. Crane Deputy City Clerk.


Also present were Adriane Musgrave, Executive Director, Cambridge Local First, Michael Monestime, Executive Director, Central Square Business Association, Jason Alves, Executive Director, East Cambridge Business Association, David Maher, President and CEO, Nancy Donahue, Government Affairs, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, and Ruth Ryals.   


Councillor Siddiqui convened the hearing and stated that the hearing was being audio and visually recorded.  She read from prepared Opening Remarks (ATTACHMENT A).  She gave an overview of the agenda for the hearing (ATTACHMENT B).


Lisa Hemmerle stated that Economic Development Division (EDD) has been able to finish another district assessment for Inman Square with plans for Porter Square in fiscal 2020.  She noted that this has been helpful for the small business community.  She said that a Construction Mitigation Pilot was instituted in Inman Square to help small businesses manage ongoing construction projects.  She explained that a small business dashboard has been created.  She noted that there has been additional revenue added to the FY19 small business challenge grant program.  She highlighted National Small Business Week in May and noted that there will be events every day of that week.  She was excited to add that the that the Food Truck pilot program has become a full-blown program.  Ms. Hemmerle introduced Pardis Saffari and Jeff Roberts to discuss land use. 


Ms. Saffari explained that this hearing is a great opportunity to provide an update on the retail land use initiative.  She noted that she and Mr. Roberts will present an overview of the PowerPoint presentation (ATTACHMENT C).

Councillor Zondervan asked Mr. Roberts if he could give a sense of how specific the City must be and why in terms of different types of retail.  He asked Mr. Roberts if the City’s Zoning Ordinance needs to distinguish between a bookstore and a music shop and if so, why.  Mr. Roberts responded that the way that they break down uses within the retail section of the ordinance, it does not separate book stores from music stores.  He explained that it breaks apart different uses where the nature of what is going on is different.  He said that a retail store is different from a restaurant which is in turn different from a theater which is different from a funeral home.  He said that is where the differences come into play.  He explained that the one area where it is a little tricky is where there is food, food-related uses, service uses, which are broken down more specifically.  He said that there is a separate category for restaurants that serve alcohol versus those that do not.  He said that they are both regulated the same.  He said that food related uses are broken down more specifically.  He said that the rationale for this type of breakdown has to do with traffic and transportation impacts.  He said that for each of these uses, the parking requirements and use regulations are somewhat different. 


Councillor Zondervan asked if theoretically it would be possible to change this so that businesses are being regulated based on those specific constraints that Mr. Roberts mentioned.  He said that a lot of the other constraints are already regulated.  He asked if it would be possible to achieve the same goal without restricting it by business type and instead by how many people are actually going to frequent the business.  Mr. Roberts responded that in theory, yes, but in practice it is difficult because zoning works in broad strokes, so it deals with the bigger picture issues of what kinds of uses are allowed.  He said that if we were trying to get more specific about the number of people who were frequenting an establishment rather than the size of the establishment, it is difficult to make those determinations while in the process of permitting a use or granting a Certificate of Occupancy for that use.  He said that it is difficult when there are performance standards that determine whether a particular use is allowed or not.  He said that it is hard to regulate because this information is not known in advance.   


As it relates to commercial activity on residential lots, Councillor Siddiqui said that she thinks about home-based businesses and the reality that there are small businesses operating from homes which is not delineated in the City’s zoning.  She said that web based or tech companies or even

small scale yoga studios play an important role in the local economy and perhaps they could be added to the zoning. Mr. Roberts said that the Zoning Ordinance does have provisions for customary home occupations.  He said that a home office of a doctor or professional is allowed in the Zoning Ordinance.  Councillor Siddiqui stated that this does not count as the full range or breadth.  Mr. Roberts said that they could provide information about the current rules for home occupations and look into amending these requirements. 


Councillor Mallon said that in the 2015 classification of land uses study she did not see anything on the issue of live entertainment and allowing live entertainment or commercial recreation through licensing instead of zoning to allow for a greater provision of cultural activities and entertainment.  She asked if this is something that CDD is thinking about.  Mr. Roberts said that this question relates to #5 on the list where they talk about entertainment uses.  He said that entertainment uses are among the uses that tend to be more heavily restricted in the Zoning Ordinance.  He said that you could look at it as an issue of how to define and classify those uses but fundamentally it is a question of how strictly the City wants to regulate them.  He said that is a policy question for the City Council.  He noted that there may be some areas where the City could further clarify or add nuance to the definitions of those kind of uses.  He said that if there are other areas where there can be an allowance for more temporary entertainment or entertainment that is not at the same kind of intensity as a nightclub, CDD can think about ways to create those definitions.  Councillor Mallon said that she and Vice Mayor Devereux have been talking about acoustic music and how that is licensed.  She said that CDD did a great job in covering major points in the 2015 study, but she is curious around timeline and when this will come to fruition.  She said that it would be great to fast track this work.  Councillor Siddiqui added that the study discussed approaches about how to implement a timeline.  Mr. Roberts said the study talked about a targeted approach to say what are some specific improvements that could be implemented and that would not require a more comprehensive change to the Zoning Code which would take a lot longer.  In terms of timelines, CDD has a set of zoning projects that they are working on including updates to the green building requirements, affordable housing in response to previous Policy Orders and retail land use in addition to the ongoing process of looking at climate change resilience and zoning standards to address the work that has been done so far.  He said that in addition, they have four zoning petitions that are under consideration including accessory apartments, Alexandria Grand Junction Overlay proposal, as well as two newer zoning petitions that are under review.  He said that it is a busy year and between the amount of items and the complication of working on projects like this that is not a perfectly linear process, it requires much more thinking through complicated issues.  He said that some of these might have easy solutions that can be identified but some are more complicated and require more thought as to how to address them from a zoning and legal standpoint.  He said that it is difficult to set a specific timeline, but this is among the projects that they are actively working on this year.  He said that it is his hope that CDD will have something that will come before the City Council in the middle of the year.  He said that it is difficult to give a definite timeline. 


Councillor Siddiqui said that it seems like a capacity issue.  She noted that it is clear that this work has been a goal of the City Council for many years.  She said that the worry is that many of the businesses have been waiting and there are lost opportunities.  She said that this is a top priority and we must talk to the City Manager about more capacity as it has been four years since the study.


Councillor Carlone questioned if there are reports or summaries on the outreach to the business associations and the feedback that has been received.  Ms. Saffari said that the summaries are the bullet points in today’s presentation, but they can make the summary available on line.  Councillor Carlone said that it would be interesting to see how each district differs and what the priorities are.  He asked if it would be helpful to have neighborhood surveys to find out what the neighborhood needs as a use.  Ms. Saffari responded that the commercial district assessment does provide that information.  She said that intercept studies have been conducted for all the major districts and that information is posted on line.  She said that with the district assessments, they are combining data with additional data to provide a more robust picture of the districts. 


Councillor Carlone said that on the specific issues heard they relate to neighborhood objection with some uses with noise, traffic, and parking he would add the word exhaust such as wood fire, and smoke which has impacted people in his neighborhood for a while.  He said that the barbeque restaurant at One Kendall Square works because houses are far away from that location.  He said that it is excellent to relax some requirements.  He asked if criteria will be listed as general criteria would be helpful for the Planning Board and the Board of Zoning Appeals.  Mr. Roberts explained the difference between Special Permits and variances.  He said that the process is similar but one thing that does not change between the two is the timing.  He said that in terms of the outcomes, a variance is generally assumed to not be granted unless there is a compelling reason specific to that site that justifies granting it.  He said that a Special Permit is like the opposite, it is assumed that it would be granted unless there is a compelling reason specific to that site why it would not be granted.  He said that a Special Permit does rely on having the zoning requirements be clear but also having some criteria in place stating the instances under which the Board that is granting the Special Permit might consider not granting it.  These could include issues of nuisance and noise. There are currently general Special Permit criteria.  He said that Special Permits are subject to a set of general criteria that essentially says that Special Permits will normally be granted unless there is a factor specific to the site why it should not be granted.  Councillor Carlone said that he would like to see more proactive reactions that are being discussed. 


Councillor Zondervan said that he believes that the City should be as least restrictive as possible.  He urged CDD to help him understand how to do that and if it could be restructured to be more about the size of the business as opposed to the type of the business.  As it relates to parking, he said that his preference is that the City eliminate all car storage requirements.  He asked what kind of current parking requirements could be eliminated without expecting major negative consequences.  Mr. Roberts responded that the #1 BZA request for new businesses is a Special Permit to waive parking.  He said that what ends up happening from a practical point of view is that we don’t want people tearing away parts of buildings to add off-street parking spaces.  He said that in many of those cases, it is not practical to provide the parking spaces that are required.  He said that it is difficult for the City to say that we don’t want you to make significant alterations to a building to provide parking, but we will create a disincentive by making you have to go to the BZA.  He said that the BZA tends to grant those Special Permits for exactly that reason.  He said that any instance where you are creating a new business in an existing space where it would be impractical to create new parking, it makes a lot of sense not to require it.  He said that other situations would need to be thought about more carefully.  He said that if you are building a new building that has retail uses in it, is that a situation where you would or would not want to waive parking.  He said that it might depend on the characteristics of the use.  He said that this would be a situation where there would be a lot more questions to answer.  He said that where there is an existing building and where the general planning objectives would not encourage the creation of new parking spaces because it would be damaging to the existing built environment.  Councillor Zondervan asked how quickly this could be changed.  Mr. Roberts said that it would not be that difficult, but they must figure out the right approach and any unintended consequences.  He noted that it will still take time for the technical aspect. 


Adriane Musgrave said that Cambridge Local First appreciates this work.  She said that local business owners work hard to get up and running and there are significant roadblocks although there have been good partnerships.  She said that Cambridge is leading the way and there are not a lot of cities who are trying to wrangle with 50-year old zoning.  She said that she is pleased that home-based businesses were discussed.  She said that this will create a lot of opportunities for local entrepreneurs.  She said that they are happy to learn about the temporary use zoning given that it is a way for people to dabble in entrepreneurship.  She said that one of the other impediments around zoning is the advising that a local business owner would receive.  She would like to see the change of the advising that is given to local business owners to give detailed information about the process moving forward.  She said that another impediment around zoning is that given the changing nature of retail in particular, she would like to hear the thoughts around non-retail use for ground floor spaces.  Mr. Roberts said that part of the goal of this effort is to address the issue of making it clear to businesses from the start of the process what category they fall into and the permitting process from a zoning standpoint moving forward.  He said that fundamentally, when someone proposes something it must be looked at in terms of what is in the Zoning Ordinance.  He said that it makes sense if there is a change that helps to resolve some of the ambiguity of how retail uses are defined.  He said that there may be some information that gets provided that will help to provide more advice and explanation to go along with the text of the ordinance itself.  Councillor Mallon said that updating the zoning will make a huge difference but up until the time that this happens, offering advice earlier in the process would help business owners understand and feel confident that they are going through a process they can handle.  She said that moving the advice to earlier in the process would help a lot during the interim phase.  Ms. Hemmerle said that small businesses can reach out to the EDD division for assistance in the process.  She noted that EDD can offer a variety of technical assistance.  She noted that Ms. Saffari will work with City departments to smooth out the process which is part of the catharsis of the land use table.  As it relates to non-retail uses on the ground floor, Ms. Hemmerle said that the City is not a big fan of having non-retail uses at ground level unless it is an active use.  She said that banks and daycares are not the most active uses, however, they need to be at street level.  She said that the good news for Cambridge is that there is a lot of pressure for retail in general that we are not seeing as many non-retail uses on the ground floor. She said that this is part of the vacant storefront discussion as well.   


Councillor Siddiqui asked if the online permitting has been updated.  Ms. Saffari responded in the affirmative. 


Jason Alves said that zoning in the Table of Uses is one level of authority that can say who goes into what space.  He asked what are the other departments that chime in once the uses are allowed and what kind of regulatory role can they play.  He said that on Cambridge Street, someone got a license for live entertainment but then the License Commission was able to dictate what that meant for them.  He said once some of the uses are allowed, are there other departments that can have a say over/manage what happens.  He asked if there is there any way to look at relaxing regulations in C-1.  Mr. Roberts said that the License Commission has jurisdiction over licensing, noting that this is a separate process.  He said that by making things more permissive in zoning, it means that more businesses can make it to the licensing step, but it does not control what kinds of limitations the License Commission might put on it.  Mr. Roberts said that in terms of other codes that are applicable at the state level, all of those would continue to apply as they are not superseded by zoning.  Mr. Roberts said that CDD has spent time looking at the flexibility of what is allowable in certain districts.  He said that in the past, he has heard a lot of pushback to that idea because neighborhoods have not embraced this idea.  He explained that people feel that the variance process affords the neighborhood a level of control to prevent undesirable circumstances.  He said that it does continue to be a topic of discussion. 


Jason Aves said that one of the recommendations is exempting new parking requirements for any new retail use up to 10,000 square feet in an existing building, changing it from the small business exemption of up to four spaces.  He said that 10,000 seems high.  He said that if this goes from a small business exemption, how does it determine what a small business is versus jumping to a 10,000 square foot business.  He asked who this relief ends up benefitting.  Mr. Roberts said that this is one of the difficulties about this study.  He said that the reality is that depending on the type of business, the size range can vary quite a bit.  He said that with 10,000 square feet, it is a bit of an arbitrary number but for uses that are less than 10,000 square feet, it would include very small businesses but many also include restaurants.  He said that a supermarket or a big box store will be much larger than 10,000 square feet.  Ms. Saffari said when they were researching different types of craft manufacturing and other larger users, they were at 10,000 square feet or less.  Mr. Alves asked what would be a small business that would be able to qualify to get the small business exemption.  Mr. Roberts said that the exemption applies to any non-residential use that requires 4 parking spaces or less.   


David Maher stated that Nancy Donohue, Governments Affairs, Chamber of Commerce, and he just met with the Retailers Association of Massachusetts who represents 4,000 retailers statewide.  He said that that Cambridge is not the only community struggling with these issues.  He said that it is a country-wide issue.  He said that they heard that the biggest impediment to new retailers opening in communities are the regulations.  He said that finding ways to ease the regulations will help new retailers.  He said that when people come and look for advice, they don’t know where to begin.  He said that the first response to a new business owner should not be to go get a lawyer.  He said the need to go back and look at parking regulations and things beyond the license process to open a business. 


Councillor Siddiqui opened the hearing to Public Comment at 1:22 p.m.


Ruth Ryals said that there are two concerns in the Porter Square area.  She said that the neighbors have one set of concerns when a business wants something on Massachusetts Avenue and the other is the businesses, or lack thereof, and empty storefronts on Massachusetts Avenue.  She said that one concern is addressing the Table of Uses.  She said that they would like to see the possibility of things such as commercial kitchens.  She would like to see the provision for meeting space in some of the larger storefronts.  She said that if acoustic music is allowed, she does not see the reason for not allowing 4 or 5 musicians.  She said that this is about the noise level.  She talked about a previous wood fire issue that was experienced by the neighborhood.  She said that someone could have looked at the idea that this might not be the best location for such a restaurant.  


Public comment closed at 1:25 p.m.


Ms. Hemmerle gave an update on the vacant storefront design contest.  She said that they received over 430 submissions from as far away as California.  She said that the youngest applicant was 4-years old and the oldest applicant was 90 years old.  She said that the internal panel will meet to discuss the submissions and they will also a People’s Choice Survey so that people can vote online or at 344 Broadway.   


Pardis said that the EDD used a GIS storymap to provide a vacant storefront database.  She said that it is currently available to the public and will be on CDD’s website.  She explained that this is a visual guide to go with the paper version that will be updated on a quarterly basis.  Ms. Hemmerle gave a summary of ground floor retail vacancies.  Councillor Siddiqui noted the importance of easily obtaining information about site specific causes and district level causes for vacancies.  Ms. Hemmerle explained that most of the information is available on the vacant storefront database.  She noted that she will send the breakout to Councillor Siddiqui.


Mayor McGovern noted that it would be beneficial to include a way for people to see the breakout as well.  He talked about the 2+ year vacancies and said that for some owners of a space, you will not get their attention until you hit them in the pocketbook.  Councillor Siddiqui said that she agrees with Mayor McGovern.  She said that in September, the consensus was that many are in favor of looking at these institutional investors that are leaving their storefront vacant.  She said that this is a capacity issue.  Lisa Hemmerle noted the importance of City Council guidance on some of the policy issues.  Councillor Siddiqui noted she would be scheduling a future hearing on the topic.


Councillor Mallon said that when she thinks about assessing levies or fines on vacant property owners, it is important to make a distinction between institutional investors versus a mom and pop shop.  She said that Washington, D.C. has a good program as it relates to vacant storefronts and delineation of ownership.  As it relates to the GIS mapping, Councillor Mallon asked if the website offered district and zoning information which would be very beneficial.  She said that knowledge is power in terms of starting off on the right foot.  Ms. Saffari said that the zoning district could be added.  Councillor Mallon said that it would be helpful to have a system similar to


Councillor Carlone asserted that he is in favor of fines.  He said that frontage should be the guide.  He said that he went to the vacant storefront initiative website and he was not able to find the map.  Councillor Zondervan asked if the database is downloadable.  Ms. Saffari responded that it is a PDF.  Councillor Zondervan commented that it would be ideal if this information was in spreadsheet format.


Ruth Ryals said that there is a period of time when someone buys a commercial property and the lease has run out and tenants are made to leave.  She said that Wok and Roll is a good example.  She said that when there is a change in ownership, the City should be able to help negotiate that an existing business can stay in that location or help to find another place that the business could relocate.  She noted that there is a role for the City to help keep businesses in the neighborhood.


Councillor Siddiqui asked about Small Business Week in May.  She said that she has been thinking about legacy businesses and celebrating those businesses.  She said that she would love to see the schedule and to think about ways to honor the legacy businesses in the city.  Pardis Saffari gave an overview of National Small Business Week events such as permitting assistance, panels, open houses in Huron Village and pedestrian walks to encourage people to get to know their business owners. 


Adriane Musgrave said Cambridge Local First cares about legacy businesses and they have talked about ways to celebrate these businesses.  She said that Ms. Saffari has a great list.


Councillor Siddiqui thanked all those present for their attendance.


The hearing adjourned at 1:58 p.m.





                                                                      For the Committee,





                                                                      Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, Chair

                                                                      Economic Development and University Relations




Meeting History

Mar 18, 2019 5:30 PM Video City Council Regular Meeting
draft Draft