Cambridge City

Committee Report
CRT 2017 #22
May 8, 2017 5:30 PM

A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Councillor Leland Cheung, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on April 19, 2017 to discuss a zoning petition by the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge by creating a new Section 11.900 Maintenance and Security of Vacant or Abandoned Buildings. The proposed zoning would require that any building that is deemed to be vacant or abandoned for longer than 90 days shall be registered with the Inspectional Services Department, shall be secured and maintained so that it does not exhibit any evidence of vacancy, and shall pay an annual registration fee.


Department:City Clerk's OfficeSponsors:
Category:Ordinance Committee


  1. Printout
  2. Cambridge Residents Alliance




Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Co-Chair

Councillor Leland Cheung, Co-Chair

Councillor Jan Devereux

Councillor Craig Kelley

Councillor David P. Maher

Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen

Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern

Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr.

Mayor E. Denise Simmons



The Ordinance Committee, comprised of the entire membership of the City Council, held a public hearing on Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at 3:33 the Sullivan Chamber.

The purpose of the hearing was to discuss a zoning petition by the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge by creating a new Section 11.900 Maintenance and Security of Vacant or Abandoned Buildings.  The proposed zoning would require that any building that is deemed to be vacant or abandoned for longer than 90 days shall be registered with the Inspectional Services Department, shall be secured and maintained so that it does not exhibit any evidence of vacancy, and shall pay an annual registration fee.

Present at the hearing were Councillor Carlone Co-Chair of the Committee, Councillor Devereux, Vice Mayor McGovern, Councillor Mazen, Iram Farooq, Assistant City Manager for Community Development Department, Jeff Roberts, Senior Manager for Zoning and Development, CDD, Lisa Hemmerle, Director, Economic Development, CDD, Ranjit Singanayagam, Commissioner, Inspectional Services Department, Nancy Glowa, City Solicitor and Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk.


Also present were Nancy Ryan, 4 Ashburton Place, McMillan I.G., 221A Walnut Avenue, Suzanne Blier, 5 Fuller Place and Lee Farris, 269 Norfolk Street.


Councillor Carlone convened the hearing and stated the purpose.  He stated that the hearing is being audio and video recorded.  He outlined the format of the hearing.  The petitioners will be heard first, staff, City Council questions of petitioner or staff and public comment.  At the conclusion of the hearing a recommendation will be made by the committee.


Vice Mayor McGovern, petitioner, presented an overview of the petition.  He stated that concerns from the community have been received about buildings in family dispute, commercial buildings purchased that remain vacant, and land is being land banked so that their value goes up.  Leaving these buildings vacant are not good for the community.  This petition is an attempt to try to address this issue.  It deals with the length of time that buildings can be vacant and fines/penalties for violations and the condition of the buildings.  He spoke about buildings in deplorable condition, the safety issues and the negative impact on the community.  This is an effort to have property owners who are leaving properties vacant to do something with their property and while vacant the buildings need to be maintained so as to not be a blight on the community.  He met with City staff on this petition.  The City agreed that this is an important issue but did have concerns with the ordinance as drafted and its enforcement.  The staff requested time to redraft the proposed ordinance and ways to better enforce the ordinance.  He stated that it is his intention to leave this matter in committee while the staff has a chance to redraft the petition.


Ms. Farooq stated that the staff agreed with the intention and the goals of the zoning petition but City departments have some concerns with the recommendations.  She stated that staff wanted time to think through this and refine the text and come back to the Ordinance Committee with recommendations.  She questioned whether zoning was the right tool to achieve this end or whether a combination of municipal and zoning may be the right way to go.  She noted the implication of having any ordinance provision that applies to all and how it would impact larger versus smaller properties or business owners.  She stated that there could be a disproportionate effect to property owners, which is contrary to what the City Council is hoping to achieve.  So there may need to be cutoffs or whether there is a way to have a more voluntary cutting off point, such as a registry to have enforcement more targeted.  She stated that the staff wanted to explore the nuances.


Mr. Roberts spoke on the zoning issues.  He stated that the petition raises interesting points worthy of discussion.  He stated that this has to do mainly with maintenance of property rather than the use and development of land, which is outside the typical realm of zoning.  He explained that zoning tools are more effective when land is being developed, where use is being changed rather than the condition of the property or how the property is being occupied.  There are other mechanism that should be explored to accomplish the intent of the petition.   


Lisa Hemmerle stated that she did research on other communities that have this type of regulations or ordinances.  She explained that San Francisco and Chicago, Illinois have both commercial and storefront regulations.  She noted that Arlington enacted a vacant storefront regulation, but it is a registry and there is a fine if not registered within ninety days.  Her concern is land banking and these structures may be absorbed into their Profit & Loss to offset profits in other communities.  Smaller property owners may have to triple rents to offset the costs which is what the City does not want to see.  Phone stores may be installed to avoid the fines.  She stated that some communities work with organizations such as No Longer Empty to help to activate the spaces.  She stated that there are real opportunities to work those type of uses into the vacant spaces, with art and working with the institutions with pop-ups to allow the students to present their neat inventions.  She suggested doing more research.


City Solicitor Glowa also spoke about whether zoning is the appropriate tool.  She stated that the City does not have the authority to impose fees that are not reasonable related to the services provided.  She noted that the fees could present legal problems but that fines could be imposed.  She wanted to do more research and figure out the best structural approaches to do and to do legal research.


Commissioner Singanayagam stated that his department gets calls on abandoned buildings and they make sure that the space is safe and secure.  His department does not get calls on commercial spaces.  He spoke about the difference between an abandoned buildings and vacant property.  He stated that usually abandoned properties receive complaints but his department gets no calls on vacant properties.


Councillor Mazen stated that it did not occur to him that large property owners may take a fine as a pass through.  He stated that vacant properties will move forward if City staff consistently contacts the policy makers.  He stated that the owners on the City Hall side of Prospect Street had no idea that as owners this has been going on for a long time.  He noted that he does not know who owns the Walgreen’s block. He encouraged the City to be persistent.  These property owners do not feel that they have felt the heat from the City.  He stated that the City needed to do something more dynamic and then follow though.


Councillor Devereux requested clarification about the statement that it may be better to be a municipal ordinance rather than a zoning ordinance - does this relate to the fine or the ability to fine?  City Solicitor Glowa stated that Chapter 40A regulates zoning ordinance.  She stated that while some of the aspects of this ordinance may be addressed through zoning there are other aspects that are not appropriate for zoning.  The City could adopt a municipal ordinance which could govern other aspects such as ownership or registration component.  She explained that the fee is a different issue.  She stated that there are restrictions on the fees that can be imposed by the municipality and there are other provisions for fines that can be imposed.  The City must stay within these legal parameters. 


Councillor Devereux asked where the 4.17 percent of assessed value come from?  Vice Mayor McGovern stated that in two years they would be paying fines based on the assessed value of the property. 


Public comment opened at 3:55 PM on motion of Councillor Carlone.


Nancy Ryan, 4 Ashburton Place, spoke for the Cambridge Residents Alliance, supporting the City Council discussing this issue.  She stated that her personal experience living off of Essex Street that there have been two of the properties, Carberry and Cambridge College School of Education that have been vacant for a long time.  These vacant properties, which back up to the yards of residences and other properties, had rubbish and rats.  She spoke to the real estate representative of Matt Carberry and there was no movement; he had his own notion of what he wanted to do with his property.  She stated that she is pleased that the City is taking whatever is the appropriate way to deal with large landowners who are land banking and are brought to task in a meaningful way possibly including fines.  She wanted the public to recognize that large property owners are doing the City a disservice when property is left vacant.  She added that the community, residents and other commercial neighbors have a right for a respectable area whether a residential neighborhood or commercial area.  She spoke about all the technicalities of this proposal it is hoped that this is taken to the highest degree to make it possible to bring accountability.  She stated that the value of the land in Cambridge is so high monetarily that people can afford to hold, flip or just let it sit.  This is not in the interest of the municipality to have this going on.  She submitted her comments (ATTACHMENT A).


Suzanne Blier, 5 Fuller Place, stated that this is a huge problem.  She spoke about texture and difference.  She stated that Harvard Square is unique from a commercial vantage point because it is mostly investor/real estate-company owned.  She actively tried to find out who owned property in Harvard Square.  She stated that there is an upcoming Harvard Square Conservation District working group and she felt that the City will want a commercial member on the group.  She highlighted the property owners in Harvard Square and stated that the other entities in Harvard Square are leasing their space.  She noted that American Apparel is going for $40,000 and Sweets is going for $300 a square foot.  She stated that this is a major problem for Harvard Square. 


Ms. Blier stated that she hoped that Harvard Square would be looked at differently from other areas because there are different factors in play.  She stated that bring in art or adding projects from schools really does nothing to help the square.  She suggested leases for local businesses for a certain period of time if the space was vacant and not maintained.   This should be done in addition to the fines.  She stated that planning is critical and Harvard Square was left out the Envision process.  The grocery store at Church and Brattle Streets is insufficient.  She noted that many feel that having a theatre in Harvard Square is critical to the vitality of the square moving forward.  She spoke about what are the real needs for Harvard Square and to come up with actions that will benefit all.


Lee Farris, 269 Norfolk Street, stated the idea behind the proposal is great.  She likes the registry portion because is low tech and low intrusion and would provide the City with a way to track what is going on and a list to work off of and an easy metric.  She suggested separating the parts of the ordinance and starting the registry sooner rather than later.  She suggested separating the different uses: residential; commercial buildings and store fronts.  She is concerned about vacant residential buildings.  She stated that Vail Court is not the only vacant residential building; it is the most egregious.  She stated that there are several buildings in North Cambridge that have been vacant for more than two years.  She acknowledged that vacant storefronts are an entirely different issue than vacant residential buildings.  The commercial buildings vacant on Prospect Street have debris in the parking lots.  She commented that if there was a registry the Inspectional Services could do monthly inspections of entirely vacant buildings there might be a better outcome.


Public comment ended at 4:08 PM on a motion by Councillor Carlone.


Vice Mayor McGovern stated that more work needs to be done but this deserves attention.  He spoke about the commercial buildings on Essex Street and in Harvard Square and in the neighborhoods.  He noted that this is happening all over the City.  He questioned how the City knows when a property owner is actively trying to do something with their property.  The City must take a more aggressive stand on this.  He added that more property is being consolidated by fewer people.  Now investors are purchasing property in Central Square.  He explained that the property owners were asked nicely to clean Vail Court and then when $300,000 in fines were issued the property was cleaned.  So sometimes long-term violators need to be hit in the pocket book.  He wanted to move on this in a timely manner.


Councillor Devereux stated that she supported the intent but wanted more research.  She wanted to see the inventory of these buildings as well as more case studies on buildings such as the Tokyo which is a building that is not secured or maintained and is vacant because the property was overpaid for and the property owner cannot do anything with it.  This property should be repurposed.  She stated that there is a vacant residential property owned by MIT.  If this property were put back on the tax roll it may provide movement.  She spoke about property on Garden Street that is for sale at an unrealistic price and is falling apart.  She spoke about the need for an exception when a property is part of an estate that has not been resolved.  There needs to be provisions for property being sold.  She questioned what would be done for a vacant condo unit in a 100 unit building.  This is not a blight but an underutilized asset.  She asked would this ordinance be applied to this situation.  This has a social impact as it relates to housing.  She supported the pop up program.  She spoke about public/private partnership in New York that match vacant property with small business.


Councillor Carlone stated he fully supported the intent of the petition. He spoke about when a poorly maintained property drags down adjacent neighboring properties, there should be a tax premium on that abandoned property to compensate for the negative impacts.  He asked at what point does a building owner lose the rights of an occupancy permit and what requirement were necessary to regain the occupancy? He spoke about the penalty being a social fine.  He stated that if a property is not rented there is no income and one way of evaluating the property is looking at that lack income in the property’s evaluation for eminent domain. 


Carlone spoke about Arnold Circle where the neighbors have complained for years about the property being vacant.  If a property is vacant for a multi-year period of time the City should seriously consider taking it by eminent domain.  He supported fines but there should be other ramifications. There should be stages similar to a new building.  He spoke about a retail plan for Harvard Square, Central Square and Cambridge Street.  He stated that Inman Square is suffering.  He asked the City to push this because this affects all the squares and neighbors.  He asked if anything could be done on an occupancy permit after a certain period of time. 


Mr. Singanayagam stated that the building code only requires that an occupancy permit be issued once; unless there is major renovation. Councillor Carlone asked could the City require an occupancy permit if a property is vacant for a period of time.  Mr. Singanayagam stated that this could be done through zoning or municipal ordinance. 


Vice Mayor McGovern spoke about taking property and that the proposal does have language on this.  He stated that the City wants to work with the property owners, but the welfare of the entire city is the primary focus.  He spoke about the problem of buying property, leaving it vacant and not renting and then flipping it.


Councillor Carlone stated that he would provide a list of the issues raised for the City departments to look into.  He stated that this issue will most likely get worse before it gets better


Councillor Carlone made the following motion:


ORDERED:              That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to review and to report back on the following issues:

·         could a tax premium be placed on abandoned properties to compensate for their negative impacts on adjoining property values;

·         could the city evaluate abandoned property value in part by their lack of income for eminent domain;

·         if a property is vacant for a multi-year period of time could the City seriously consider taking it by eminent domain; and

·         could the City require a re-occupancy permit if a property is vacant for a period of time.


The motion carried on a voice vote.


Councillor Carlone moved that this matter remain in committee.  The motion carried on a voice vote.


Councillor Carlone thanked all those present for their attendance.             


The hearing adjourned at 4:27 PM.                                                                     


For the Committee,

Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, Co-Chair

Councillor Leland Cheung, Co-Chair

Ordinance Committee



Meeting History

May 8, 2017 5:30 PM Video City Council Regular Meeting
draft Draft