Thursday, March 31, 2016

Boston City Council Looks At Urban Renewal, Speed Limits, Community Preservation & More

City Council President Michelle Wu publishes notes from Boston City Council meetings. The Boston City Council considered these items and more at their March 23d and March 30th meetings:

Urban Renewal: The Council voted to pass an order granting the Boston Redevelopment Authority 6 years of continued urban renewal authority over 14 districts. The order commits the BRA to an Action Plan (including reviewing the boundaries of districts, especially the South End and Charlestown), proactive notifications for Council feedback on minor modifications and proposed eminent domain actions, meetings with the City Council every six months, and an annual report of urban renewal activity. Read the entire report here: http://meetingrecords.cityofboston.gov/sirepub/agdocs.aspx?doctype=agenda&itemid=19117
Councillor Wu felt that 5 years is a sufficient amount of time for completing the inventory of Loan Disposition Agreements that govern affordable housing protections, getting feedback from affected communities, applying it all to update the Urban Renewal area boundaries and blight definitions, then coming back to the Council for a real extension request. However, there was opposition to a 5-year timeline because that would land the expiration in an election year and potentially politicize the issue. In weighing whether to allow an additional year,  Councillor Wu asked the BRA to commit to some larger reforms beyond the UR conversation. Namely, Councillor Wu asked for full budget transparency (historically the BRA operations budget has been left out of City budget materials, and the only publicly available documents are top-level summaries recently posted to the BRA website) and changes to the Article 80 process. After meeting with the new CFO of the BRA, Councillor Wu was comfortable with their commitment to financial transparency--presenting revenue sources, operations spending, capital projects, and staffing details at this year's Council budget hearings--and to seriously explore Article 80 reforms with the Council. Most importantly, the BRA agreed to come before the Council every 6 months, which Wu believes is frequent enough for the Council to monitor the status of the inventory and redrawing boundaries, and it will also allow us to ensure participation and feedback from residents in affected areas. 
Councilor Jackson stated that he would be voting No because the BRA should not be given an extension when their organizational audits have revealed so many issues, and many residents oppose urban renewal. The order passed 10-3 (Councilors Jackson, Pressley & Zakim voting against). The next steps are for the Mayor to sign the order, the BRA Board to take it up at their next meeting (April 14), and then the State Dept of Housing & Community Development to approve the request.

Parking Fines & Towing: The Council voted to pass Mayor Walsh’s ordinance to extend the parking pilot that increased fines but eliminated towing in Charlestown. The ordinance gives authority to the Transportation Commissioner to designate zones where fines for not moving a car during posted street cleaning times increases from $40 to $90 but towing is eliminated. The pilot program ended with a sunset clause on November 30, 2015, and Councilor LaMattina noted that there was strong support for continuing the program in Charlestown. Councilor Linehan stated that because the City does not tow for parking violations around a, towing for street cleaning is punitive. The revised language specifically restricts the program to Charlestown, with a public process including Council hearings before any expansion might happen.

IndyCar: Councilor Linehan called for a hearing on the Grand Prix of Boston, proposed for Labor Day weekend 2016. He stated that it was important for the Council to give residents a voice in the process and examine the impacts on the neighborhood. The item was referred to the Committee on Arts, Culture & Special Events for a hearing. Note: Hearing is scheduled for April 5th at 3pm, Iannella Chamber City Hall.

Charter Reform: Councilors Flaherty and Baker reported on two home rule petitions sponsored by Councilor Baker that would amend the City Charter, pending approval from the State Legislature:
Choose your office: This would change it so that a candidate may only seek the nomination for one municipal office at a time, rather than being able to run simultaneously for both Council and Mayor. The sponsors noted that this would be out of respect for constituents and to save money from potential special elections that might result.
Council terms: This would extend the term of office for City Councilors from two to four years. Councilor Baker noted that not only would this be a cost saving measure to the city (a citywide election costs roughly $800,000), but it would also align Council elections with Mayoral ones when there is increased turnout. Councilor Baker noted that he gets involved with development projects in his District that take two years from conception to groundbreaking, and having a four year term would create more stability for monitoring these major changes to the district.
Both home rule petitions remain in committee for further action.

Community Preservation Act: Councilors Campbell and Flaherty reported back on yesterday’s hearing to discuss adding the Community Preservation Act (CPA) to the November 2016 ballot as a binding referendum at a 1% surcharge and with exemptions on the first $100,000 in assessed value for residents and businesses, as well as for low-income homeowners (a family of four making below $78,800) and low-moderate-income seniros (60+ years old making less than $68,950 for 1 person or below $78,800 for a 2-person household). The CPA created a statewide fund that Boston already pays into; opting-in with the 1% surcharge would make Boston eligible to receive matching funds from the statewide fund, and Boston could also put existing linkage and Inclusionary Development funds into the pot for a greater match. The revenues from CPA (both collected directly from the surcharge and from the match) would be earmarked for affordable housing, open space and recreation, and historic preservation. At the hearing, advocates estimated that this would generate $20M annually for the City. Councilor Linehan stated that he would be voting against putting this on the ballot, as he believes the City budget already relies too heavily on property owners for revenue and does not believe we should add to the burden, especially after recent property value assessments resulted in huge tax increases across the city. The matter will remain in committee for further discussion.

Speed Limits: Councilor Baker filed a home rule petition to lower the default speed limit in Boston. Currently, state law mandates that the speed limit for unposted streets in thickly settled areas is 30mph, and signs can be posted with a different speed limit if supported by a traffic engineering study. However, 30mph is very fast and poses a safety risk for Boston’s densely settled residential streets; plus it is cost prohibitive to conduct traffic engineering studies for every street. The petition would lower unposted speed limits on thickly settled ways and business districts to 20mph and to 15mph in school zones. Councilor Baker noted that this would complement the Mayor’s push for VisionZero and Complete Streets. The matter was referred to the Committee on Government Operations for a hearing.

Substance Use Disorder: Councilors Essaibi-George, Linehan & McCarthy filed a hearing order to discuss supporting and fostering partnerships with substance use disorder service providers. Alcohol and drug use disorder impacts countless Boston families, and the Council is in a unique position to convene service partners and city departments, especially the newly formed Office of Recovery Services. The matter was sent to the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health, and Recovery for a hearing.

BPS Water Fountains: Councilors Essaibi-George, Campbell & Pressley called for a hearing on the use of water fountains at BPS schools. The sponsors and several other Councilors pointed out that many schools use water bottles because the water from water fountains has either tested above safe lead levels or has not been tested in a while. With older school buildings, even though Boston’s water quality is among the best in the nation, the water can become contaminated as it travels through older pipes and comes out of the water fountains. In addition to the alarming and irreversible safety hazard of lead exposure for young children, abandoning plastic water bottles for safe, quality tap water has environmental, economic, and health benefits. Councilor Jackson also pointed out that many schools must have a separate water budget to purchase these bottles, and he connected these issues to the larger problem of underfunded schools. Councilor Essaibi-George stated that not only should water fountain water be tested, but water in the bathrooms as well. Councilors Campbell and Pressley emphasized that this is a social justice issue and dovetails with Councilor Pressley’s efforts on school food. The matter was sent to the Education Committee for a hearing.

Upcoming Hearings/Working Sessions (Watch at www.cityofboston.com/citycouncil/live.asp
Thursday, 3/31 at 11AM, Confirmation for Craig Galvin as Zoning Board of Appeal member (Planning & Development)
Monday, 4/4 at 6PM, Connolly Branch Library in JP: Hearing on Renaming Hyde-Jackson SquareBoston’s Latin Quarter” (Arts, Culture & Special Events)
Tuesday, 4/5 at 3PM, IndyCar (Arts, Culture & Special Events)
Thursday, 4/21 at 11:30AM, Sister Cities Program (Arts, Culture & Special Events)


For complete notes on this meeting and prior Boston City Council meeting notes, visit MichelleForBoston.com or sign up to receive these notes
automatically each week by email. 

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