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City Council Debates Smoking Ban, Zoning

By Alexandra N. Atiya, Crimson Staff Writer

Tensions flared at last night’s Cambridge City Council meeting as residents raised questions regarding a possible ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and the complicated rezoning of the Riverside neighborhood.

The council wavered on the question of the smoking ban.

Three councillors moved to bring the subject up last night, but were overridden by the other six, who chose to postpone the vote—originally planned for February—until next week’s meeting.

But the smoking ban question may already be moot, as a statewide prohibition of smoking in bars and restaurants passed almost a week ago in the Massachusetts State Senate, and is expected to pass the House within the next year—making it law.

The nine councillors did not make clear their decisions on Riverside, either, deciding to refile the two existing petitions to rezone without passing judgement on either—giving the council an extra six months to decide which, if any, they prefer.

But with city councillor elections coming up in November, many residents said that these votes, if held until later this summer or even into the fall, would come to be deciding factors in their choice of candidates.

“You represent our desires, not our interests,” Elie Yarden, a Cambridgeport activist, told the councillors, adding that they were elected to support what the neighbors—not Universities or lobbyists—wanted.

Attacks on the city’s planning board abounded.

“The planning board is the city manager’s tool,” said Marilyn Wellons, a local resident who is active in protesting many building projects across the city—including current plans for a new Market Street Theater, which formerly occupied the space now held by Upstairs on the Square.

“It is one of the most feared and hated boards in the city,” she added.

City Manager Robert W. Healy, who appoints the seven-member planning board, says that the volunteer group of local developers, architects, and legal experts tries to handle the desires of neighbors. Such desires, he says, are “in earnest but [the board is] not necessarily able to accomplish” them.

The planning board was a key topic of last night’s meeting, with Healy reporting his response to an April 14 council order asking that the board develop a way to be more attentive to residents’ concerns.

“There was not the greatest understanding about how the neighborhood feels about itself and encroachment,” said Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’71. He added that the recent order was “in response to what seems to me to be a kind of breakdown.”

There is no doubt that the Cambridge planning board has often borne the brunt of protests by angered neighbors, who fear University and other building projects in their neighborhoods.

The planning board in particular has come under fire in the conflict over a plot of land alongside Memorial Drive in Riverside. Harvard owns the land, which it currently leases to Mahoney’s Garden Center.

Over the past few years, the University has tried to reclaim the land for varied development projects—a scrapped art museum, and now different incarnations of graduate student housing—to the ire of local residents, who want Harvard to donate the land as a park, or preserve Mahoney’s.

The council did not come to any definitive conclusion about how the planning board should change, aside from the recommendation that they have a better sound system at meetings so that more residents could comfortably attend.

In the words of Councillor Brian Murphy ’86-’87, this would make the meeting seem less like “an NPR talk show program.”

Councillor E. Denise Simmons said that she would like to improve board members’ skills in dealing with a wide variety of people—particularly non-experts on development—but that she needed more time to consider any other steps.

Several councillors did praise Healy’s recent appointment of a Riverside Study Committee member to the planning board, however.

—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at atiya@fas.harvard.edu

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