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Paul F. Toner is a lifelong resident of Cambridge, an educator, and a political advocate who is running for Cambridge City Council for the first time this year. Toner began his career as a social studies teacher and later became president of the Cambridge Teachers Association and Massachusetts Teachers Association. He is currently the Executive Director of Teach Plus Massachusetts. Toner says his campaign prioritizes fostering civil discourse on the City Council, solving housing and transportation issues, and promoting economic growth in Cambridge.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The HARVARD CRIMSON: What do you think are the biggest issues facing the Cambridge City Council today?
PT: Well, issue number one that I want to focus on is bringing back a civil discourse to the Council work. I feel like there’s been an awful lot of infighting, not focusing on the problem, but focusing on personalities, so I think we need to do that. The actual problems that we face are pretty obviously developing more affordable housing, but not just low-income subsidized housing, but housing for the middle class and the working class of Cambridge.
We need to build up more housing stock for all income levels in the city. But I also think Cambridge can only do so much so we have to have regional solutions. So I think we should and can do more in terms of housing issues and transportation issues in Cambridge, like working on the issues of bike lanes and providing alternative transportation through the city of Cambridge, but the real challenge is working with the other cities and towns around us to get them to do their fair share in terms of housing, and also to come up with streamlined ways to get people in and out of Boston.
THC: So you talked about affordable housing. What specifically do you think Cambridge should be doing to promote affordable housing?
PT: Well, I think the city can and should, where it can, buy properties that are undeveloped. Either from private owners or take land through eminent domain if it’s sitting unused. But we can’t do all of it.
I think there has to be many more public-private partnerships. And in addition we need to look at, transportation hubs like Harvard Square and Porter Square and Kendall Square and Central Square, and really build as much housing as we can centrally around those transportation hubs. And we may have to be more flexible with our zoning codes and our rules around those areas. Let them build higher and more densely in those areas.
We should be working with Harvard and MIT, and the other institutions of higher education to get them to build more housing for graduate students, affordable housing for graduate students, because my understanding is that a lot of the graduate housing is more expensive on the campus than it is off campus, so they have to come up with some affordable solutions for these young people.
THC: How do you think Cambridge should respond to President Donald Trump’s policies?
PT: We all know Cambridge tends to be on the more liberal side and I think most Cantabrigians, as well as many Americans, are disappointed in the President’s proclamations and a lot of the decisions he’s made since he’s been in office. Cambridge is taking an “all politics is local” approach and they’re recognizing that we might not be able to change federal policy, but we’re going to do everything we can in Cambridge to protect our current residents to make sure they’re getting the services they need and the protections they need.
THC: So you said you think the City Council has responded appropriately. Can you talk about what that response has looked like?
PT: On environmental issues, there’s only so much we can do at the city and local level, but Cambridge is committing itself to being a greener, more energy-efficient city. On issues like working with our police, to ensure that the police are following appropriate policies without violating the rights of our citizens, these are all areas Cambridge has been strong on for a long time.
THC: How do you think Cambridge should balance the needs for more bike lanes and concerns of citizens who say they take up their parking spaces?
PT: I think we have to have more and better safer bike lanes throughout the city. I was unwilling to commit to the Bicycle Safety Advisory Committee’s pledge that within four years we’ll have 20 miles of protected bike lanes. I want to hear from more people in the city about where they are and where those bike lanes should be and how they should be rolled out and implemented before I commit the city to a specific plan.
THC: How do you think the city should or should not preserve Harvard Square’s historical architecture?
PT: I certainly would not want to make any radical changes to what’s been here for 400 years, or at least 200 years. I do think that not everything is a historically protected piece of architecture. If it means providing some flexibility to folks to provide more housing or to make Harvard Square more viable for our local businesses, then I’m open to providing that flexibility, but anything that's protected under historical preservation I certainly wouldn’t want to tamper with.
THC: How do you think Cambridge should regulate the use and distribution of recreational marijuana?
PT: I have not dug deeply into this issue. I’m still waiting for all the rules and regulations from the state of Massachusetts to roll out. The ballot question last year legalized it, now the question is where in Cambridge, as people apply for licenses, will those vendors be sited. I think there’s going to be pushback from a lot of people. I think there are only certain places in Cambridge that are going to be very welcoming, and we’re going to have to work through that issue with the folks in the different neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods I believe are going to be very opposed to having recreational marijuana vendors in their neighborhoods, and the City Council is going to have to work with the zoning board to work out those details and engage in a very serious discussion with the residents of Cambridge.