Sam Seidel

Sam Seidel
2009 Candidate for Cambridge City Council

Home address:
48 Maple Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139
Home phone: 617-547-1067

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PO Box 391633
Cambridge MA 02139

Elected first in 2007, I am the current Vice Mayor of Cambridge, having been chosen by my colleagues for this position midway through this term on the City Council. I chair the Housing Committee, the Ordinance Committee and the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee. I also served at a co-chair on the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Middle School Youth.

My professional background is in urban planning. I have been active in neighborhood groups and was the president of the board of the Margaret Fuller House prior to stepping down earlier this year. I am 43 years old and I live in mid-Cambridge with my wife Ann and our dog Gus.

Top Priorities:
My top priorities in a new Council term if reelected will be these –

1. Follow-up on the work I have done with my School Committee colleague Nancy Tauber on middle school after-school programming. I co-chaired the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Middle School Youth, and I have spent the last year examining the opportunities and challenges to enhancing collaboration between our schools and our after-school programs. Out of this work has come the report Shared Youth, Shared Strategies. I am very proud of the work we’ve done. I want to see it come to fruition over the next two years.

2. Continue the work on Massachusetts Avenue north of Harvard Square. The discussions that began with Lesley University over their proposal to house the Art Institute of Boston in Porter Square have opened up the opportunity to talk in greater depth about that stretch of Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard to Porter Squares. I have begun this work as chair of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning committee this term, and it is work that I want to follow through on in the next term. Lesley’s commitment of half a million dollars to the improvement of Mass. Ave. is a starting point to envision that avenue in the 21st century, but it will take the full involvement of the neighborhoods, of the universities and of the city. As a starting point to the work, I have asked the Community Development Department to conduct a planning study of the avenue itself, a process that will bring stakeholders and interested parties together to talk about the future of this important part of Cambridge.

Quality of Life and Public Safety:
Quality of life is a very important part of what a city councillor attends to. It is very satisfying to be able to help a resident of Cambridge solve a problem that has been bothering them, whether it is dealing with City Hall, figuring out a housing issue, addressing a noise complaint, or taking positive steps against rodents. It goes without saying that maintaining a good quality of life for the citizens of Cambridge is an important goal of mine, and I work hard to help people with the issues they have. To do this, I maintain “office hours” every week, where people can just stop by with a complaint or a problem, and I work with them to solve it. A lot of this issues fall under the responsibility of Inspectional Services, a very important office in city government. During the last budget cycle, I asked them point blank if they felt they were asked to do too much given the staffing resources they had. They responded that they felt that they had adequate staffing to do the work that they were responsible for.

With regard to public safety, I am happy to say that the annual crime report provided by the Cambridge Police Department continues to tell us good news – crime rates in Cambridge are very low, both by historical comparison, and by comparison to other similarly sized cities. For this we should be both proud and grateful to the people who work hard to maintain our safety. Having said that, of course any crime is disturbing and needs addressing, and the perception of safety is an important part of how safe we feel. Disturbances in neighborhoods can really unsettle daily life, and it is important that all the resources we have are deployed to make sure that people are safe and sound in their communities. These resources include the police and other parts of the city government (including Human Services and Parks and Recreation), the elected officials, and the citizens themselves, who often are the strongest force in combating crime by being vigilant and working in conjunction with police and other officials to disrupt bad behaviors impacting their community.

Traffic, Parking, and Transportation:
I support the notion that Cambridge is embarked upon a long-term mission to redefine and reduce the role of the automobile in 21st century American society. We know that it is healthier for us and better for the environment when we get out of our cars and walk, bike or take public transit. What is difficult, and what we need to keep in mind, is that this large goal will happen in small steps, and while any one of those steps might not seem like a lot, together, over time, they will have an impact.

Many of the issues we have as a community surround the issue of parking, and many discussions end up as a battle about whether or not there is enough parking in Cambridge. It is true that fewer resident parking permits are issued today than 20 years ago, meaning quite simply that there are fewer resident-parked cars on the streets, but everyone’s perception runs counter to this. We are in a difficult bind here. To my mind, the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of cars on the streets. Car sharing is a concept with a proven track record – people are willing to forego their car (or at least a second car) to use a shared car. The City Council is now working with neighborhood groups to work out a strategy whereby these shared cars can be near their users – which is important for the business model of shared cars – while at the same time meeting concerns of neighborhoods that worry about the long term impacts of these cars in their neighborhood.

Ultimately we will have to face these difficult choices that pit individual personal convenience against larger goals of environmental sustainability and healthier living, and it will almost certainly be the case that we cannot have everything we want, all right now, all at the same time. Many of these discussions will happen around the issues of cars, traffic, parking and transportation. It is the role of a city councilor to continue to advance this discussion.

Municipal Finance:
I am one of those who believe that our budget is a well constructed document that is conservative in its estimates, and is well managed, and that it provides benefit to us all. I think there is no greater proof of that than this last fiscal year, which saw a continually worsening economic picture across the Commonwealth, and yet the city of Cambridge was able to reach balance without reductions – an amazing accomplishment, especially when compared to other communities in Massachusetts. It needs to be noted that 80 percent of taxpayers will see no increase this year, or an increase of $100 or less.

Government and Elections:
I do not advocate changing the Plan E Charter in Cambridge. I fully recognize that the charter has its faults and its shortcomings, including the institutional power it vests in the city manager over important parts of local governance such as development of the budget, but overall, Plan E has provided a very stable form of government that has produced significant positive results for the city and for the citizens of Cambridge over the past few decades. I should add in this context that I voted to extend the current City Manager’s contract, on the basis that he would be a steady presence during what clearly was going to be a very difficult fiscal year. I believe that the city’s performance over the past year has borne out this decision. And I believe this next fiscal year will also prove to be a challenging time, as state revenues fell short of their September mark, meaning that local aid will be likely be cut again. Regarding staff for Councillors, I hired an aide once I became vice mayor, a staff position that has been part of the vice mayorship for many years. The person works part time, and supports the work that I am doing as vice mayor. I expect my aide to work hard not only for me, but also on behalf of the citizens of Cambridge, and in my estimation, she does that. Her contribution to the work I am doing on after-school programming, on neighborhood planning, on economic development and fairness has been crucial and this work benefits all the citizens of Cambridge.

Land Use, Planning, Zoning, Density:
I am a supporter of density around transit nodes. I find that there is a strong urban rationale for this, as well as a compelling environmental argument for it too. I also feel that it is a delicate balance to create the right transitions between density and then the residential neighborhoods that are crucial to the fabric of this city. Residential neighborhoods do need sufficient buffers from higher density (or intensity) development, and that is the responsibility of the city to make sure good urban design ideas actually create that buffer.

I want to see the full development of North Point, and I want to see the corresponding Lechmere T stop built as an important component of East Cambridge. I have used my post as the chair of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee to look at the corridor along Massachusetts Avenue north of Harvard Square, and this is work that needs follow up. There are many important lessons to be gained from the way that the commercial and residential uses mix and mingle along the avenue, and my intent is to work with the neighbors to find a vision for Mass. Ave. in the future, and to take any “lessons learned” from the experience and apply them elsewhere in the city, including in Central Square, which can use our attention and focus.

Economic Development and Commerce:
There are a couple of points to make here – Cambridge has benefited tremendously from the transition to the information economy over the last two decades. It has allowed Cambridge to use its strategic advantage as the home of the two of the world’s great universities to attract businesses that are highly dependent on university-based research. That growth has had a beneficial impact on the residential tax rate in the city, and given the city a great deal of leeway when it comes to spending money on capital projects and on human service needs. Cambridge should work to make sure that this segment of its economic development holds true over the coming decades, and adapts as needs adapt over time. It plays to Cambridge’s strengths, it signals Cambridge’s unique status among Commonwealth communities, and it bolsters so much of the other good work that is going on in the city at the moment.

But economic development is not simply about the large corporations. We also need a vibrant retail economy to serve the needs of Cambridge residents and to make it possible for small business owners to thrive in Cambridge. Small businesses play a very big role in our quality of life, not simply because of the goods they provide, but also because of the impact they have on street life. The Mayor and I have been in discussion around Central Square – an important and vibrant square in Cambridge that deserves a fresh look, about its opportunities and its challenges. I look forward to the work that the Community Development Department will do to further support the Central Square retail environment, and I think that will help foster a deeper and broader conversation about all aspects of the square.

Finally, it needs to be said that if our economic growth doesn’t positively impact all sectors of our society, then we haven’t done a good enough job in nurturing that economic growth. There have been many productive conversations over the past year about “green jobs” – that sector of the economy that is expanding rapidly as our environmental awareness grows. It is important that we follow on those earlier conversations to ensure that the whole of our society can tap into the expanding segment of our econonmy, one that will see billions of dollars of growth over the next decade.

Human Services Programs:
I have spent this last term very focused on integrating our many youth programs in this city into a more intentional set of offerings – offerings that support each other and provide a better overall experience for the children. I have done this work as the co-chair of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Middle School Youth, which has looked at after-school and out of school time for middle school students. This work has led me to a much deeper understanding of what the challenges are for this important age group, and also has opened my eyes to what the opportunities are for excellent education in the city, using our existing resources. I have worked closely with my School Committee colleague Nancy Tauber on this work, and together we have engaged the new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeffrey Young and the Assistant City Manager for Human Services Ellen Semonoff , because we realize that real headway in this important work will only happen with their commitment to seeing it happen.

I believe the whole issue of growing older in Cambridge needs the attention of the City Council in upcoming terms. It is just simply true that we are growing older as a population, and that we are living longer, and how we deal with that will say a lot about us as a society, and of course, there are financial implications to the decisions we make. This is an area that will get my attention if I am able to continue to serve on the City Council.

Open Space, Parks, and Recreation:
I am proud of the open space that the city has been able to create or refurbish in recent years. In particular, I am very happy to see the complete renovation of the Joan Lorentz Park at the new main library, a park that will serve the dense neighborhood of mid-Cambridge well, as well as serving the library patrons well. It is a real gem for the city. I am concerned about the decline of the state’s portion of the Community Preservation Act (CPA) money, which means that our annual expenditures are likely to decline in coming years. It is very important that neighborhoods have open spaces to recreate and relax, and it is already true that we as a city have a very difficult time identifying and purchasing open space opportunities in neighborhoods that need it most. With declining CPA funds, this is just going to get worse in the coming years.

Energy, the Environment, and Public Health:
Reducing our carbon footprint is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges before us as a community and as a society. We have spent the last 100 years developing a carbon-based economy, one which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels to power. We now have overwhelming evidence that the release of all of this carbon into the atmosphere is quite literally “cooking” the earth, with many dire consequences for us in the future. It presents to us many many challenges.

First, how do we make the reductions the scientists tell us we need to make in the time frame that we need to make them? This will require major behavior changes not just in city agencies, which have already begun the work or reducing the city’s governmental footprint, but also in all of us citizens. Recently, at the urging of many climate activists, the City Council held a special meeting to hear from climate experts on the impacts of warming on our world. The message was a sobering one. And while it was not “new news” to me, to hear it in person has helped to reframe some of my thinking on it. The challenge of course lies not in the data, but in the ways in which we as a society need to change to meet this challenge.

Some good things are happening. The Ordinance Committee of the City Council recently heard proposed changes to the zoning code on wind turbines. While wind turbines will not prove to be a great source of clean green energy, it was an important step to listen to the issues involved and to resolve any outstanding items. The Council has now adopted the turbine provisions and will soon consider a whole host of other green zoning related matters that will be important steps forward. Furthermore, the Council has moved forward on the state’s Stretch Code, which will improve energy efficiency in building and renovation. And new buildings are being built to a great standard of efficiency too, using the LEED rating system as a benchmark for that work.

On a personal level, I am a bicyclist, and ride almost everywhere (my exceptions are rain or snow). That means that I have used almost no gasoline for personal transportation this year, and I expect that to continue going forward. I have also made improvements to my home, including tightening up the envelope, installing a new furnace and an electronic thermostat, and lowering the ambient temperature. All of this will lower my use of fuel for heating this winter.

This last point is an important one, because one of the institutions that we need to see succeed is the Cambridge Energy Alliance, created specifically for this purpose. Their rocky first year is settling down as they begin the important work of seeing energy efficiency improvements across homes and businesses in Cambridge. I will continue to support them in that work.

As chair of the Housing Committee on the City Council, I have had the opportunity to work on this very important issue over the past two years. Earlier this year, as the economic downturn was causing great anxiety among homeowners and renters citywide, I convened a panel of service providers to inform building managers of what resources were available for them and for their tenants here in Cambridge if a tenant was having difficulty paying the rent. The reason for this is obvious, it helps no one to have to evict a tenant – the manager/owner is left with an empty unit that needs to be filled, and the tenant is out on the street.

In addition, I have worked to keep tabs on what is happening with the Cambridge Housing Authority, and important provider of housing in the city – particularly as they move forward with their plans to renovate their various properties throughout Cambridge. While those renovations need to happen, how they get paid for is another matter, and there was a great deal of resistance to them using Section 8 vouchers as a way of paying for the millions of dollars of cost associated with the capital upgrades.

Finally, I initiated a discussion about family housing in Cambridge, that is – larger sized units that will hold more people – and we made some initial headway in the work. Because there are tradeoffs in decisions we might make about encouraging or requiring the building of larger units (more bedrooms), it is important to get this policy right, and it is one that needs follow up in the next Council term.

Arts and Public Celebrations:
I agree with all of those who say that Cambridge needs to stay lively and fun. Public art and public celebration need to be a big part of that. I have been a strong supporter of the arts in Cambridge in my first term on the Council, since the arts are an important part of our culture and leave a lasting impact on generations to come. I also participate in, and want to see more public celebrations. For example, I had the opportunity to enjoy the Honk! Festival which started in Somerville and roamed its way down Mass. Ave to Harvard Square to celebrate Octoberfest this past weekend. The Carnival which happens earlier in the summer is also a wonderful example of public celebration, as is Area 4 Pride Day, another great opportunity for the city and for neighborhoods to come together.

University Relations:
It is very important that we develop good working relationships with the universities that are honest and direct, and address those issues where our interests converge, and those where our interests differ. The universities play a big role in this city, a fact that can “cut both ways” to use the common expression. MIT’s recent report on its positive impact for the local economy is interesting, but it doesn’t cover the issues where they are not treating their service employees well during the downturn. Lesley has grown in size and stature as a university, and it plays a very positive role in our schools and in our non-profits throughout the city, but at the same time they pay nothing in lieu of taxes. Harvard is a huge developer, and a multi-billion dollar institution, surrounded by residential neighborhoods on almost all sides. All of their actions need close attention by the Council.

I am in the process of expressing my dissatisfaction with MIT’s work with their employees, and I was an integral part of getting Lesley University to make a half a million dollar commitment to the improvement of Mass. Ave. Our universities are important to us in many positive ways. They are also large, rich, and big landlords. We have to strike a tone with them that is honest, cooperative where possible, but direct and forthright on those issues where we differ.

Civic Participation:
I have plans to bring in the members of the neighborhood groups to “take the pulse” of Cambridge at this point in time. Civic participation is an important of any community, and Cambridge, with its active and informed public wants and expects to be a part of the public discussions about the future of this city. The Mayor and I have been in discussions about the best way to move this issue forward, and she has put forward the notion of a Citizen’s Academy, that would help people figure out what are the best ways to plug into the public discussion on issues.

Cambridge Public Schools:
The public schools are our most important public institution in the city. They are the one place where all of Cambridge comes together on a daily basis, and they have the singular challenge of making it work for every child who walks through the door. I am very excited about the arrival of the new superintendent, and when I was asked earlier in the campaign, I said the two most important challenges we face in the upcoming year are the 1) the continuing fiscal crisis, and 2) making sure that the new superintendent gets off on the right foot and has everything he needs to succeed. I think it is also true to say that there are many good things going on at all grades in the Cambridge Public Schools. What we need to do on the City Council is to support the good things that are going on the schools, examine the resources that support education that are not contained within the School Department budget, and make sure those are doing all they need to do for excellence, and support this new superintendent, who was chosen through an open and deliberative process, and who now needs the backing and the support of the elected officials in the community so that he can bring success to all the children of the district.

Candidate's 2007 responses 

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Page last updated October 13, 2009 Cambridge Candidates