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October 2010 PSNA Minutes

Porter Square Neighbors Association Meeting Minutes
October 21, 2010

Agenda

  • MBTA Station Improvements
  • Hope Fellowship Church
  • Bourbon Coffee in University Hall
  • Ears to the Ground

MBTA Station Improvements

Desiree Patrice and others from the MBTA and from SEA Consulting described the long awaited, and now ready to proceed, improvements to the Porter Square MBTA station. The plan calls for additional elevators allowing handicap access to and from the various levels of the station. Construction will start this winter and will last for 2 1/2 years. Night work (9PM to 4AM) will narrow Somerville Avenue to two lanes, but it will remain open during the days.

The biggest inconvenience during this construction will be to handicapped passengers who would normally get off or on at Porter Square. These passengers will be shuttled from another stop: Davis Square for the Red Line, and Waltham for the Commuter Rail. Details are still being worked out.

Bill Deignan (Cambridge Transportation) asked about communication. Ultimately there will be a city hot line established to alert citizens about the construction progress, shuttles, etc. The city must first be given this information by the MBTA. The city person to contact is Cathy Watkins.

We also discussed bicycle racks, of which there are enough for some 50 bikes on the plaza now. The city is looking for additional bike parking places and is discussing design options for the eventual plaza. PSNA wants neighborhood input into the plaza redesign. Several of us suggested that bike racks be installed on the other side of Mass Ave, opposite the Plaza, in the cul-de-sac that is now primarily inhabited by the homeless, and often the sight of public urination, disrobing and fighting. We hope that bike racks at this site should serve to have enough foot traffic to make the area safer.

We also discussed the process for dealing with abandoned bikes. The city has a process for this, but it is unclear who polices abandoned bikes on the MBTA plaza.

Finally, we discussed the unsightliness of the Plaza for the 2 1/2 years of construction. The MBTA plans to have a pen there around the heavy equipment necessary to keep on site. Some of us expressed concern that with more bike racks and construction equipment the Plaza will be inaccessible, unappealing and a detriment to the businesses in the area.

Hope Fellowship Church

Pastor Curtis Cook told us about the proposed purchase of the house next door to Hope Church, which he said would be a great advantage for the growing congregation. It would be their intent to use the first floor rooms for offices/meeting rooms, and to maintain the 2nd floor as housing. This would need a zoning variance, as it is a change of use. The house has a large back yard, which the church would plan to use 1 week in July from 9am to noon for Vacation Bible School, and for an occasional function outside. They assured us they had no intention of having the day care children playing there.

Lydia and Preston Graella of 10 Beech Street opposed the rezoning. They and other abutters support the church but see the rezoning as another erosion of the neighborhood of largely single family Victorian houses. There was a brief discussion of the abutters’ fear that once rezoned the house could be torn down and a large building constructed in its place. The Church’s attorney replied that it could not be torn down, and noted that the church was only requesting a very narrow variance.

The Church has a signed sales agreement with the the current owners, pending the approval of the variance. The homeowners have been trying to sell their house for a long time, and many of us expressed sympathy with them, having found what they thought an excellent solution both for the church and themselves. On the other hand we felt that the abutters' strong feelings should not be ignored. We urged Pastor Cook to resolve this issue promptly, so that the owners will not be left on the hook indefinitely.

Bourbon Coffee in University Hall

Abasco Munga (CEO/President) and Margaret Scadin (Chief Marketing Officer) presented the plans of Bourbon Coffee Inc to open a coffee shop in University Hall. The company is Rwandan owned, started in 2007. They have a two-fold social mission of putting a better face on Rwanda and giving small coffee producers a fair income. They currently have three shops in Kigale, Rwanda, and have been operating one shop in the District of Columbia for one year now. Cambridge is next in their plans, possibly to be followed by New York City.

The shop will sell only Rwandan coffee, but will carry food as well. They plan to be part of the neighborhood, with local employees, art, and garden produce when possible. They expect to make and sell good coffee and offer a pleasant experience. The coffee shop hopes to open as early as February. They have gotten all of the necessary approvals, licenses, increase in seating capacity (60), etc. They are right now finishing the construction drawings.

Lesley's director of operations George Smith noted that with the opening of Bourbon Coffee at University Hall, the retail space will be 100% occupied, no mean feat in this economy!

Ears to the Ground

  • Bill Doncaster reported that AIB construction could start by the end of next summer (there is a lawsuit which must be settled). Lesley might be ready to go to the Planning Board as early as January, with the Historical Commission soon after. With 18 months construction, they expect a 2013 opening.
  • Al Gowan asked about repainting the "Gift of the Wind" sculpture at the T, a point raised by the Cambridge Arts Council. We discussed the practicality of doing it as part of the construction of the elevator and who to talk to at the MBTA (start with Mark Boyle, Director of Real Estate, who would know who to talk with). Alice Wolf suggested contacting Brian Murphy as liaison with the city.
  • Karen Klinger asked about the long-stalled Bottle Bill. Alice Wolf had joined us by this point. She was a chief sponsor of the bill. Alice said she is hopeful that it will be refilled and passed next term. However, the distributors and NH border people are against it, and may be emboldened by their success with the ballot question re tax on alcoholic beverages.
  • Alice and many others expressed concern over how the city counselors passed the sign resolution with little citizen awareness or input. Many of us were also put off by the repeal petition drive. Hopefully, we will all be better served if the council rescinds the resolution and opens the matter up for full citizen participation, with all of the pros and cons explained.
  • Banjo's is gone, and that hexed spot on the corner of Mass Ave and Walden will now open as a Bangeldeshi fast food restaurant. Lama, owner of the Annapurna restaurant just across Walden Street, is upset and pressuring the licensing commission. He claims that the new restaurant has appropriated most of his menu and will steal his customers. (This topic was also discussed at the Stabilization Committee, who felt that they should not take a position.)
  • We discussed the State’s crumbling infrastructure, in particular the various bridges across the Charles and the potential disruption their repairs will cause. See the MassDOT web site ( http://www.massdot.state.ma.us/charlesriverbridges/ ) for much more information.