Council Talks Zoning Changes

Last night, the Cambridge City Council continued a contentious debate regarding zoning policies—but first took a moment to recognize Cambridge Assistant City Manager for Human Services Ellen Semonoff, who was recently named to an advisory position in the Obama administration.

Semonoff learned last week that she will be joining the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health, a 25-member body which will assist in the design of a national preventative health model.

“There are so many things in Cambridge that we do across the board, connected to prevention, that really put us in the forefront,” Semonoff said.

Semonoff is also the Vice Chair of the Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard-affiliated public healthcare system that serves both Cambridge and Sommerville.

The congratulatory tone of the Council quickly dissolved later in the meeting, as Councilor Craig A. Kelley requested that the Council order the City Solicitor’s office to issue a legal opinion on Section 5.28.2 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance—which allows for former commercial properties to be converted for residential use.


“This is an example of having the city staff chasing their tail,” said Mayor David P. Maher, referring to the redundancy of asking for a legal opinion on the issue while others involved in city government are already assessing zoning policy.

Maher seconded the objections to the ordinance, originally voiced by Councilor Sam Seidel, that this would stall work already underway on zoning reform. “I just see this as waste of the city staff’s time,” said Maher.

Councilors who opposed the request for a legal opinion said that the order goes against the Council’s intent to meet the need for more housing, and more specifically affordable housing, in Cambridge.

Councilor Marjorie C. Decker said she was surprised at the appearance of the order.

“It is an attempt to actually undermine what we intended 12 years ago, which is to promote more housing,” she said.

Decker went on to specifically question her colleague’s motivations in asking for the rendering of a legal opinion.

The order was initially proposed by Kelley and Councilor Leland Cheung, following an initiative to create new multifamily housing developments in Cambridge.

Kelley said he was not satisfied with the response from the city administration regarding the interpretation of the city ordinance.

“We got a response back, but we really didn’t get answers,” he said.

Ultimately, the motion requesting a legal opinion on the ordinance failed, with only Kelley and Cheung voting in favor.

“This is the wrong order at the wrong time,” Vice Mayor Henrietta S. Davis said.

—Staff writer David H.A. LeBoeuf can be reached at