Richard C. Rossi
INTERVIEWER: Today is August 24, 2015. I'm Joe McMaster, and as part of the MIT Infinite History Project, we're talking with Richard C. Rossi.
Mr. Rossi is the city manager of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was born and raised in Cambridge and graduated from the Cambridge public schools. Over the past 43 years, Mr. Rossi has played an integral role in shaping the city of Cambridge. Prior to becoming city manager in 2013, he served as the deputy city manager for 32 years. During his tenure with the city, he has overseen numerous capital construction projects, while creating initiatives focused on sustainability, affordable housing, economic development, and fiscal management.
He's built a core leadership team that is committed to the needs of the city's diverse population. Since becoming city manager, Mr. Rossi has continued to make significant investments in the city's infrastructure, including information technology, public safety, street and sidewalk improvements, and the construction of the first net-zero public school for Cambridge. He's a graduate of Salem State College and has a master's degree in public administration from Northeastern University. Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Rossi.
ROSSI: Thank you. Great to be here.
INTERVIEWER: So I guess the first question that I was curious about is, what does the city manager do for Cambridge?
ROSSI: Well, as city manager, I'm responsible for the day-to-day operations of the entire city government, absent the schools. I approve the bottom-line budget for the schools, but I have responsibility for the operations of the city. I'm the chief executive officer for the city of Cambridge. So I hire all the employees. I produce the budget, and provide day-to-day leadership for all city departments and functions.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, great. And so Cambridge has a kind of unusual-- well, maybe it's not unusual. That's the wrong word. But Cambridge has a form of government that is different than some places, anyway. Maybe you can describe that.
ROSSI: Yeah, yeah, I don't think you find many cities that have a city manager form of government. So it's a strong city manager, and the city council elected every two years chooses amongst themselves who will be mayor. And the mayor also chairs the school committee. But it's the city manager who has the chief executive authority in the city.
INTERVIEWER: So it's sort of a different setup.
ROSSI: Different model, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Than many places, anyway. So tell me about growing up. Where did you grow up?
ROSSI: So I grew up in the eastern part of the city, primarily around Elm Street and Berkshire Street-- and Berkshire Street, very close to MIT. And was able to really enjoy I would say a great growing up. Went to the Wellington Grammar School, which is no longer there, which has now been replaced by an affordable housing development. Left the Wellington School and went to Cambridge High and Latin School. Graduated there in 1964. And then I went to Salem State. I went to Northeastern.
And really had a great time growing up. I often kid my children and tell them I wish that I could have done that for 40 years instead of 20 years, because it was so much fun growing up. It was all adventure and sports and playing in the parks, and having so many friends, and just a wonderful time to grow up.
It was a very, really nice neighborhood that was-- I guess I would describe it as all the families were in the same boat-- very working class. My father worked for the Hyde Shoe Company, which was on Columbia Street, and he used to walk back and forth to work. My mother, who actually passed away when I was really young, I was only 11 years old, but she was a pretty unique person because she would-- she worked a little bit when I was young in downtown Boston. She was a seamstress. And she worked in the garment industry. And she was so good at it that they would actually deliver piece goods to our house, and she would do nighttime sewing and things like that.
So we had a wonderful sort of life growing up. My mother was an immigrant. She was from Sicily. And just a lot of culture and a lot of great holidays and things like that. Really, really wonderful.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. And what was Cambridge like at that time, and maybe specifically that part of Cambridge even?
ROSSI: So that part of Cambridge was really working-class families. I remember when they built the public housing developments. It was really for the veterans who were returning from World War II. and so I sort of first recognized in the late '50s that there was this kind of alternative housing. And I remember saying to my parents, boy, wouldn't it be great someday if we could live there, because there were elevators in some of the buildings. I thought that was pretty fantastic.
But working-class parents, some police officers, firefighters, a lot of factory workers. Cambridge, particularly this area of Kendall Square, had a really large number of factories. So I think Cambridge provided work opportunities for a lot of the area residents, which was a good thing.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, yeah. So it's probably changed a lot.
ROSSI: Oh, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: How do you-- maybe you can give us your perspective on that.
ROSSI: So I think in the '60s, I can remember a lot of these factories that had shifts that went 24 hours a day. They had three shifts of workers. There was a soap factory. There were chemical factories. There was a rubber plant. So all of that-- really a lot of people working all the time.
The streets like Cambridge Street, the main thoroughfare in East Cambridge, there were bakeries, pharmacies, meat markets, fruit markets, grocery stores. So you weren't concerned with driving to a big, large supermarket. You essentially walked down to Cambridge Street, did all your shopping there. And if you needed bigger items like furniture or clothing or whatever, you usually went up to Central Square in Cambridge. And that was pretty much a self-contained kind of community. You felt like boy, everything I need is right here.
Great proximity to Boston. Even as kids we would walk to the Boston Garden to see the Celtics play. We would walk to Fenway Park. You know, it was quite enjoyable. And a lot of time spent in public playgrounds and parks. And just, you know, a lot of it was all about fun.
And then watching all that change, I think when the factories began to close down and sell off their properties, et cetera, there was this period where it seemed like there was a big lull and nothing was happening. And one of the things I remember was a lot of vacant buildings and lots, but yet three or four nighttime diners and sandwich shops, et cetera, still being very vibrant because MIT itself I think was a major employer in those days. And in fact, my wife-to-be at that time, her first job out of high school was at MIT. She worked in alumni relations when she first graduated high school.
INTERVIEWER: That's nice. That's neat. What was your memory, or do you have any particular memories of MIT as a kid growing up?
ROSSI: So we use to-- as kids, we used to wander through here and wander through the buildings. And when we were I would say maybe 12 years old or so, a bunch of us were invited. We had a Scout master who graduated from MIT and had an affiliation, and he got us one night a week into the MIT swimming pool, which to me was unbelievable, right? So I just saw this swimming pool back then in the late '50s and I couldn't believe that kids like us would have the opportunity to go a building like that. And then there were MIT students that used to volunteer, come to the Boy Scout meetings and help teach us things about camping and physical fitness, and it was a sort of a connection. So that's the early connection I had.
And then as kids we would wander through these buildings, and as I walked down the corridor to come to this room, that's the memory I have of MIT-- those buildings with all the concrete walls, all the pipes in the ceiling. That's how I thought of it for many, many years-- you know, very strongly built buildings, like a fortress. But for us, we were kids. MIT was just like some other place. We'd find places to play stickball and tag football. As long as you didn't get kicked out by security, that's kind of what you did. One time we were actually allowed to go and they taught us fencing. So as young kids, we were able to put on the mask and use the swords and do some fencing, too, which I thought was great.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, it's interesting that as I understand it, MIT has always had an open campus. Still does.
ROSSI: Yeah. And I think the connection, even back then if you think back-- we're going back, what 57 years? 57 years ago there was still this student connection to young kids in Cambridge, which I think was a good thing. And I think it was great that they would volunteer their time and that the university would promote that. I think that was very helpful, I think, to the community.
INTERVIEWER: And still going strong, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. Yeah. So how did you begin your career as a-- well, in the city administration?
ROSSI: Sure. So in 1968 well, let's say when I graduated college, I ended up in the Army Reserve. And when that time was done, I was looking for a job. I very much wanted to teach. And I very much want to teach in Cambridge.
I had been the manager of the Brattle Theater. I started off in the '60s as an usher, et cetera, and ticket taker. And then I was the weekend manager in the late '60s. And then I became the theater manager, maybe 1969. But I was going to get married, and I was looking for a more sort of permanent kind of job. And I had been trained as a teacher, so I did some substitute teaching at Cambridge High and Latin. And I applied to be a teacher, and really never heard much about whether or not that was going to take place. And I became aware of an internship program in the city of Cambridge. And I applied to become an intern, and I was hired. That would have been 1971.
So I became an intern in the Cambridge water department. And I moved my way up from intern to an assistant to the superintendent. And I learned all about the capital projects. And again, that's where I made a big connection with MIT, because MIT at that time was doing an awful lot of sewer and water mains and different utility work. And they were always seeking meetings and permits with the Cambridge water department. And I got to know the team here at MIT very well and worked along with them. So that was my beginnings.
I stayed there until the late '70s, at which time the city manager had asked me if I would consider being a purchasing agent for the city, or at least doing it for awhile while they searched, and they had been unsuccessful in hiring a purchasing agent. So I took that assignment, and I actually thought I would not like that job at all. I actually really loved that job. And I think what it did was it got me to be able to see really how the entire city operation works.
So I was building my resume at that point. I think I had pretty good experience. I was-- I had been doing the water department budget and water rate studies. I had worked really hard on capital projects we were doing-- replacing water mains, cement lining water mains. And I learned an awful lot about that.
And subsequent to that, after being purchasing agent for about 3 and 1/2 years, Bob Healy became the acting city manager on July 1, 1981, and about three or four months later appointed me as his acting deputy, and then subsequently a year later as deputy. And I served that job for 32 years. And then became city manager on July 1 of 2013.
So for me, a great dream come true. I can remember being in the seventh and eighth grade having a civics class and learning that Cambridge was in fact a community that was run by a city manager. I thought in those days, as a young kid, that's pretty cool. You're the manager of a whole city. And I always liked the notion of a leadership role.
I think that I was, even as a young kid, I was pretty good on my feet. I could think quickly if I had to and all that, and I just, I liked the idea of being somebody who could help direct people and help them get to where they needed to go. And I really, really enjoyed that role. So this was a dream come true for me. Took a long time, but it was a dream come true.
INTERVIEWER: Did you think, ever think as a kid in the seventh grade, gee, maybe I could get that job someday?
ROSSI: Not that job. I loved the notion being the manager of a city, saying, wow, what a cool job is, you know? You have power and control and the authority and the ability to run so many things. And it was so interesting to me. And I really thought that I was somebody who could help people get to where they needed to get. And that's something I always enjoyed doing.
INTERVIEWER: And have you had mentors along the way?
ROSSI: I had mentors along the way, and I have myself practiced being a mentor as much as I can with a lot of people. And that's a part of the job that I enjoy tremendously. And I think I've mentored some great talent in the city, some people who've been with the city for many years.
For instance, the finance director, Lou Depasquale. He came to the city in the mid '70s, born and raised in East Cambridge. He's lived in Cambridge his whole life. He actually is somebody who I would say, as far as the Cambridge numbers go, there's nobody that I could ever come across that knows numbers like this guy does. And he I think in particular gets a lot of the credit for the way we set up our financial plan, and the fact that Cambridge remains, as I would say, the best bargain for taxpayers you can find in Massachusetts. The tax rate here is incredibly low, and the services you get for that low tax rate, it's just a great place to live. And so Louis is somebody who I've worked with for many years and have worked along with him since he was a young guy, and have really enjoyed helping him and working with them.
Lisa Peterson, who's the deputy city manager, came to work for me in the city manager's office. She worked for Bob Healy and for me from 1990. She's somebody who really, you could watch her grow. You could see her interest in being a project manager, being more involved in city issues and taking a greater role, looking to be somebody who could-- she's got great people skills, and she always wanted to see what it would be like to manage a staff. So I would say in 2001, maybe 2000, we appointed her as the public works commissioner. We had had a series of public works commissioners and things weren't going that well, and she took that job over for about 12 years and did a fantastic job. Really built morale. Really allowed the department to expand and grow and take on new initiatives and large capital projects. So again, when I appointed a deputy city manager to replace me in my old position, I appointed Lisa, and again, somebody I've worked with for many years.
I have the same relationship with Ellen Semonoff, who is our human services director. I worked with her when she first came to the city as an assistant in our office. She then was deputy director of human services and the human services director. I spend as much time as I can helping her and mentoring her.
I've done that with people in the community development department for years, people in public works. I think it's-- people in the finance department, young people, people struggling, people who I think I saw greater value in. Even today, I see somebody and I think, boy, there's somebody that'd be great in an administrative leadership role, and I take the time to encourage them and talk to them about it.
And I also-- I leave my door open to anybody who wants to come and talk about their jobs and opportunities and all. And it's a great-- I think it's a great feeling when you see the success that people can achieve, and you've had faith in them and you sort of saw that out of the corner of your eye. So I get great enjoyment in doing that and have done that my whole career.
INTERVIEWER: That's great. They're very lucky. So you were the deputy city manager for 32 years, I think, and then have transitioned to being the city manager. And what's that transition like? Was it a big transition, or not such a big transition?
ROSSI: Well, in one way, it was not, because I am so familiar with the operations and Bob Healy always gave me great latitude to be able to expand my job and take a lot of leadership roles on. So I never felt like, I'm going to have this great learning curve. I think it's different shoes that you wear. You know, you're certainly no longer advising. You have to make the final decision. And although I made a lot of final decisions that Bob certainly allowed me to make over the years, being the city manager is different in that regard. The buck does stop with you, so you have to be pretty firm in your convictions, and you have to lead people in a way that causes you to say, OK, this is what we're going to do, and this is the direction we're gonna head in.
I think that, coupled with a lot more media attention when you're city manager-- the growth of email, so these jobs have become-- my job is-- and I think part of this is a little bit unfortunate, and I really think we need to do things to bring it in balance. So really, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Vacations don't matter. Holidays don't matter. Anniversaries, birthdays for your grandchildren, none of that matters because you are on email all the time. And people are constantly seeking instant information. That's a struggle and a challenge. And I'm somebody who's diligent, so I don't like to let emails pile up. So I don't sit there and turn my phone off. And turning my phone for this interview is a rare occasion, I can tell you that. I don't turn off my data, and I'm always watching it. And I'm always having my department heads be alert too.
And I feel like we've begun to discuss this, because I think the advent of this really puts a lot of pressure on people. And I worry so much about sort of the quality of life, you know, the work-life balance for people in city government, particularly in this city, because this city is noted for being extremely responsive. You know, I will take phone calls. I don't shun things. I don't turn people away. Pretty much I try to be flexible if I do have time.
I'll see people. I meet with the city council all the time, whenever they need to see me. And I do that for all my department heads. And city staff can come and talk to me. We tell them, you talk to your department head, but if you want to talk the city manager, by all means.
And I sort of have that with the public, too. I take their phone calls, although I have a great staff who can triage many of the issues and problems. But people want to talk directly to me, they get me. And that's great in one way, but it puts a lot of pressure on me and I think on my staff in another way. So these are things that I see as much different from being the deputy. When you're the deputy, you have a large responsibility. However, you're a step removed from really having to be on top of everything.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, email and all that is definitely--
ROSSI: It's a tough world that way. It's really a tough world. And you know, people want instant answers. They don't want to wait.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. So in these decades in both these positions, you've overseen quite a lot of significant capital developments in Cambridge, and a lot of other projects, I'm sure, throughout the city. I mean, maybe you can tell me a little bit about some that maybe stand in your mind or you're most proud of.
ROSSI: Well, I think number one would probably be Danehy Park. So Danehy Park was a 55-acre landfill, and it was pretty much for many years the place where all the city refuse and garbage and dumping took place. It was closed in the early '70s. And we made a contract back then with the MBTA, and when the Red Line extension was going to take place in the late '70s and into the early '80s, the MBTA was allowed to stage on that dump. And then they were required to grade it and produce a cover to really enable us to save probably $10 million, not having to cap that landfill.
So we did that. We allowed the MBTA to use that site. And we then were able to plan what we were going to do there.
And at first we thought we were going to build a new high school there, because of the land mass. And then we thought we were going to develop it for mixed-use housing, and then even commercial development. As we looked at it, the issues that we were concerned with were the settlement of the site. So the site was still settling, and we were monitoring that on a regular basis.
The site still produced methane gas. So as the site would settle, the methane would get pushed to the edges. So we had the MBTA build a vent trench, which is a stone trench that goes maybe 12, 15 feet, probably as wide, maybe wider, 20 feet wide. And that would allow the, as the site settles, the methane to be pushed to the edges and vent out to the air naturally. So it still produces methane today.
So what we felt at that time was the smartest thing to do was to be able to build an open-space recreation site in Cambridge for a densely populated community. I mean, when I was a kid back in grammar school, there were 125,000 people in Cambridge. Then that dropped to the low 90s over the '70s and '80s, et cetera. Now it's back up to about 107,000. But one of the things that we had recognized in the city was we did not have the adequate amount of open space for the number of residents. So we thought this was a great addition.
So we were able to add 20% to the city's total of open space in the community. And we did a several-year study of the neighborhoods and talked to people in all the schools, the Little League, softball leagues, baseball, tag football, all that stuff. And we were able to determine the needs. And there really was a need for soccer fields and softball fields, and just casual recreation.
So we built a site that's 50% active and 50% passive. It has great walking and jogging trails. It has a dog park. It has some great elevation, which there's not a lot of in Cambridge. So it's great for kite flying and sledding in the winter. There's some great hills there. And plenty of space.
And we worked with the DEP, and we had them approve our closing of the landfill and the reconstruction of the project. One of the downsides is that we had to agree to handle all the runoff internally and then let it seep out into the system slowly. So there were some wet spots, et cetera, but over the years we were able to deal with that.
And we actually installed a couple of turf fields, the first turf fields in Cambridge. But still, we have a beautiful 55-acre site that has just about everything that residents could want. And that's probably my greatest achievement, being able to lead that project and manage that through all the years. And to be able to do it without it costing the taxpayers a dime I think was great.
So we got a $2 million grant from the state. We had about a $4 million contract with the T. We got a capping grant of about a half a million dollars. So I think we had $6 1/2 to $7 million to build that project out. And we did it for less than that and still put money into maintenance, et cetera. So really a great project, I think.
We then embarked upon many years, and I was the project manager for the new library, which took forever. It was an intense community process. I think back then, as I reflect, city manager Bob Healy had the right idea, which was we need to expand it on the site that it sits on. There were some in the community, particularly in that neighborhood, who fought that notion. It took a long time to bring the city council around. They finally came around.
And in 2009, we opened up the new library, and it is just a gem. And it has been-- it received, I think, 13 awards across the country, some very prestigious awards on design, and just every time I go by there, the number of people using that library-- it's a great community asset. So that, I think, again, we were able to preserve the historic building and then add a beautiful addition to that. William Rawn Associates were the architects. Great project, and it's paid off because of the number of people who use it and go there every single day.
I think the next things would be building a new police station-- again, something that was talked about for years. The police station was in horrible condition. We built a new police station, found the building, bought it, remodeled it, and built it down in East Cambridge on Sixth Street. What I'm really proud about with that building is that you walk in there today, and it's been the new police station now I would say probably for about seven years or so, but you walk in there today, it is as clean as it was the day we opened it. So I really-- my hat goes off to the commissioner and his staff for I think doing a great job. And it's a wonderful, state-of-the-art facility.
We rebuilt the War Memorial, which is the city's center for recreation. Brand new pool, and it rivals what you would find at a major university. And again, a really great, great building. And I remember as a kid going there in the mid '50s, thinking, like, wow, what a building this is, right? This is amazing. But then over the years it had really shown its wear. It deteriorated, and it was really in need of a major fix-up, which we did.
We rebuilt the high school, and that was a major project that was pretty close to-- it was about $112 million. So we had this unprecedented time where we rebuilt the War Memorial, the high school, the main library, the police station. We built a new West Cambridge youth center. And those five projects were probably in excess of $250 million.
And we did that at a time when most people's taxes remained very stable. So I think it's like 72% of the people in this city over the last five years have seen their tax bill be stable, go down, or go up no more than $100 in residential taxes. I think that's a pretty good achievement when you add on all that construction, new construction.
And we're continuing that with public schools. We've rebuilt several public schools, and we're just completing now the Martin Luther King School on Putnam Ave., and that's our first crack at a net-zero school.
I think a little bit of a back story there is great relationships the city has with Harvard and MIT. And as Harvard and MIT, the two institutions that I think really practice great policy around environmental programs for their buildings, for their students, for their faculty, and they're very progressive in that way, and we've learned a lot from them, and they share with us. And we share with them. So we're able to talk to them and try out a lot of these ideas and get great help from them.
So I think that relationship has proven to be so beneficial for us as a community. I don't think many communities are as lucky as we are to have two major institutions which are so forward-thinking as MIT and as Harvard. So that's where we are. We're now planning the next 100% net-zero school, and that's going to be what's called the King Open down on Cambridge Street.
We have redone many of our open-space projects. And they're really used in an intensive way, so we continue to sort of reinvest in that. And I think the other thing that I'm extremely proud of is affordable housing. So we have adopted CPA, which is a Community Preservation Act, which puts a 3% surcharge on taxes. And the voters voted for that in 2001. We've allocated 80% of the money from that process, which also includes a match from the state government, since 2001, so we may be putting $10-11 million a year into affordable housing.
And I think that's a real need in this community. I think protecting the diversity of the community, making sure it's not a community just for the wealthy, hoping to hold on to the fact that we have incomes at all levels who want to live there and try to work on building back the middle-class housing to provide those opportunities for people. So I chaired that committee for many years until I became city manager, and I was very proud of the fact that I was always able to lead the charge for what I consider to be the right thing to do and follow city council policy, which was 80% for affordable housing.
As a kid growing up, we lived in a rent-control house, so we were part of that. I had family who lived in public housing. And I just value affordable housing, and I think that anybody who wants to live in a community like this should be allowed to do it. So we continue to really push the envelope on affordable housing and preserving units. But it's becoming more difficult, particularly because of the economics in this community and the value of land. So it's something that I really enjoy working on, and we all put a lot of effort.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds like we're just scratching the surface here.
ROSSI: Yeah, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: You've sort of alluded to some of this, but Cambridge is remarkable fiscally for-- and has been I guess for a very long time. I'm sort of wondering what's the secret to that, but also what-- there's probably no secret, even, but what are the ingredients to that, and where does MIT fit into that?
ROSSI: Well, the ingredients to that are, we back in the early '90s became a AAA-rated community. So we really listened. My first experience with the bond market was in the early '80s. Bob Healy and I and some staff went down to New York and met with Moody's and S&P. And our bond rating had been suspended. So we had no bond rating. We were in a free cash deficit, which means sort of your rainy day fund, that was gone, and we were actually in a deficit, which was concerning.
And things weren't looking too rosy. We were not doing capital improvements. These are all the things that rating agencies look at. And we really listened long and hard to what they had to say. They told us they were concerned about our operation of a community hospital and nursing home, and that we needed to figure out a way to not let that be running away with tax dollars. So we studied that and it took a while, but eventually we were able to have legislation passed which set up a separate authority, and then we contracted with the Cambridge Health Alliance and were able to set an annual $6 million contract, which really put a cap on that. So that was one thing the rating agencies thought was great.
We went through revaluation, which we had not done in many, many years. And that was the law, 100% revaluation, and I think we put together a pretty strong team to get that done. We were able to pass a one-year reprieve on cutting $12 and 1/2 million. So we took a vote. The community supported it by 2/3 vote. 66.6% voted in favor of the override. And that's all we needed, I think, to get ourselves out of the hole.
So we did that. We passed revaluation, and we really started to pay attention to managing our finances. So a lot of effort went into not only analyzing the expenditure side of the ledger, but really looking at the revenue side. So any way we could to expand our revenue, to really push for good collections. And it was remarkable. I think people really responded well. The finance people took it really seriously.
And we began to grow. We began to grow. And then as development began in Kendall Square, and you talk about MIT and what's its role, I think there's no secret that people in the biotech industry, in the technology industry, they follow MIT. They want to be part of that think tank. A lot of people who come from MIT actually work in these companies.
So it was a natural. The connection between MIT and Kendall Square I think has always been there. And it really needed to be jump-started. It was jump-started. And as companies began to move here and do their research here and manufacturing here, MIT became a key link.
And if we heard it once, we heard it 100 times, so we want to be close to the brain power, here at MIT and at Harvard. I think a great one was the Broad. When the Broad came to Cambridge, right in the middle of Kendall Square, I mean, they talked about their connection to MIT, to Harvard in their own research. And I think that was a great one.
We used to take the people from Moody's and Standard & Poor, and then after that, Fitch. We used to invite them to come to Cambridge and take them on a tour and show them development sites, and say, this is just an empty lot today. Two years from now there'll be 700 jobs on the site.
And I think one of the unique things about Cambridge, and my life here in the government and our administration was that there weren't many governments that had the longevity that we had. So if you brought somebody here in 1983 and showed them vacant land, and then brought them back seven or eight years later and said, look at all the development, you could actually say, this is what we told you was going to happen.
And we worked really a lot with MIT on rezoning of the Simplex site. And that brought Forest Cities here. And then at the same time Kendall Square started to boom. So there's been great connections.
And even to this day, these startup companies will tell you that we're three guys that graduated from MIT. There's a woman here who was a scientist that people were looking at, six or seven different offers, and she took one here in Kendall Square. And they just-- these companies really blossom.
And you know, Biogen and Takeda and all the companies that are in this area are just-- it's absolutely amazing. I mean, an old candy factory like Necco can be reborn into a great research institution. And it's just-- it's marvelous. So it's been quite a story. And MIT's been right there.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, and I mentioned having so many major universities-- I mean, Harvard, MIT, and then there are many other educational institutions in Cambridge-- does that create sort of-- I mean, I imagine there are challenges as well as benefits.
INTERVIEWER: I thought maybe you can talk about that a little.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. I mean, I think there's always challenges and tensions that develop, tensions between neighborhood groups and residents, and the growth of universities. I think way back when I first started with the city, there was this real, real strong pressure about housing and the fact that universities hadn't done enough to house their own students, and therefore the students had really impacted the housing market. I think that was true. There was no myth there. It took a long while, but I think the universities eventually begin to tackle their housing needs. And although they're still going to do more today, I think that that pressure is less.
I think it'll never stop. We need to keep the heat on the universities to do work around housing. And I think the new plans that you see around MIT's growth will include some student housing. It will also include some housing-- community housing that will have components of affordability added to it. And it'll have some market-rate units. So I think that's really a good thing. But I think it's something you can't lay off of. You got to stay on.
And I think the community has always fought expansion and growth. And I think what we have worked hard on is mitigating factors to be able to show, and affordable housing obviously one. But providing community open space, providing meaningful retail-- so these are things I think in the newest MIT proposal. It's going to happen down on the campus area, down on Main Street. I think that those are some of the hallmarks.
So although there will be great expansion and growth for the university, there will be housing provided for the community, and there will be amenities in terms of streetscape and sidewalks. And it'll be public open space, which will be available to the public, just as if they were part of the MIT community. And there will also be public art, and there will be meaningful retail. And I think those are the key things. That's what people want to see.
So it's fine that you have your universities and all its business that goes along with it, but if you can just keep that up a little bit higher and let the community feel like they still have open access to the community, I think residents never want to feel like they're walled off. And I think over the years, I think MIT gets that, and I think that these plans they have now really are a response to that.
So I see this as an upswing. I think they've learned how to deal with community groups more effectively. They engage them more effectively. I think the work that the MIT government community relations people do today-- Sarah's a great spokesperson and leader for MIT. She gets it. She understands the plight of the city. So it isn't a one-way conversation, which I think is really valuable.
So for us in the city, when we try and translate what the community needs are and how the community feels impacted or affected, and what the community is asking for, it's nice to have somebody on the other side that helps to translate that back to MIT. And I think the planning people-- Steve Marsh and his team-- amazing. Really willing to listen.
And these are high-stakes games. There's a lot involved here. These are huge, huge investments. In that sense, I think in 40-some years, it's come a long way. Conversations are much different today-- MIT realizing that it's more than just their needs, right? It's an entire community's needs. And I think if you say to me, so what's the biggest change you've seen in the MIT-city relationship, I think it's that.
I think one of the key things was back in the '90s, when MIT purchased Tech Square, the city's eyes opened up. And I remember myself, I'm sort of like somebody who always trusted and believed that MIT was always trying to do the right thing. I had some real questions. And the city manager did, and city councilors. If MIT can buy Tech Square, they could alter the tax base here like nothing. What if they just buy that and that ends up going to university, nonprofit use, and we lose that tax base?
So there was a lot of concern, which caused us-- the city manager at that time I think a brilliant job of negotiating a new PILOT agreement with MIT. And essentially it's a 40-year agreement. It's like four 10-year agreements. And the base payment is around $2-2.1 million, and it has 2 1/2% escalators. But the key provision is it has a revenue protection formula in it, so that if things get removed from the tax roll, other things have to go on to keep the tax base level.
And I think MIT's agreeing to that really allowed the city to feel a great deal of comfort, realizing that MIT had a heart to the city too, not just for its own needs. And I think that was a major breakthrough. And I think that was brilliant on the city's side and on the side of MIT to come to that agreement.
INTERVIEWER: And PILOT is payment in lieu of taxes?
ROSSI: Payment in lieu of taxes, right. That's outside the tax base. Now if you want to talk tax base, the number one taxpayer in the city is MIT by far. And that's a representation of all the commercial property.
So MIT, as I always explain to people, it's two different animals, right? So one is an educational institution, which provides great learning and research, et cetera, and the other is a real estate investment company. And I think they've done a great job in their real estate investment, and are doing quality work and are expanding the MIT campus, but doing it in a way that's going to be beneficial to the whole community.
INTERVIEWER: That's interesting. I think it's not something that's maybe so well known.
ROSSI: No, yeah, I mean people I think very often think, well, you know, universities, they don't pay that much in taxes but they get a lot of benefit. But they have their own police force.
And that's another thing. I would say the relationship between the MIT police force and the city of Cambridge and its police force today is incredible. It wasn't always like that. There were tensions back when I first started in the city manager's office. Not severe things, but things that got in the way of getting business done.
Today they're partners. They're teammates. They work well together and they share information and support each other. And again, I think that's only beneficial for the community.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. You were just mentioning the development that we've seen a huge amount. And it's ongoing. Have you seen anything else comparable to what we're seeing around Kendall Square in your lifetime in Cambridge?
ROSSI: No. I mean, Kendall Square, what's happened there in the last 20 years, it's just absolutely amazing. As I said in the beginning days of our administration with Bob Healy back in the early '80s, we used to sit there and say, well, I wish someone would just build a building. And you know, it didn't happen.
And then in the late '80s, the approval of Forest City's plan, the Simplex site, that happened. And we begin to see some buildings. And then in the early '90s there was kind of a little recession and building stopped. And there we were again. And I remember that community development director at that time saying to the city manager, God, I wish somebody would just build a building.
Three years later she was saying, I wish they would slow down. That's the way things were growing. So I think it's been a pretty steady ride now, and I think it's a good one.
I think what it provides the city with is an incredible opportunity to have a wide array of programs that benefit citizens-- citizens of little means right to the people who can afford anything. It provides great opportunities for the youngest people, for newborns all way up to senior citizens. The programming is excellent. And our budget can grow. And our budget can grow because our tax base continues to grow.
The other secret to that is I think we've done an extremely good job, and the city council has followed our lead in managing the tax growth in a way that makes sense, not spending every dollar we get our hands on. We have set up really good reserves. And as I talked about, all that public construction, like right now we have, in the last three years we've put close to $25 to $30 million in debt reserve. So we are putting that money aside so that our debt costs will not spike our budget in a way that causes us tax increases. So we try to manage that well.
And the same thing with water and sewer costs. We're doing, as if you drive around Cambridge you'll know all the construction that's going on. We're replacing sewer systems and separating the sewage from the storm water in many parts of Cambridge. And we're spending probably $17 to $22 million a year on projects like that. Again, keeping the rate I think at a stable rate.
Again, two major payers in the city for water and sewer are MIT and Harvard. So again, I think the universities contribute to that also. But that enables us to rebuild our system and redo streets and sidewalks and landscape and things like that.
We tell people who come into Cambridge, if you talk about, so should we move here, is this a good place to grow our company, or should we stay, we always say the same thing. Take a look at our tax rate and go back five years. See where we were. Look at the stability on the commercial side.
And go forward five years. We have five-year projections that we have. I think you're gonna see the same kind of stability. Same thing with water and sewer. We do that to show commercial companies that this is a good place to invest.
And you know, I think a lot of the policies that we have around LEED certification of buildings, net zero, a lot of our environmental policy, building registration-- those are the kinds of things that all the work we do around making Cambridge a bikable city and walkable city, that's very enticing to young people who want to work here. And they want to live here. So I think those are great policies and a great way to sort of budget our money and spend it and still keep plenty in reserve.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, it's remarkable. We talked a fair amount about some of the things that Cambridge has-- I mean, sorry, that MIT has done that have benefited Cambridge in ways. But surely Cambridge-- surely it goes the other way, too. MIT benefits from Cambridge. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that.
ROSSI: Well, again, I think that having a community that has so much stability in its finances and tax rate, having a community that I think responds very well, I think MIT would tell you as well as Harvard that their experiences in dealing with Cambridge's city administration on a variety of issues, whether they're construction projects or planning projects or whatever they're doing, working in collaboration, that the cooperation is A-1. And that's really something I push for.
I think we can learn a lot from each other. But I think it's a great thing for MIT, I think, to be able to say to perspective clients or students or families, this is a great community to live in. It's safe. It's clean. It has a lot of smart growth. So I think we do provide that sort of backdrop for-- it's close to Logan Airport. It's close to downtown Boston. It has a lot of culture.
And there are so many different ethnic groups that live there. So the restaurants and the churches and the experiences you can have as a Cambridge resident really, I think, attract a lot of people. So our diversity is something we're incredibly proud of. And it's an amazing place that regard.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, yeah. Kendall Square, the development, we talked a little bit about that. Maybe you can sort of tell me how you think that'll be, and also-- what's your vision there?
ROSSI: So I think the MIT project is about a million square feet, and they're gonna add some rather tall buildings. But as I said earlier, they're really going to be focusing on ground-floor retail, on open space, public open space, on things like public art, on streetscape-- so I think, again, on bicycle facilities and things like that. I think that the campus itself will be reborn. It'll look more like there's an entrance to our campus. I think that's always been a question mark, what is the entrance to the MIT campus? It's, I think, really good in that way.
In addition to that, the Volpe Center, which is on the other side of Main Street on Broadway, across from the hotel, that's a 14-acre development that is now under consideration by the federal government to hire a master developer to build them a new Volpe site. And then they would turn over like 10 acres of land that would be essentially redeveloped into commercial and retail and housing. And that's a great opportunity.
So if you take that and if you take MIT, and if you take the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and the MXD district, and there's about another million square feet that can happen there, and everything that's gone on with Alexandria Properties and their buildings and tenants over on Binney Street, and the One Kendall area, I mean we've transformed this whole area. All we need now is for the Longfellow Bridge to finish, and the Red Line to be improved. That's something I think we're all pushing for.
And that's where the city and MIT again, I think, can be great allies, is in really pushing the state to develop public transportation. Because the public transportation, I think, is the key to making this a much more livable part of the community. So this is gonna be a pretty dense community, but if you've noticed in the last five, six, seven years, the number of restaurants and entertainment establishments that have grown in this area-- I mean, there were very few before. Kendall Square now has a little bit of nightlife. And it's good. Great restaurants, nice place to go in the evening, et cetera.
I think what it needs is, it needs a supermarket. It needs like a big kind of a CVS, Walgreens kind of store for people. It needs that supermarket to provide amenities for the people that are gonna live here. And then all those other things will come, I think. Dry cleaners and places that people can go to for their day-to-day needs I think will be met.
So I see in the next five to seven years, 10 years, this is really going round itself out and be quite the place. I mean, it is already quite the place. It's known in an international way.
INTERVIEWER: So how do you, as city manager, balance kind of all of that, which is this boom, and bringing in all kinds of restaurants and whatever else it might, with the needs that we talked about for affordable housing and people that want to live here, but aren't necessarily part of all of that economy?
ROSSI: So I think the key to that is our planning staff. We're going to begin now-- we've just awarded a contract for a citywide planning effort that will go on for three years. And it's really going to be a comprehensive planning exercise.
But in terms of Kendall Square area, I think our city planners have done a good job interpreting the needs of the community and putting that up on the table for developers and MIT-- not just MIT, but all the development world here to be able to respond to. So they don't go into a project without thinking about, what's your commitment to affordable housing? What's you commitment housing in general? How do you think about open space? How do you think about retail? How do you think about the effect on the neighbors? And I think that's an important thing.
So we've encouraged development groups, and they've taken it up, like for instance to go and meet with the East Cambridge planning team and to talk to them. They had what's called the K2 process, which was a wide-scale planning process that involved a lot of players in this whole area. Residents, businesspeople, developers, MIT, all sat at the table to talk about zoning and planning issues as it relates to Kendall Square.
So I think that's the way you keep the balance. I think the city council has done a great job with mitigation. MIT's commitment to mitigation, I think, is in excess of $14 million for this last project that they were approved for.
So I think all that plays into having what I would call a balanced approach to development and quality of life for residents-- very important things that we need to think about at all times. And so what's important there, I think, is getting the right people to the table, too. So there are many voices in Cambridge, and I think you have to make sure that you're getting a whisper from everybody, not just certain groups.
And that's always a challenge, but that's something we strive for. And there are a lot of ways now today that you can do that through modern technology. And we hope to employ a lot of that in our planning efforts. That's constant work. That's something you have to keep in the forefront at all times.
INTERVIEWER: More emails, it sounds like, too.
ROSSI: Yeah, that's exactly right. More emails.
INTERVIEWER: MIT is, as you know, and it's partly the impetus for this interview, is marking 100 years in Cambridge in 2016. And I'm sort of wondering if you have any reflections on that, on what 100 years in Cambridge means.
ROSSI: I think it's so important. I mean, Cambridge is Cambridge in good part because of institutions like MIT and Harvard. And 100 years of MIT, I think-- obviously, look at Kendall Square. I mean, Kendall Square has grown because of the MIT connection and influence.
It has grown in a big way. It's provided jobs. It's provided great financial resources to the community. It's provided quality construction. It's now addressing issues that are at the heart of a lot of neighborhood concerns. So I think it's provided educational opportunities for people all around the world as well as many Cambridge residents. It's a center of research. It's a center of ideas. So Cambridge wouldn't be Cambridge without an MIT.
I'm not saying that in any way other than to say I think that's the truth, that we are lucky as a community to have MIT. And I think MIT is lucky as an institution to be situated in a city like Cambridge that thinks about the management of its city and the welfare of its residents in a way that will challenge the university. So I think hand in hand, it's been a great partnership.
It always hasn't-- it has not always been that way. But I think through trial and error and bad things that occurred, whatever you want to say, it's developed into something that I think is really a model. And I think I feel great about the cooperation and the way that MIT interacts with the city.
And I think the way that they've grown to interact with its residents I think has been remarkable. So I think they feed off each other. But I really say, boy, what a great thing, to think that 100 years ago, somebody said, hey, let's build this institution right here. It's benefited this community in so many ways.
INTERVIEWER: I wonder what they'll say 100 years from now?
ROSSI: Well, I think 100 years from now, it'll still be going. I mean, how can you look at 100 years and say, here's what's going to happen? I just think that as an institution, MIT-- they plan for 100 years. I mean, that's one thing I always noticed in the city was, we make decisions for five years and 10 years. And what do we think about? But MIT's buying a piece of land thinking like, it's a 100-year decision. We can do something with the land now and let it be what it needs to be for 50 to 75 years, and then maybe things will change.
INTERVIEWER: The long view, for sure.
INTERVIEWER: Just sort of broadly speaking, what are your goals for the city manager for the next few years?
ROSSI: Well, I'd like to see the affordable housing program really get stronger. We have many challenges in that. The cost of land in the city is really high. And it's more difficult for us to be an on-the-ground purchaser of land and properties. So we need as much help as we can with that. But I think that's a priority, to maintain the balance in this community on housing and to maintain its diversity.
I think continuing to support the schools at a high level. We are pretty proud of the way we as an administration have supported the school department. I think that's a goal that we will continue and I think is beneficial to the community. I think that safety is something that we're always concerned with. I think we do a pretty good job, but the world being what it is today as you read the papers and listen to the news, some horrifying things can occur.
And I'm very proud of the work of our police and fire departments. They're expertly trained. They are diligent. They are serious. And they do a great job, I think, of protecting this community.
I think that the police department has done a wonderful job with social justice and the way that they try and deal with all groups, no matter who they are, just sort of welcoming and willing to listen. And even with protest, I think they have learned how to respond fairly and equitably, and not act like the military, but act like the police department. And I'm very proud of that.
I think that it's a very demanding community. I'm really concerned at the welfare of the staff. I have some of the most talented, hardworking, dedicated employees that a city manager could ever want. They're incredible. They're on their own, I think, experts in their own fields in a big way. And I really want to support them, and our concern, too, about the heavy workload that they all have. So I think there are those things.
I really like to have the general public feel like we do a community survey every two years. And we've had generally high marks. And again, with this last one in 2014, we also had relatively good satisfaction with the community. I think that's important, to keep the residents satisfied.
Traffic-- traffic is a real concern as a city manager. We're affected regionally. It's not all generated by what happens in Cambridge. We are a pass-through city. You can see it in the morning, people driving down from the West and the North, coming through Cambridge, coming down Route 2. These are regional problems that we and other communities need to get help from the state and federal government.
I think the expansion of the Green Line is going to be a great project. I think the need to enhance and improve the Red Line is a key. And I see us also as a regional player in the future more.
I think great relationships with local officials around us, the mayor of Somerville and Mayor Walsh in Boston, and the towns of Arlington and Belmont, I think we've done a really good job keeping good relations with them, working with them, understanding that Cambridge can't exist on its own alone. This is a regional issue that we have around housing and transportation and planning. So to join with these communities, we're doing a lot around resiliency and our ability to respond to what the future is in terms of our big spikes and changes in weather and climate and storm responses.
So we are taking an active role. We're spending millions of dollars to perfect these plans. We're bringing in all the agencies who are important. That includes an MIT. That includes Harvard. It includes the MBTA, the DCR, Mass Water Resources Authority, city of Boston. So we're bringing everybody together to say, we have to protect against what might happen here if we have a storm surge.
We need to protect against what's going to happen when you have-- I mean, you saw how bad it was last week and the week before. What if we had 10 days in a row of temperatures in the mid 90s, approaching 100? You know, that's a concern. So all of those things are things that we're working hard on to plan for the future. And I think that those are the kinds of things that whoever the city manager is in Cambridge in the future needs to be concerned with and continues to work hard on.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds like no shortage of things. Let me just see if there's anything else that I had in mind to ask that we've missed. But is there anything else that you'd like to mention, either about Cambridge, or the Cambridge-MIT relationship?
ROSSI: I mean, I think in general Cambridge is-- I'd say one of the great things is what a welcoming community to live in. So the various ethnic groups and religions, all the churches, all the organizations that support groups and all that-- and just the fact that if you walk around the Cambridge public schools, we have a big family day at Danehy Park in September. You walk around that, you see a multitude of cultures. And the fact that all these groups come to Cambridge and Cambridge puts down that welcoming mat, tries to do things, tries to create programs, initiatives, protects people from all groups, is welcoming, I think that's a real plus. That's a community to be proud of.
I mean, what a great job. In my life-- so I've managed the Brattle Theater, which was so much fun, and I've been the city manager in Cambridge. I tell people all the time, there's two better jobs you could never have asked for in a lifetime.
So I think for the future, all the things I've mentioned I think are really paramount. I think that MIT's recognition of what a community wants and how MIT must interact with the community is so important. And I think currently, the president should be happy that the team that he has out there is very aware of what's going on in the community and trying really hard to be responsive and react.
Now, there's always going to be tension. And there's always going to be groups that aren't happy. And there's always going to be people who feel like the city's not doing enough or MIT's not doing enough. But I think collectively, we need to challenge ourselves to make sure that we're covering all the bases.
And I think that interaction between MIT and the city will continue. I think that people recognize that. I think we need to be good partners and we need to be good adversaries. And I think that's what's important. And I think understanding each other's culture and its goals I think are really important. And I feel good about that.
I think that MIT has recognized the need for the city in its housing issues, the need for jobs for community people, the need for open space, for retail. Those are all things that a community wants. A community wants well-built buildings that don't keep them awake at night with noise. The community wants a good, safe campus so that they themselves-- as I said earlier, nothing to be walled off. You should feel like you could walk through MIT just like you walk through the streets. And I think that's really important.
And then I think that MIT should expect from the city is cooperation and honesty and a good system which allows them to be permitted in a fair and equitable way as long as they are meeting all those goals. I think that's what a good government does. So we-- I tell people all the time, we represent all the taxpayers. We represent residential taxpayers, commercial taxpayers, and we represent institutions which pay us in lieu of taxes, too.
So it's all, I think, a process. I think a lot of it has to do with having the right people who think this way, who think that there's more to it than just our own personal needs. I mean, it all benefits the residents who live here.
And it's what makes people all over the world look at-- someone said to me last week, hardest real estate market in the country is Kendall Square and Cambridge. I mean, the prices that you see for houses-- make-an-offer days are gone. It's make an offer up. So I'd like to see-- I wish that could come under control a little bit more. I wish it were a more affordable city for the average person to live in. So those are some of the challenges I think for the future.
But you know, it's great. I mean, I think back when I was in high school, our prom was at Walker Memorial at MIT. I thought that was great, that MIT allowed the city high school to have its prom there. I mean, it was a pretty fancy place for me as a kid in the '60s. That was really nice. And the rest, like I say, it's going to be a continuing story. And I think a great future for both Cambridge and MIT.
I've really enjoyed this. And I think that hopefully I've helped put together some of the history. But for me, it's been an amazing run. I've enjoyed all the opportunities, and really a lot of time where I worked with MIT, whether it was on utility planning, or mitigation of projects, helping them think through a process in the city, or work on their plans, et cetera. I've always enjoyed the opportunity.
And I really have always felt that MIT has really treated the city respectfully and tried very hard. So you know, I can't explain it other than to say it's a rare opportunity to be able to have been through this. And it's pretty amazing to me. And I just see great futures for the city and MIT.
INTERVIEWER: Great. Well, thanks again for speaking with us. It was a real pleasure.
ROSSI: I enjoyed it. Thank you.