Photo: Kevin Foley before the Board of Selectmen.
It was supposed to be one of the dozens upon dozen perfunctory acts the Board of Selectmen performs ever year.
Before the board was representatives of the Belmont Food Collaborative, the folks who run the Belmont Farmers Market which is celebrating its 12th season in 2017. A popular public amenity, the farmers market has become a weekly attraction for families and foodies as well as countless Center’s workers who shop regularly for fresh produce, baked goods, and kitchen essentials.
The collaborative was seeking its annual town permit to run the market on Thursday afternoons from June to October in the rear of the town-owned parking lot behind Leonard Street in Belmont Center.
As the board’s agenda was running two hours behind its scheduled time, the selectmen appeared ready to give its blessing to the group after a few words of heartfelt success for the coming season.
Then in the nearly empty chamber, Kevin Foley, the manager of Locatelli Properties LLC – the largest landlord in Belmont Center which owns the commercial space along Leonard Street from Alexander Street to the crosswalk at Channing Road – came to the microphone and figuratively rolled a grenade into the meet and greet.
Delivering several copies of a petition with 22 signatures of business owners and store managers – nearly all tenants of his – Foley put it bluntly to the Selectmen: The Belmont Farmers Market has to go away from its long-time home in the Claflin Street Municipal Parking Lot. Now.
“It does not make sense to put a farmers market in a business community where it’s not supported,” said Foley, to the board which greeted his proclamation with bemused surprise.
And that lack of support was squarely placed on a reduction of limited parking opportunities in the municipal lot just as several large-scale businesses will be entering the Center in the next few months.
Saying the property owner has paid millions of dollars in property taxes while spending millions more on structural improvements to the former Macy’s location to attract its newest tenant, Foodies’ Urban Market “with the assurances that we would be improving parking.”
“What you’re doing [with this vote] is taking the busiest days and making it less convenient and hurt business,” said Foley.
Saying his tenant Foodies’ is “a direct competitor” with the farmers market, Foley said the supermarket’s first year in Belmont “is critical for them” to attract customers to the location.
Insisting he wanted “immediate action” on his request, Foley told the board what the businesses want is for the Farmers Market is to “find a different location” in town, suggesting alternative spaces such as church and school parking lots.
“If the town really wants it, put it in the [Town Hall] parking lot,” he said.
“Belmont Center is not the right spot for it,” Foley told the board as the two collaborative representatives were left to hear its venture was suddenly seen as the red-headed stepchild to the business community.
Foley said for more than a year he received “assurances from different town officials that when Foodies’ opens this won’t be an issue,” naming the recently departed Town Administrator David Kale as that person.
Parking has long been an issue in Belmont Center going back to when Filene’s’ department store anchored the retail community. Unlike commercial or strip malls, the parking lot is owned by the town with, what former selectmen believe, a two-fold purpose of supporting the businesses and residents.
Dr. Suzanne Johannet, the Food Collaborative president, told the board that an extensive search to find a suitable location was done by the group when the farmers market was initially proposed. Church properties were problematic due to services such as weddings, funerals, and meetings while schools could not be used from September onward. She noted that the market only requires 19 spaces for 21 afternoons in 2017.
“This is a central location in town,” Johannet said. “We have great relations with the Belmont Center Business Association,” she said, adding that the collaborative has reached out to Foodies to work together to promote each other’s ventures.
While sympathetic to Foley’s complaint on parking, Selectman Chair Mark Paolillo said in the town’s view; the Farmers Market was a “quality of life issue for people” noting it could not be a success for 12 years if people did not support it.
“There’s no other place to put (the farmers market),” said Paolillo, who told Foley that the town would continue to push for a solution to the parking problem.
Here is where the conclave became fractious as Foley challenged Paolillo’s attempt to vote on the permit.
“You’re going to vote on that now?” pondered Foley which Paolillo quickly said yes, he would.
Foley countered that it only took him three hours to gather up the signatures of his tenants opposing the permit which Paolillo waved off saying that the farmers market attracted business to the center.
“There are several comments I’d like to make,” said Foley.
“You’ve already made them,” said Paolillo, as the large clock in the room struck 10 p.m.
“So you’re shutting me off?” asked Foley.
“I am, please,” said Paolillo.
It was then when Selectman Jim Williams, supported by Selectman Sami Baghdady, threw Foley and his immediate request a lifeline, asking to postpone a vote a week until Monday, April 3, as everyone talked over each other for a bit. Williams said he would review the comments from the businesses which signed the petition.
Foley told the Belmontonian after the meeting that the issue is not supported for the Farmers Market which Foley said he favors “but just not in a location that we have a difficult time right now.”
“What do you think will happen when four new businesses open. We’ll need every space to help them to be successful,” said Foley.
The Food Collaborative, in a press statement, stated that they “are aware of concerns about parking in the Center. We acknowledge that things have been difficult for all of us over the past two summers during the construction project.”
“As for employee parking, which we understand is a big issue, we don’t believe that eliminating our use of the lot would have any significant impact. Our volunteers and vendors park on surrounding streets and not in the lot,” said the Collaborative.