Photo: Lauren Castagno, manager at Revolve Boutiques on Pleasant Street.
Laura Castagno said she had growing hope the first-week Revolve Boutiques in Belmont Center was reopened would get increasingly busy after three months being locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been open since the first day we were able to open on Monday [June 8]” and customers were coming back to the store, said the manager of the Leonard Street consignment store.
But on Thursday morning, June 10, as she and other retailers were opening their doors, DPW trucks were outside their shops delivering crowd control barriers and earthmovers had placed jersey barriers at either end of the street to block traffic from entering.
By 11:30 a.m., the roadway through Belmont’s largest commercial district was closed to all traffic until Labor Day. The only exceptions: MBTA buses and emergency vehicles.
Since then, Castagno has seen the town’s business center grind to a halt.
“I’ve never seen Belmont Center in the morning as quiet as it has been for the last few days” as the lack of foot traffic had “significantly reduced sales,” she said.
The shutting down of the Center’s main thoroughfare was approved three days earlier by the Belmont Select Board in an effort to assist the town’s restaurants with alfresco dining after Gov. Charlie Baker approved outdoor service as the state slowly begins reopening from the economic standstill caused by the coronavirus.
The only information she and her commercial colleagues received on the closing was “via an email for the Belmont Center Business Association, but that didn’t provide all the details,” said Castagno, daughter of Lisa Castagno who owns Revolve stores in Winchester, Lexington, Newton, two in Belmont and one on Boston’s Newbury Street.
“We were just a little bit disheartened with the decision to close Leonard Street … with minimal consulting of retail businesses,” said Castagno. “We feel that that didn’t really happen in Belmont so we’re a little bit upset about that,” she said.
It was that concern that Castagno and her mother joined several fellow retailers on the Select Board’s Monday, June 15, Zoom meeting as the town was scheduled to review the new setup for Belmont Center.
Deran Muckjian, the owner of The Toy Shop of Belmont on Leonard Street, spoke for the center’s business association members saying many of their customers are unwilling to park in the Claflin Street lot behind the shops and trek around the buildings – there is no direct cut through from the lot to the Center – while seniors with mobility issues require on-street and handicap parking close to the shops they patronize.
“Retail these days is really about the experience, the actual shopping in the store and it’s also about the convenience,” Castagno said.
Castagno said Belmont’s traffic plan is similar to Waltham’s layout for Moody Street that relies on the street being closed. Yet the two locations are quite different as Waltham is “very restaurant heavy center and so that’s why people go there. So I understand a 24/7 closure there [but] I think a modified closure would be what’s best” along Leonard Street, she said.
She points to Winchester, where she managed one of the company’s operations, where all sides appeared to be heard. There, the main business district is closed from 5 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and all day on Sunday, allowing the restaurants to bring their tables and chairs out for the afternoon and night service. And parking is allowed all day from Monday to Wednesday.
With the Winchester plan in hand, Castagno said the center’s business owners meet on Friday, to layout their own blueprint for the street. The proposal, approved by a 19-7 vote, would make Leonard Street one way going north to south from the fire station to the commuter bridge. Barriers would remain on the eastern side of Leonard where most of the Center’s restaurants are located.
The western side of Leonard would allow on-street parking while the only barriers would be in front of il Casale and El Centro restaurants to allow tables to be placed on the sidewalk and in the street.
After hearing the difficulties store owners are facing, town officials are taking a second look at the layout with an eye on a possible compromise that will allow some parking and traffic to return to Leonard Street.
And while it appears the business association’s proposal is doable, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said there are two caveats facing any change to the status quo. The first is safety. According to Glenn Clancy, director of Community Development, the inclusion of an active roadway adjacent to diners will require far more stringent barriers to separate the two on Leonard Street.
The second is money. “The cost is going to be directly related to any public safety measures,” said Garvin. After an initial consultation with Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac, Garvin said it appears the only option to address keeping everyone safe is installing concrete jersey barriers, a far less aesthetic measure, even if you can find them at a reasonable cost.
Garvin noted the town’s fiscal 2021 budget had been cut by $5 million due to COVID-19 reductions in state and local revenue receipts.
“[The town] won’t have the DPW that would have the ability to break down or set up anything during the day and necessarily don’t have the ability to purchase the barriers that we would need to make it so that the public was safe,” said Garvin.
But business leaders such as Lee Gaston, owner of Bessie Blue, a clothing store at the southern end of the center, believe once the plan is fleshed out and presented, the retail and restaurant owners will step up with money already pledged to both make their plan workable, safe and appealing to the public.
The town and business association will be meeting this week to create a plan and present it to public safety for review and to Community Development on the final price tag. It will come before the board at its next meeting in June.
For Castagno, “[t]he businesses in the center of town are like a team. And so what we need to find a decision that’s best for everyone. We feel like the decision that’s made right now doesn’t really strike the best compromise for both the restaurants and the retailers.”