Angered, Resident Petitions To Restore Belmont Center’s Town Green

Photo: The face page of the online petition concerning Belmont Center Reconstruction project.

After expressing their anger in on-line comments and message boards to a Belmont Board of Selectmen decision to approve a last-second petition driven design change to the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project, one resident has started his own petition in an attempt to have the Selectmen change their vote.

“I am circulating a petition calling for the restoration of Plan A and will be asking my fellow Town Meeting members and neighbors to join me in signing it,” wrote Paul Roberts, a Cross Street resident and Precinct 8 member, who placed his petition on the website.

Roberts said he hoped the petition will spark the selectmen to reverse its earlier decision and call another public meeting, this time “to clear the air, explain their actions and discuss ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

So far, there is no word from individual selectmen on this petition.

Roberts joined others expressing their surprise, discontent and disappointment to an unanimous vote by the selectmen at an unusual Thursday night meeting, on May 28, prompted by a petition drive led by 96-year-old Lydia Ogilby who sought to make changes to the project’s blueprints as work had already begun on the plan.

The changes Ogilby advocated restores a small number of parking spaces in front of the main branch of Belmont Savings Bank that supporters claimed are needed by the bank’s elderly customers. Also, the modification would also preserve a “cut through” connecting Moore Street with Concord Avenue, allowing drivers to avoid Leonard Street when seeking parking in the area.

The result of the new changes would eliminate the creation of a new “town green” in front of the bank. Under the altered design, the green space would become an island surrounded by vehicle traffic and parked cars.

The alterations came seven months after a November 2014 Special Town Meeting approved the drawings and the project’s financing package.

Despite opposition to “Plan B” by residents and some stinging comments from Linda Nickens, Traffic Advisory Committee chair, which held four years of public meetings before approving the design which was approved by the Selectmen and Town Meeting, the Selectmen voted 3-0 for the changes.

The resulting comments – online in the Belmontonian and Google’s Belmont Moms community and public conversations – to the selectmen’s decision were quick to come with some pointed political jabs included.

“This seems like a poor precedent to set and an incredibly dangerous one that. I am very disappointed to be so poorly represented. Perhaps if my pedigree were better documented, I could bring about some real change… ” wrote Miriam Lapson in a Belmontonian comment.

“We have a major process problem if a small (and the apparently well-connected) group can make arbitrary last-minute changes to a plan that has been developed over years with broad community input,” wrote Mike Campisano.

“The result of these arbitrary changes to the plan will be to make Belmont Center less welcoming to pedestrians and more efficient as a pass through for drivers. How does that help any of the stakeholders?” he said.

Two days ago, Bonnie Friedman of Hay Road and Precinct 3, wrote a letter to the editor in the Belmontonian addressed to the selectmen in which she scolded the board for allowing it to be swayed by a small minority of residents in town.

“If a change is to be made at this point, a public process must be offered once again; no last minute substitutions to appease one small vocal minority. If this is not done correctly, the whole process is tainted and will be very difficult for the Selectmen to gain the confidence and monetary support of the town again,” she said.

For Roberts, the selectmen’s vote was “disgraceful” as it threw out the window “a months-long process out the window” hundreds of hours of volunteer time Traffic Advisory Committee.

“Their decision makes a mockery of this Town’s efforts to create a transparent, consensus-based, bottom-up process for planning and investment. Instead, it sends the clear message that the word of the Selectmen is written in sand. That even the most straight-forward projects in this town are political footballs to be kicked around and subject to the whims of powerful constituencies, rather than the will of the majority of voters and their representatives at Town Meeting,” he said.

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  1. Karen Stenbo Sapolsky says

    It is dismaying to see derogatory and prejudiced statements about the age and family history of people with whom writers disagree. Such ad hominem comments add nothing to a discussion and I would hope that we would all limit ourselves to discussing substantive issues.

    The substantive issue at hand is the size of the grass delta in Belmont Center, and whether it should be expanded to the extent that several parking spaces and the through street from Moore to Concord would be lost. No poll has ever been done to assess the sentiment of the roughly 25,000 residents on this subject, so all statements such as “one small vocal minority”, or 100 signatures here, or 200 signatures, there cannot really be adduced as the reason that the town should make one choice or another. In the absence of a poll, the choice must be a reasoned judgment about what will best serve the town.

    Nor should the fact that the Traffic Advisory Committee came down on one side of the issue necessarily be a determinative factor. Committee recommendations are just that, recommendations, and should not be regarded as sacred. Approval sometimes seems to come too easily, ignoring objections. I think we all can cite instances when we have disagreed with at least one committee’s final report.

    Latent discontent about the final recommendation of a committee is almost inevitable, because Belmont has long-standing flaws in both the selection of committee members, and the conduct of public hearings by committees. In too many instances, committees are set up to study an issue because a group of residents feels that the issue is important, and then the very same people who raised the issue are appointed to the committee by the selectmen. Predictably, their final report reflects closely the issues they raised initially. Other residents are free to ask to be included on a committee, but the selectmen rarely, if ever, do one critical thing: they do not hold off on creating the committee and appointing the members until an equal number of residents can be found who have a different perspective on the issue from those who asked that it be “studied”. Thus, in too many instances, we have largely, or completely, unbalanced and biased committees.

    Yes, committees do hold public hearings, during which they are supposed to seriously consider input from other residents. In reality, though, by the time hearings are held, the lopsided committee is already in agreement on what their final recommendation will be, and the hearings are pro-forma. Suggestions by residents that don’t fit that mold are rarely, if ever, incorporated. It is no surprise, then, that residents who have been through this experience a few times know that their attendance at these hearings is largely a waste of time, and they stop bothering to go. And thus we arrive at the time when a committee issues a final report, and some residents voice objection, and the committee protests that it is too late to complain now, that should have been done during the public hearings.

    In the case of the TAC committee, as I have said, I have no better idea than you do whether the majority of residents agrees with the findings on this issue. I can only tell you what I think, and add to that some anecdotal data– but you only have what you think, and what your friends think, so we are even on that score and can do away with allegations of “a tiny minority”. I have heard considerable disgruntlement on two topics: 1) that the planned reconstruction of Belmont Center is very expensive in a time of financial challenges for the town; and 2) that the planned reconstruction will do little or nothing to alleviate the traffic congestion that is the real problem in the Center.

    As for the delta, I think probably most of us are fond of green space and in a perfect world we would have lots of it, including in the middle of Belmont Center. However fond we are of the classic concept of the New England town ringing a large common, precious few of the most developed towns have that luxury. Concord, Arlington, and Lexington do not – although all do have substantial green space just past the commercial area, analogous to Belmont’s lovely large green space on the other side of the railroad bridge. It’s something of a tradeoff – our shopping area is more compact and efficient precisely because it is not a ring around a common of several acres. At any rate, it is what we are stuck with, and enlarging the delta will not substantially change that reality. As to the belief of some that enlarging the delta would cause people to go there and congregate – really? I have never observed the current delta with crowds spilling over the edges. It is also dubious, as claimed, that expanding the green space per se would improve pedestrian access. Access will always be daunting, entailing crossing Leonard St. or Concord Ave.

    On the other hand, what is positive about the revised plan (actually a return to pretty much what we have now, sadly minus a few trees)? It would preserve a number of parking spaces that are in almost constant use by patrons of our stores and restaurants, by people visiting the professional offices on Moore St, and by those who do not find space available in the town hall lot, by day and for evening meetings. That is a critical point: those spaces are nearly always full. It’s hard to understand why the TAC committee ever thought they were disposable. It is especially true that we should do all we can to aid the stores in Belmont Center, because they provide convenient shopping and tax revenues. Taking away any parking spaces is counterproductive, and an increase in the size of the grass delta seems a less compelling need. An additional benefit of the current arrangement is that the short street between Moore and Concord alleviates at least a little of the traffic congestion on the Leonard St. side of the bridge.

    These are factors that the town should have given serious consideration to when the TAC report was submitted. The selectmen have now made the right decision.

    • Azra Nelson says

      Thank you. In a perfect world we would not have such a heavy traffic area, and trouble with parking in and around Belmont town center .It would be beautiful, calm, and very green.

      But this is not our Belmont. Our Belmont is densely populated, with congestion and semi-urban character. Space, including parking space is at the premium.

      I think that many people forget how much more traffic and parking issues we all had when Macy’s was still in business. With Macy’s closing we had it little bit easier for some time. Now, and with this new supermarket coming into our town center, we will need every available parking spot, and an escape route.

      I think that although people might disagree with decision process, leaving parking spaces and outlet is better for all involved, and with our current growth. Just think how many more residents will need town hall and parking space when Uplands and Cushing developments are done!

  2. Tony Oberdorfer says

    I hold no brief for our Board of Selectmen but this tempest-in-a-teapot is another example of busybody Belmont liberals trying to have their own way even when it defies common sense. To suggest that adding a few square feet to the existing island would turn it into a colonial New England-style “town green” is simply stupid, especially considering the unfavorable topography of the area. I do not believe a slightly larger space would attract any more town green-lovers than the present island does, especially since it will be surrounded much of the day by excessive traffic as it is now.

    Irrespective of the lack of concern about the disappearance of a good many helpful parking spaces, what the town green lobby should really be upset about is that the redesign of Belmont Center seems to have done little to deal with the excessive through traffic problem that over time will only get worse.

    • Steve W says

      Tony, I think what has angered some (myself included) has little to do with the outcome of the redesign (parking spaces, no parking spaces, whatever) but more to do with the way it transpired. That a few vocal citizens (perhaps in the minority) could raise a last-minute stink and the BOS bent to their whim. Undermining what had been a structured, defined planning phase. I remember working for a (horrible) CEO years ago about whom employees would joke about as defining his company strategy based on feedback from whomever he last passed in the hallway. This seems to be a similar situation and seeming no way to run a town….

      • Tony Oberdorfer says

        Steve, you make a legitimate point but I would suggest that it is conservatives like myself who have more often than not been the victims. Aside from the existence of a wonderful swimming opportunity across Mass. Avenue in Arlington which was ignored in the planning for the new pool, the outcome was not what should have happened procedurally when the arrangement with the contractor fell through. Through incompetence and arrogance the library lobby is ignoring that there is no reason for the town to undertake construction of a new library, but liberals don’t take no for an answer. The METCO program was originally forced upon the town with no public discussion but when I raised the issue in my usual column the other day, I was censored. No debate about the matter permitted in the town referred to as Harvard’s bedroom.. Even such an obvious problem as the really inconvenient location of the Belmont Center taxi stand was ignored by the Board of Selectmen when I raised the matter some years ago. I could go on…..

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