Last-Second Fiddling Reverts Belmont Center ‘Green’ Back to an Island

Photo: The “access” road in front on Belmont Savings Bank.

The planning took four year to finalize, the blueprints were drawn, the contractors hired and the work underway.

And for those who worked to bring the Belmont Center Reconstruction project to fruition, it appeared that all that was left was for a ribbon cutting late in the year to celebrate the upgrade to the roadway, new sidewalks and other amenities that is expected to last for the next half century.

But being Belmont, the final word is never the last say. 

Despite a half decade of public meetings led by the Belmont Traffic Advisory Committee and with workers tearing up curbing and cutting trees beginning last week, the Belmont Board of Selectmen called a special meeting for Thursday, May 28 at the Beech Street Center to hear from some of the apparently 200 residents who decided the last second was an appropriate time to be heard about the entire project.

Led by 96-year-old Lydia Phippen Ogilby of Washington Street who took pencil to paper to call for the meeting to hear from the signatories – many who are north of Belmont’s median age of 42 – who felt passed over on the opportunity to express their concerns on the finished design, submitted their own “Plan B” revision. 

Saying the reconstruction will be with the town for more than a half century, Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady said aspects of the project “raised so much concern” that despite the lateness of the challenge, the meeting was warranted in an effort to find a “revenue neutral way” to find a compromise.

In fact, the opponents were apparently perturbed with just a pair of the design’s details; the removal of about 10 diagonal parking spaces located in front of the Belmont Savings Bank headquarters at 2 Leonard St., and the related one-way “access” road – actually the currently parking area – connecting Moore Street with Concord Avenue.

Under the TAC design plans approved by d the Board of Selectmen and reviewed by a Special Town Meeting in November when it approved a funding package, the parking spaces and road were removed to create a “Town Green” in front of the bank, with benches and a flag pole that would attract residents and visitors to a central landmark Belmont Center. 

“It provides Belmont a ‘green’ which many towns have but we have been lacking,” Glenn Clancy – as director of the Community Development Office is overseeing the project for the town – told the Belmontonian before the meeting. 

In the current plan, known as Plan A at the meeting, there would be three parking spaces next to the existing exit from the bank’s covered parking garage with additional parking spaces created near by along Concord Avenue near Town Hall. 

While the meeting was established to hear from critics, most speakers expressing opinions were supportive of the current design.

“It would be a big mistake to change the new design,” said former State Rep. and Selectman Anne Paulsen, saying the “town green” concept would make the site “a friendlier space” while keeping parking and the access road will result in the space that “only a few people” would want to spend time.

Paul Rickter of Cross Street approved eliminating the cut-through from Moore to Concord as it would make the center “a little more pedestrian-friendly.”

While supporters were , the tardy opponents were not satisfied with the design as it would effect how they conduct business especially at Belmont Savings’ main branch. 

The second design – supported by the petitioners – would revert the Green back to a tear-shaped island surrounded by traffic and parking while keeping the “short cut” from Moore to Concord, which several residents note is a convenience so not having to enter onto Leonard Street to turn right onto Concord. 

Joel Semuels of Bellevue Road, who is on the board for the town’s Council on Aging, said reduction of parking spaces would be a detriment to the “25 percent of residents over 60” (Editor’s note: the 2010 US Census data indicated that 16 percent of Belmont residents are 65 years old and older) seeking to do business at the bank. Semuels approved of four parallel spaces situated before the bank’s garage exit in the Plan B scheme.

Scott Tellier, who with his father owns commercial property in Belmont Center, said preserving parking spaces – even three or four that will be “lost” in the entire project – was paramount for stores and restaurants to retain customers seeking to shop in the commercial hub.

“We want to see parking,” said Tellier.

Bob Mahoney, the president and CEO of Belmont Savings, said he could support the changes begin proposed although he did want to promote the green space adjacent the bank. He noted even under Plan B, the green will increase by approximately 40 percent from its present footprint.

The dilatory nature of the opponent’s complaints, as well as their insistence their concerns were not incorporated into the reconstruction’s plans, did not sit well with Linda Nickens, TAC chair who pointedly told the few opponents in attendance the committee didn’t sit “in a dark room” developing the project, which, she added, was viewed favorably by the selectmen and the business community last year.

“They did like it,” said Nickens.

With numerous public meeting TAC set aside to hear from all sides of the measure, the opponents “never came to complain” or be part of the process, said Nickens, calling the belated campaign to alter the plans “disappointing.”

As a supporter of the current plan, Rickter said his objection with the meeting is that “this change was made at the eleventh hour with no clear notice that the Selectmen would be making such a substantial change to the design.”

“We don’t know if they are representative of the town as a whole or merely a very vocal minority; the process never allowed us to find that out,” he told the Belmontonian.

Given the last say, Ogilby – whose family first ventured into what is now Belmont in the 1600s – expressed her feelings in a labyrinthine statement, in which she complimented Clancy, talked about the news about town, how she likes the traffic roundabout in front of her house at the corner of Grove and Washington, and all the “nice” residents near her 19th-century farm house for signing the “papers.” 

In the end, the selectmen unanimously voted to support Plan B which the opponents championed. Baghdady, who earlier called the changes “tweaking” he current plan, hailed the changes as “part of the democratic process.” Even Nickens agreed that “the people have spoken” on the matter. 

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Comments

  1. David Powelstock says

    It is utterly outrageous that the Selectmen think it appropriate to allow this eleventh-hour appeal to subvert a years-long public, democratic process. And what is the precedent set? Whoever gets the most signatures on a petition carries the day? Now that the petition against this last-minute change has already reached 329 signatures, as of this writing, will the BoS automatically reverse their reversal? This is no way to run a town.

  2. says

    Unreal. This is a total abdication of leadership, and a huge slap in the face to Town Meeting the TAC and – frankly – the democratic process. Why don’t we just bring back the Belmont Citizens Committee so that the Old Guard can just decide who gets elected in the first place!?!

  3. Gi says

    I am so disappointed in the selectmen, especially Williams, for being swayed by a small group rather than think of the whole community especially families and kids who would be walking and playing in that area. I vote Plan A!

  4. Kate Bowen says

    This particular area of the design was much discussed at the Town Meeting last fall. To change it is a significant change that undermines the objectives of this project. While it may be “allowable” in the strictest sense, this kind of change is not a slight modification of the design.

  5. Karen Sapolsky says

    Contrary to repeated statements in this article, people did ask earlier that the current configuration of an island and parking be retained. That concern was not taken seriously by those who developed the redesign. It never made any sense at all to take away any parking spaces from the center. Not only do the spaces in front of the bank serve the stores and their patrons, they are almost always filled in the evening as they catch overflow from the parking lot at town hall that is so often inadequate for the number of meeting attendees. Why was the evidence that those spaces are in constant use ignored?

    Was it announced that this meeting of the selectmen would deal with this problem? Thank you so much to Lydia and the others who found out about the meeting and attended to voice the sentiment probably held by many who did not know that the discussion would be reopened. It’s great to know that this problem with the design has been remedied.

    • Jonathan Birge says

      Karen,

      First, there is more to town planning than parking. It might be nice if, after one parks, there is something beautiful to see. Four parking spaces represent a tiny fraction of those available in town, yet this is the ONLY green space the town center has. The impact to parking by Plan B is neglible but the implact to green space is significant. This decision should be made holistically, not with parking as the only consideration.

      Second, the reason people are angry is that this was all decided before. The argument now isn’t about what should be done, it’s about the decision process. What is the point of spending years deciding something if three selectmen override this at the last minute? Try to look past the fact that you happen to prefer parking spaces over green space and understand that this is not the way this kind of decision should happen. Next time, you might not like the way it falls.

      My guess is that there is something going on besides extremely poor leadership, such as pressure on the selectmen from businesses who contributed to their campaigns. However, they will find that no amount of money will make up for angering the people.

  6. Claire DeVore says

    This is exactly the reason given by several people I know who have chosen to move from Belmont: the outrageous assumption of power by a select few.
    If a new and unpredictable reason had been brought forth I can understand further talk on the issue, but because a few people want to have a convenient parking spot, one that dangerously impedes pedestrians especially by drivers of advanced age or teens, a parking area I’ve used once in 12 years for fear of getting nailed crossing the street legally, we’re to cave to the frends of a parker?

  7. Miriam Lapson says

    I feel the same way as the previous posters and the concerned residents posting on Facebook. My question for the selectmen would now be if I or someone else showed up with a new petition with two hundred and ONE signatures- would they then vote it back? Of course not because that would be insane and no way to run a town. This seems like a poor precedent to set and an incredibly dangerous one a that,. I am very disappointed to be so poorly represented. Perhaps if my pedigree were better documented I could bring about some real change…

  8. David Chase says

    Note that (as far as I know) process rules prevent us from holding a quick vote at town meeting tonight on how Town Meeting feels about this. Perhaps we could gather a quick petition during the 9pm break…

  9. Mike Campisano says

    I agree with Kimberly. We have a major process problem if a small (and apparently well-connected) group can make arbitrary last-minute changes to a plan that has been developed over years with broad community input. 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?

  10. says

    There is nothing “democratic” about a last minute group substantially changing a design that has been worked on by many people for 4 years. They should be obligated to have further town input. I was unable to be there for that one night and am now seeing that all of the meetings I attended and time I spent reading the reports was for nothing.

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