Photo: Paul Roberts (right) speaking at the Special Town Meeting in August.
Six weeks after Belmont’s Town Meeting urged the Board of Selectmen to adhere to the original design for a pedestrian friendly lawn in Belmont Center, it has, instead, unveiled yet another plan to transform a haggard and little used traffic island in front of the downtown Belmont Savings Bank, the third such design since May. The Board will formally present its new plan to the public on Monday, Sept. 28. If you care about the running of our “Town of Homes,” you should plan on attending.
The latest design, dubbed the “Belmont Center Green Space Enhancement Concept” does not accede to Town Meeting’s request, made at an Aug. 6 Special Town Meeting at which a motion was adopted that urged the Board to restore directly the original design for the Town Center. I stand with the majority of Town Meeting members in believing that the original plan – “Plan A” – is the best path forward to realizing the vision for a 21st century Town Center that puts pedestrians on an equal footing with automobiles and motorists.
As for the Selectmen’s new design, I’ll say this: it is more attractive than both the cut through road that exists today and the “Plan B” design that the Selectmen adopted in their May Meeting. The compromise vision includes a narrower, brick-paved roadway with parallel parking spaces and pavers. But, it falls far well short of Plan A, which created a real space for residents in the Town Center to congregate without having to negotiate street crossings and automobile traffic. In short: the latest design is a step in that direction – but only a step.
That’s why I will encourage the Selectmen, on Monday, to look at this “Enhancement Concept,” appreciate its strengths, thank the citizens who worked hard on realizing the compromise, including Town Meeting members Bonnie Friedman, Ralph Jones and Andy Rojas and then kindly return to Plan A.
However, if (as I suspect) the Board is intent on pursuing its own vision for the Town Center, then they need to do what they did not do in May, namely: to step back and allow the Belmont community to consider their plan and ways to improve it. To do otherwise, by stifling public comment on the plan at their meeting, or by introducing and formally adopting a redesign would be a huge mistake. It would also be a sad reprise of the Board’s ill-considered May 28 meeting, at which they used a citizens’ petition as justification for unceremoniously ditching the blueprint for the Town Center redesign in favor of a never-before-seen “Plan B.“ That, despite that fact that construction on the Town Center had begun.
The justification for allowing time for consideration is simple: there are many questions that must be answered about the new design. We see an artist’s rendering of the new plan, and it looks nice – but it is just a picture. The Town needs to know if this byway will it work once constructed. And that’s a much bigger question. Among the questions, I pose to the Board are these: has a qualified engineering firm reviewed the new plans and deemed them compliant with state and federal guidelines for safety? How will the town control access to this narrow roadway to ensure pedestrian safety? Will there be limits on thru traffic for particular times of day? If so, what hours will the road be accessible? How will the town prevent motorists from using the cut through during off hours? What will the posted speed limit be? Will there be limits on vehicle size over this road? How many and what kinds of parking will be placed on the cut-through? How will traffic in and out of the Belmont Savings Bank garage be managed to ensure pedestrian safety?
There are many other questions that might be asked, as well, and the Board of Selectmen needs to be open to hearing them. It should provide adequate time – measured in weeks, not days –for the community to make sense of their proposal and to ask for modifications to the design where needed. Only then can Belmont be sure the roadway constructed will be both safe and practical in a heavily used and congested town center.
The unfortunate truth is that our Selectmen were presented with the opportunity to achieve a new and grander vision for Belmont Center in this redesign – a vision that would position us for the America of the next 50 years, not the last 50 years. In the face of that opportunity, however, the Board blinked. Rather than gaze steadily into the future, they opted to look backward and cling to what felt familiar. As a community, we’re still trying to pick up the pieces from that and recover a modest share of what might have been. The Selectmen can use their position, their authority and what good will they have left to help achieve that.
That work starts Monday evening. I’ll see you there.
Paul Roberts is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 8 and the editor of Blogging Belmont.