Select Board Nix Pedestrian-Friendly Summer Plan In Belmont Center For More Parking, Traffic

Photo: The end of the pedestrian-friendly summer plan

The two-year experiment known for calming traffic and prompting walking and al fesco dining in Belmont’s business center has come to an end.

The Belmont Select Board voted, 2-1, Monday, March 21 to end pedestrian-friendly summers along Leonard Street in Belmont Center as the board’s majority approved a blueprint created by the Belmont Center Business Association that emphasizes auto traffic and long stretches of parking.

The approved plan essentially maintains the center’s current traffic pattern with it’s two-lanes of commuter traffic running through the town’s main hub.

“In terms of traffic flows … nothing would be any different than it is today because it would be retain two-way travel,” said Glen Clancy, Belmont’s director of Community Development.

The one exception to the current design will be jersey barrier-protected bump outs in front of selected restaurants and eateries to allow for a small outdoor dining area. The number of restaurants seeking seating will decrease from 14 to 9, much due to changing business environment. Owner of The Toy Shop of Belmont, Daren Muckjian, told the board that a reduction of Center eateries including Starbucks and Comella’s just didn’t warrant the amount of spaces taken out of circulation.

“I hate to have barriers and spaces in front of empty spaces. What’s the purpose and what’s the reason behind it?” he said.

There will also be “a significant number of parking spaces gained” said Clancy, including converting the former MBTA bus stop adjacent to the town “delta” adjacent to the People’s United Bank branch from a loading zone into additional spaces. Where once the near entirety of the parking spaces on the east-side of Leonard Street was converted to seating, this year most will revert back to the curb parking.

The metal railings that ran the length of Leonard Street which provided a safety barrier between autos and the walking public will not longer be part of the scheme as the business association referred to them as a “maintenance headache,” said Clancy. In addition, cyclists will be asked to share the traffic lanes with vehicle traffic as the jersey barriers will take up that space.

The summer traffic plan accepted by the Belmont Select Board that shows two-way traffic and several new parking spaces. The yellow spaces are seating areas.

Devised by the town and Select Board in the spring of 2020 to allow the center’s eateries room to create outdoor dining when the Covid-19 pandemic closed indoor service at restaurants, the opening of Leonard Street with a single traffic lane from Alexander Avenue to Channing Road created a pedestrian-friendly area that attracted strollers, shoppers and diners to the business district. In 2021, additional parking was created along the street as well as flower pots and new railing as the length of the closure was increased from early May to late October.

Despite being popular with residents and shoppers, a segment of the business association’s membership has opposed to the one-way, pedestrian version since its inception, claiming their operations suffered financially due to the lack of direct on-street parking and commerce generated by the mostly out-of-town commuter trade. While there is a large municipal parking lot in the rear of the center along Claflin Street, the merchants said it is too far for many shoppers.

Another reason for the businesses opposition this summer is cost as the local family which donated the funds to install the jersey barriers will not commit that money in 2022, according to Muckjian.

For the Select Board’s majority, the business association’s option appeared to meet the needs of those most impacted by the road changes.

“I think we’re feeling our way … to striking a balance between different businesses that may have different priorities,” said the Select Board’s Roy Epstein, as restaurants keep their outside dining areas – albeit diminished in square footage – while retailers have their on-street parking.

With the town-wide mask mandate lifted for businesses and indoor dining expected to “flourish, I think this is a fine compromise,” said the Select Board’s Mark Paolillo, who said businesses have “suffered” due to the lack of on-street parking in front of their establishments.

But Dash said that since last year, “I’m concerned that we keep eroding this plan” noting the original concept in 2020 advocated doing away with vehicles in the center as many European municipalities and some US resort areas have done.

“Now we are talking about two-way traffic. At some point [you have to ask]’what’s the point?’” said Dash. “I’ve heard from residents that either do what you did last year or get rid of the cars altogether. I’ve heard zero people in the public say ‘I want two-way traffic’,” he said.

“I’ve also talked to businesses in the Center who wanted the same that it was last year,” said Dash.

But Epstein countered Dash view by noting the plan has changed yearly due to new conditions.

“I don’t believe we are eroding the concept, I think we are evolving the concept because we’re trying to balance a number of different constituencies,” including a number of merchants who believe “keeping two-way traffic year-round is a matter of life or death” for their businesses.

He suggested creating a lower speed limit targeting Leonard Street as a way to make the area “a little more acceptable.”

“It would be better if we had the one-way travel lane and a dedicated bike lane,” said Dash, who was the lone dissenting vote. “At least the commuters will love it.”

The 2021 plan for Belmont Center.

Select Board No Fan Of Proposal For Two-Way Traffic On Leonard This Summer

Photo: One or two-way traffic will be coming to Leonard Street this summer

If there has been one town-led change to the Belmont landscape over the past two years that has received overwhelming approval, it’s been the nearly six months that Leonard Street becomes a one-way avenue through Belmont Center.

Devised by the town and Select Board in the spring of 2020 to allow the center’s eateries enough room to install outdoor dining when the Covid-19 pandemic closed down indoor service at restaurants, the opening of Leonard Street with a single traffic lane from Alexander Avenue to Channing Road created a pedestrian-friendly area that attracted strollers, shoppers and diners to the business district. In 2021, additional parking was created along the street as well as flower pots and new railing as the length of the closure was increased from early May to late October.

”People love it,” said Chair Adam Dash. “The only complaint I heard was why can’t you close both lanes. Get rid of the cars.”

So when the Select Board heard a proposal from the Belmont Center Business Association to temporarily close Leonard Street to one lane from May to October, the board was eager to move forward. That was until they heard from the town on what the business group was proposing. Rather than one lane, the association members was seeking two, narrow lanes with a more limited area along the curb given over to restaurants for al fresco dining.

Since no one from the BCBA attended the meeting, it was up to Town Administrator Patrice Garvin to tell the board that earlier in the day town officials had “some additional conversations” with the association and while it wanted the board to approve the dates for closing the street from May 2 through Oct. 25, the association’s “alternatives”was specifically having two-way traffic along Leonard. So far, said Garvin, the town had not even started any preliminary work such as creating a traffic pattern map or even knowing “how that will work.”

“Roy [Epstein, board member] and Glenn Clancy [town engineer] spent a lot of time on moving spaces around … and that worked pretty well,” said Dash, who said he had not heard about the association’s proposal when he met earlier in the day with the BCBA president Gerry Dickhaut, owner of Champions Sporting Goods.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they want two-way traffic,” said Dash.

“One way layout worked fine, but a two way?” pondered Epstein.

Clancy said the alternative would squeeze two-way traffic lane which would include sharing the lanes with bikes, dining, adding more parking spaces, with less pedestrian areas all in the same program package.

”They see an opportunity with two lanes to be able to provide for more parking for some of the businesses that don’t fully support closing even one lane of traffic,” said Clancy, pointing to office owners and retailers who are demanding “better parking facilities.”

It became immediately apparent the three-member select board saw the BCBA proposal as going over like a lead zeppelin. The three members said they would not vote on anything until they saw some details of any likely alternative.

”We need a plan to vote on,” said Mark Paolillo, who even floated the idea of following other towns which shut off traffic to business centers for certain days of the week such as from Thursday to Sunday.

“I don’t know what I’m voting on so I’m not voting on [the dates],” said Dash.

“The one lane worked. It has robust attendance. Cars seem to be moving slow particularly at night,” said Paolillo.

The board deferred the vote until Monday, March 14.

Leonard Street Again One-Way As Center Welcomes Return To A More Normal (Photos)

Photo: Placing jersey barriers along Leonard Street as Belmont Center’s main roadway becomes one-way ’til Halloween.

The Flett Company’s trucks and excavator were rolling down Leonard Street Monday morning, May 3, as workers under the management of Department of Public Works Director Jay Marcotte placed 35 jersey barriers and 100s of metal barricades along Belmont Center’s busiest road. From today to the end of October, the town’s main business thoroughfare will be a one-way avenue, running southward from Alexandra Avenue to Moore Street as the area becomes a pedestrian and dining friendly spot.

With residents returning to those pre-pandemic “normal” activities as vaccinations become the norm rather than an exception, “we want to welcome them back and enjoy the Center,” said Heidi Sawyer of the Belmont Garden Club.

The single lane road – 10 mph, please – is a return from 2020 when Leonard Street was narrowed to allow restaurants to expand their al fresco dining during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While created to assist the struggling eateries, residents and visitors found the added space to be a new found pleasure which allowed for strolling and people watching during a time when most residents were stuck at home.

There are some improvements from last year as the barriers have a fresh coat of silver paint, bright yellow tables, chairs and umbrellas are scattered along the sidewalks and the inclusion of play spaces with table tennis and other fun activates.

But the most recognizable upgrade from last year are the dozens for planters filled with flowering scrubs and bushes placed on and in-between the jersey barriers, thanks to a collaboration of the Belmont Center Business Association and the Belmont Garden Club which was supported by a $25,000 gift from a local couple which will go to making the summer a return to a more normal.

One-Way Leonard Street Returns For Spring, Summer and The Fall

Photo: A return to one-way traffic through Belmont Center

The second “summer” of a pedestrian-friendly one-way Leonard Street – with several refinements included for this year – is being extended from mid-spring to Halloween as the Select Board OK’d the town’s blueprint at its meeting Monday, March 29.

The one-way season will begin Monday, May 3 and last to Sunday, Oct. 31.

Considered a huge success by the public – more than 300 emails were sent to the Select Board in favor of its return – many businesses, and town officials, it wasn’t a surprise the Select Board would enthusiastically approve the return to outdoor seating for restaurants while creating a haven for strollers and shoppers.

“This new proposal strikes a somewhat better balance recognizing the very different constituencies in terms of accommodates the non-restaurant businesses better,” said Select Board Chair Roy Epstein.

Glenn Clancy, head of the Office of Community Development, said the town had two guiding principals viewing the project; build on what was seen as a success of the previous year and be responsive to feedback from several sets of stakeholders.

“We should always strive to make it better than it was,” said Clancy.

As a result, there are five changes to the previous year’s plan:

  • Moore Street will be made a one way from Leonard to Pleasant streets;
  • The former MBTA bus stop at the former Belmont Savings Bank will become a loading zone for businesses in the center;
  • The four parking spaces on Leonard Street entering Belmont Center will be short-term parking with a 15-minute limit;
  • Parking will be allowed on the northside of Leonard from Alexander Avenue and CVS with accessible spaces at both ends of the roadway; and
  • The parking spaces on the southside of Leonard at Alexander will become a public space where community seating, park benches, and other amenities will create “a place where if you are wandering around Belmont Center and you feel like you just want to sit and relax for a minute, there’s a place for you,” said Clancy.

The Select Board’s Adam Dash questioned the need for parking on the north side from CVS to Alexander Avenue after residents and visitors did not want any parking along Leonard Street. Clancy said last year business owners and office spaces would continually open and close the temporary metal gates to allow customers to park in front of the businesses. The new arrangement would allow a less cumbersome parking arrangement.

Epstein said his one concern would be the “unintended consequences” when traffic returns to pre-COVID levels which resulted in long-lines of vehicles attempting to navigate the Center.

“We need to be prepared to react,” he said.

But Dash took a counter view saying it’s not all that bad “if we can put up a little roadblock” in the Center, forcing commuters who cut through the town to reconsider that route. He noted that popular travel apps used by commuters to cut their time traveling home will likely send users to other towns than Belmont.

Glenn Clancy, Director, Office of Community Development

One Way Leonard: Town Seeks Comments On A Return To One Lane Traffic

Photo: Leonard Street down to one lane last summer

The Select Board will hold a public meeting to discuss a proposal to restrict Leonard Street to one lane of traffic between Moore Street and Alexander Avenue from April through October. The virtual meeting will take place on Monday, March 8 at 7 p.m.

“The town is eager to hear comments and get feedback to determine the level of interest of this proposal,” according to the announcement sent by the Town Clerk’s Office.

Last year, the Select Board instituted the one way traffic plan to allow restaurants to expand their al fresco dining area onto Leonard Street to assist those business owners impacted by COVID-19 restrictions on indoor operations. While many enjoyed the increased pedestrian opportunities created by the measure, retail shops said the loss of parking spaces on Belmont’s main commercial center hampered their businesses.

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Belmont Center Reopens For Two-Way Traffic: Will There Be A Repeat Next Summer?

Photo: Back to normal on Leonard Street

There are two ways to view the return of two-way traffic on Leonard Street through Belmont Center on Monday, Oct. 27: a return to normality for commuters after 137 days of detours and alternative routes or an end to a new way to view and use Belmont’s business and restaurant hub.

According to the head of the group that advocates for Belmont Center’s businesses, there is a good chance the merchants and restauranteurs will ask the town to return to the more pedestrian-friendly arrangement for next summer.

With the concrete New Jersey barriers and steel gates removed just after the morning rush hour, Leonard Street returned to the two way traffic after the town’s Select Board voted in early June to close down Belmont Center until Labor Day as a way of supporting the prominent restaurant trade during the COVID-19 pandemic which forced them to halt indoor dining.

With traffic restricted through the center, restaurants and retail stores were able to expand their operations onto the sidewalk for al fresco dining.

After first voting to halt all but emergency vehicles and MBTA buses, the Select Board moved to limit travel on Leonard Street from Alexander Avenue to Moore Street in the direction to the commuter rail tunnel after hearing from several merchants protest the elimination of all off-street parking.

The restrictions were extended from Labor Day to the end of October to assist eateries as state continued to limit the number of diners in establishments.

Gerry Dickhaut, owner of Champions Sporting Goods and president of the Belmont Center Business Association said the more than four months of the new traffic configuration resulted in “an excellent summer” as “a lot of people loved it, just to get outside during these tough times.”

“It was very successful for the majority of merchants,” said Dickhaut.

With the recent experience under its belt, Dickhaut said the business association is eager for a return to a more pedestrian-friendly center for 2021.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it next year after [Belmont] Town Day (which takes place in mid-June), and make this an annual thing,” he said.

With permission from the select board and town officials, Dickhaut would like to see the one-way traffic configuration for the calendar summer from June to September.

“It was well worthwhile maybe we should add some music next year, make it a festival,” he envisions. “We heard that some of the merchants said, ‘it’s great to have it for the summer but a little longer is maybe hurtful for some of the business.’ There were a couple of businesses that didn’t like it, but the majority of the business did like it.”

One More Month: Leonard Street To Remain One Lane ‘Til Oct. 25; And Free Lot Parking!

Photo: Traffic flowing on Leonard Street

Belmont residents will have four additional weeks of al fresco dining and one way traffic along Leonard Street as the Belmont Select Board voted 2-1 to extend the closure of the main thoroughfare in the town’s business center until Sunday, Oct. 25.

The board majority – Adam Dash and Tom Caputo – felt the extra time will continue to benefit eateries in the Center and across town which have been particularly hit hard due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I heard a lot of support from the [Belmont] community for continuing it that is addition to what the business community in Belmont Center,” said Caputo.

The sole dissent came from Roy Epstein, the board’s chair, who said he was keeping a promise made to the business community that includes retail operations that the roadway would be opened on Sept. 28 which will free up dozens of on-street parking.

“Maybe it’s going well for the restaurants but I think the harm to the other businesses is actually invisible to us,” said Dash.

“I think we should give them the best shot,” said Dash.

Along with the continuation of one-way traffic on Leonard Street, free parking will continue for residents and visitors in the Claflin Street municipal lot located off Channing Road in Belmont Center.

Leonard Street Altered To One Way Traffic At Behest Of Belmont Center Businesses

Photo: Traffic and parking has returned to Belmont Center.

One week after Leonard Street in Belmont Center was shut down for the summer, drivers today – Thursday, June 18 – discovered the street now allows one-way traffic through Belmont’s business hub after town officials implemented a traffic plan from business owners that they hope will help retail shops as well as restaurants that have been closed for the past three months due to COVID-19.

The change comes four days after businesses expressed their concerns to the Select Board on Monday, June 15.

Starting today, traffic from Pleasant Street can travel through the center to the commuter rail tunnel. Vehicles can also use the parking spaces along Leonard Street. Jersey barriers are used to create bump-outs into the street to allow outside dining and seating for three eateries – rancatore’s ice cream & yogurt, il Casale and El Centro – along the western side of the street.

Vehicles traveling from the tunnel towards the Center will need to detour at Moore Street as the street to Alexander Avenue is closed to accommodate outdoor dining and retail space.

Town officials said the change to the street is an effort to follow through with the concerns of the town’s business leaders.

“The Town was eager to be responsive to the merchants in Belmont Center,” said Patrice Garvin, town administrator.

“We hoped the first plan would be received well, but we quickly realized we needed to give the merchants and patrons more flexibility. We implemented the current plan and will be monitoring its progress,” said Garvin.

Retailers said they were happy that the town took quick action on what they felt was a workable compromise that will assist all businesses in the center.

“I expected that they would move quickly because there were so many people that weren’t happy,” said Lisa Castagno, owner of Revolve who helped generate a response to the initial plan.

Gerry Dickhaut, owner of Champions Sporting Goods and president of the Belmont Center Business Association, said the group used a portion of the $4,600 raised from businesses and landlords to rent the jersey barriers along the street to create a safety border between vehicles and customers and employees. It will use the remaining funds to beautify the barricades and bring in live music to the newly pedestrian street.

“I’ve got to tell you the Select Board, [Garvin], Glenn Clancy [town engineer] and Mike Santoro [director of the DPW’s Highway Department] all have been so helpful to get this going. It took just a week from when we approach them for the compromise to be in place. We all worked together and got it done.”

The Summer Of Al Fresco: Belmont Closes Leonard Street To Help Eateries Recover [VIDEO]

Photo: Work closing Leonard Street in Belmont Center

When the Belmont Select Board voted to allow the closure of Leonard Street for the summer at its Monday, June 8 meeting, most people were expecting the actual shutdown of the roadway through Belmont’s largest business center to take place sometime during the summer.

But only two and a half days later on Thursday morning, jersey barriers were in place, a long-line of rusting crowd-control steel barricades were coming being set up by Belmont Department of Public Works crews and town officials had completed the task they said they would do be done.

And while some business owners were caught unawares and the stray parked SUV was suddenly fenced in, the operation was completed without that much of a snag and Belmont Center will be vehicle free until the day after Labor Day, Tuesday, Sept. 8.

And if the change to a walkable center is a success, it could continue into the late fall.

The closing of the street – from Alexander and Moore streets – is an attempt to help restaurants and eateries during the Phase 2 reopening of the state economy during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. During this stage, restaurants are allowed to serve al fresco with outdoor dining.

Belmont town officials decided to help out the eatery owners by providing added space to the limited sidewalk area they could use by expanding in the street.

And despite some hiccups, by Saturday, the first tables and chairs were out in the warm spring night with customers waiting to finally eat out by eating outside.

Belmont Center’s Leonard Street Closing On Thursday at 10 AM ’til Labor Day

Photo: The map of the changes coming to Belmont Center with the closure of Leonard Street.

Just two days after the Select Board approved a plan to increase outdoor dining in Belmont Center to help restaurants and retail hurt by the COVID-19 shutdown, the Community Development Office announced Wednesday, June 10 that Leonard Street will be closed as soon as 10 a.m. on Thursday, June 11 and continuing until the day after Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 8.

“Pending available DPW crews, we will be closing the road a soon as tomorrow,” said Glenn Clancy, director of Community Development.

The street through Belmont Center will be shut down from Alexander Avenue to Moore Street with no parking allowed during that time. The roadway will have a 15-foot center lane that will allow for accessed by emergency vehicles, deliveries and MBTA buses only.

The closure could be extended into the fall depending on how successful it is assisting eateries weather the COVID-19 storm.

Vehicles traveling northbound will turn right onto Moore Street to Pleasant Street. Southbound traffic will travel on Alexander Avenue to Cross Street.

With the loss of parking along Leonard Street, parking in the Claflin Street Parking Lot will be free until July 6. Time restricted parking spaces in the Belmont Center area will be enforced starting July 6.