On the matter of Belmont’s planned Community Path, I have one piece of advice for our town leadership, which is KISS – Keep It Simple Selectmen.*
If you don’t already know, the Community Path is a critical piece of 21st century infrastructure that will replace an abandoned, unsightly right of way along the Commuter Rail tracks with a landscaped bicycle and pedestrian route running from the Waltham border through Waverley Center and Belmont Center, then out to connect with an existing path at Brighton Road that runs all the way to Alewife Station and the Minuteman Trail. The Path will be a boon to Belmont: taking cut-through car traffic from Waltham to Alewife off the road in the morning and serving as a lifeline for walkers and bikers, replacing dangerous and car-bound routes along Pleasant Street and Concord Ave. It will also open Belmont Center and Waverley Square to bike and pedestrian traffic from Waltham on one side and Cambridge on the other: a vital new source of business. As the saying goes: build it, and they will come.
What stands in the way? As is often the case in Belmont, it is stout opposition by a small handful of homeowners saying “not in my back yard!” In this case, these are residents mostly of Channing Road who own properties that back up to the railroad tracks along which the Community Path will run, though there is opposition from residents in other neighborhoods directly impacted by the path as well such as on Clark Lane.
Don’t get me wrong: these residents have every right to a say in the design of the Path. And they’re absolutely right to pay close attention to details of plans for the Community Path, which will abut their property. My concern is that their opposition to the Path – based on fears it will bring crime, invade their privacy or lower property values – is unreasoned. Data gathered by the Selectmen’s own Community Path Advisory Committee (CPAC) showed that, for each of these objections to pedestrian paths, the opposite is true. In the Baystate and elsewhere, realtors already use proximity to bike and pedestrian paths as a way to market homes to prospective buyers. In the case of Belmont’s Community Path, landscaping of the finished route, including earthen berms and attractive fencing, will leave Channing Road residents whose properties abut the Path with more yard, more quiet and more privacy than they currently enjoy. (You can read the report here.)
The problem now is that Path opponents are pushing for taxpayers in town to pay to research a route along Concord Avenue route that was not among the CPAC recommended routes. This alternate route would run along a major road (Concord Ave.) that is already choked with traffic during the morning and afternoon rush hours. It would take off the table the most highly valued characteristic that Belmont residents identified in a town-wide survey conducted by CPAC: an off road path. Is there any benefit to doing things this way? No.
Faced with resistance from abutters, obstruction within the Committee itself and mixed signals from the Board of Selectmen, the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC) this month went to the Board of Selectmen looking for a mandate to finally move forward: issuing a request for proposals for engineering firms to study the feasibility and cost of the routes CPAC recommended in their June 2014 report. Committee members were asking: should we continue with our current charge to have engineers study just the track-side routes recommended by CPAC, or should we throw open the door to studied, but previously rejected routes like Concord Ave as a way to appease abutters? What they got, alas, was a muddled message. BOS Chairman Baghdady, acceding to the wishes of abutters, demanded that a previously unstudied route diverging from the path terminus at Brighton Street, then along Hittinger Street and out to Concord Avenue be added to a list of proposed routes. This, despite CPAC’s earlier conclusion that such a route presented numerous obstacles including driveways, street level traffic and frontage along a private, commercial strip of Concord Ave. The proposed Concord Ave. route also threatens the inclusion of a much-needed feature: a pedestrian underpass between the Winn Brook neighborhood and Belmont High School at Alexander Avenue.
Here are my thoughts: resistance to change is to be expected with any proposed infrastructure project. Let the record show that there was strong opposition to the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington, Lexington and Bedford – though that very route is now heavily used and beloved, by abutters and everyone else. If resistance from neighbors is a given, what’s different in Belmont is that entirely predictable objections are often all that is needed to grind progress to a halt on important projects, or to alter them in ways that hurt the many to serve the interests and priorities of the few.
If this all sounds like a replay of what happened with the Town Lawn over the summer, you’re not hearing things. In that case, it took a series of petitions and a vote by Town Meeting, in special session, to force the Selectmen back to the negotiating table to work out a compromise design. What is needed with the Community Path – as with the Town Center – is strong and resolute leadership from our Selectmen: Mr. Paolillo, Mr. Baghdady and Mr. Williams. Our Selectmen need to make a study of the work of the committees they created to delve into this complicated project: CPAC and CPIAC. Each is made up of stakeholders from across the town and consider the interests of the entire community in reaching their conclusions. The Selectmen should do the same.
(*) Note: this article originally ran as a Hot House column on the Belmont Citizen Herald web site. You can read the original somewhere on the BCH web site. Good luck finding it!