Somerville hosts meeting to resolve Beacon St. dust up

Rendering by the city of what the finished cycletrack on Beacon St. could look like.

By Alex Epstein, Mark Chase and Christine Casalini

On Monday the City of Somerville changed up their public meeting style at Somerville’s Argenziano School to help bring the community together around their plan for a cycletrack on Beacon Street. Rather than presenting and letting the audience react, the city appointed one person each to speak for residents, businesses, cyclists and pedestrians in turn, followed by short Q & A sessions, and then broke out into evenly divided groups to try to find solutions. Audience members were encouraged to wear colored stickers that allowed them to represent their many overlapping interests.

Alderman Maryann Heuston led things off, representing the official resident interest. Key points she raised addressed crosswalks and how to better manage parking for businesses and residents; she specifically mentioned a parking meter policy and putting to better use the many off-street private lots on Beacon Street.

During public comments, one landlord feared that the project would devalue his house and that no one would want to rent his apartments anymore. This perspective was quickly countered by another Beacon Street homeowner who believed that cycletracks and a renewed streetscape will boost his property value and the desirability of the neighborhood. By the sound of the clapping in the room it appeared that proponents outnumbered opponents by at least two to one. As the meeting went on it became clear that the proponents were not just cyclists. Those who spoke in favor included several Beacon Street residents and one prominent business owner.

Following Alderman Heuston, Beacon Street Laundromat owner Domenic Ruccio made a very short presentation asserting that the project would make at least some of the businesses on Beacon Street “inviable” and that empty storefronts would follow. This was countered by the Biscuit bakery owner Andrew Platt, who expects it to bring more customers and economic benefits. He noted that at first he too was skeptical, but now sees many benefits to the project. He urged fellow business owners to embrace the changes. Platt is the first business owner to speak out publicly in support, though others have confided support to neighborhood volunteers working on the cycletrack effort.

One resident lamented the increase in traffic on Beacon Street as Kendall Square builds out millions of square feet of employment. Kendall Square was recently noted, however, for a 14 percent decrease in car traffic even as more office space has been added. It is hoped that by encouraging more commuters to bike to work, automobile traffic on Beacon St. will decrease as well.

Alex Epstein, Beacon Street resident and Chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee followed as the representative of cyclists. Donning a haircut from Kiki’s and noting the many local businesses he patronizes, he spoke about how Beacon has been reinvented before and how critical bike improvements on this corridor are for SomerVision (the city’s comprehensive plan). He defined what a physically separated cycletrack is and how its benefits address years of community input to the Bike Committee, such as eliminating dooring crashes and encouraging residents who are interested in cycling but concerned about safety to get on their bikes. Along the way he debunked the myth that most of the parking spaces are to be removed for cycletracks (in fact only 30-35 reasonably well used legal spaces would be eliminated). Alex wrapped up showing that over 70% of Beacon Street’s customers walk or bike and since research shows bicyclists outspend drivers at restaurants, bars, and convenience stores, more bikes mean more business.

Astrid Dodds from Agassiz, Cambridge was a surprise addition (being from Cambridge) and spoke for pedestrians. She made detailed points about the need for more crosswalks along Beacon, particularly between Somerville Avenue and Sacramento Street. At the same time she expressed concern about bicyclists riding on the sidewalk and hitting pedestrians. In the design, the cycletrack is separated from the sidewalk by street furniture and some advocates have called for changes that would put the cycetrack at a third level in between street and sidewalk levels, to help indicate to the vision impaired and others that a crossing exists. In Denmark, cycletracks through pedestrian areas are commonly sunk just .75 inches to indicate the crossing.

During the breakout sessions, conceptual drawings were displayed on easels and people plastered them with sticky notes to record their feedback. Loosely organized tables of attendees then reported on their feedback, which was usually detailed: how to handle a specific type of parking space, lane markings, types of crosswalks, and more.

Some feedback was to keep the cycletrack raised at minor side streets (just as it will be level across driveways) and to dash and color green the bike lanes through every intersection. Also, for pedestrian safety, installing proper crosswalks at every block seems important, especially since with parking on one side, more people will be crossing the street.

Overall the meeting gave the supporters of the cycletrack a great deal of positive momentum, but whether or not that momentum will carry through to the more important state public hearing on the 25 percent design for the street this Monday remains to be seen. At this meeting, all comments are recorded and those in favor and against will be counted by the MassDOT, helping it determine whether or not to approve the project. If the cycletrack concept is approved, the next stage will be to reach the 75 percent design where many details will be ironed out. Advocates plan to watch this process closely and continue to improve design before it is built in 2014.

Public Hearing
Monday February 4th, 6:30 PM
JFK Elementary School (rear entrance)
5 Cherry Street
Somerville

If you can’t attend the hearing, send a letter! It’s very important to make your voice heard. Only together can we make an impact on safer street designs. Send your comments to:

Thomas F. Broderick, P.E., Chief Engineer
MassDOT
10 Park Plaza
Boston, MA 02116
Attention.: Project Management Section, Project File No. 607209

and/or

dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us

Written comments will also be accepted at the hearing. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public hearing transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Hearing.

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