Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Two groups cluster at City Hall after Monday’s vote on a redesign of Inman Square: bicyclists in favor of the changes and environmentalist who preferred their own plan, which saved trees in the square’s Vellucci Plaza. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A plan to redesign Inman Square will likely go to the state Legislature for permission after winning a 6-3 vote by the City Council on Monday. As a home rule petition, it needed a two-thirds vote and just made it, and Mayor Marc McGovern insisted on locking it in with a vote to block a move for “reconsideration” by any councillor.

“This has been a difficult conversation, it’s time sensitive, it’s a 6-3 vote and I think it’s perfectly plausible that somebody would file reconsideration, and I’m exercising my right under the rules as many have done,” McGovern said when councillor Craig Kelley – one of the votes against – balked at the move.

The plan, which must still come back to the council for design and funding approval, essentially turns the peculiarly elongated and complex square into two intersections, bending traffic from its current path by shrinking a park called Vellucci Plaza on the east side of the street and adding a separate pedestrian plaza on the west.

Opponents of the plan presented their own vision of an Inman Square redesign that saved Vellucci Plaza, but the council opted not to delay a vote to consider it. Time was ticking down, and Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department, identified it as being similar to a option rejected in early 2017 that would “wind up with something much closer to the current intersection design [and not] a significant improvement.”

“There are a number of aspects to it that, to be blunt, aren’t physically feasible,” Barr said of the citizen-designed concept.

A citizen-designed proposal was similar to one rejected in early 2017, city transportation head Joseph Barr said.

Kelley was a no vote on the city’s plan because he didn’t see how it would enhance the safety of people traveling through Inman by foot, bicycle or car, he said. Councillor Tim Toomey similarly asked city staff to “count me a skeptic” about the current plan, including its length and cost. Councillor E. Denise Simmons said she believed in the plan but felt not enough had been done to ensure that Inman’s small businesses would be kept thriving during the long construction process. “What’s the written plan?” she asked. “I want to see dates and timetables.”

But the six yes votes expressed not only belief in the plan, but felt too much time and energy was being spent debating it; McGovern said the issue has “consumed members of the council for quite a while” with literally hundreds of emails and two dozen opportunities for public comment, including that night’s meeting and its two and a half hours of public testimony. “We have so many other things to [also] focus on,” vice mayor Jan Devereux said.

“God forbid we continue to delay”

McGovern and Toomey had begun the redesign process with a council order in June 2014, sparking at least the fourth intensive look at a redesign since 1994, but the process gained urgency and attention with the death of bicyclist Amanda Phillips in June 2016.

“I understand the point of folks who said, ‘Well, you can’t guarantee that if you do this there’s never going to be an accident.’ Of course not,” McGovern said. “If we don’t do something I can almost guarantee there is going to be another fatal accident, and god forbid we continue to delay this process that has been going on for four years and someone else is hurt and we’ve done nothing. That person’s family is not going to look to the folks in the audience who said ‘Don’t do this.’ They’re going to look at the council.”

In the past three years, Inman Square has seen five pedestrian crashes, 10 bicycles crashes including Phillips’s death, and 50 vehicle crashes, said Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, a nonprofit founded in 1990 that has worked with Cambridge in Inman Square since 2014.

Existing traffic patterns in Inman Square are considered confusing and dangerous.

Forest for the trees

Councillors’ votes may also have been eased by a commitment from city planners to make up for the loss of the four mature honey locust trees that will be lost from Inman Square’s Vellucci Plaza, which has become a major point of contention in a city trying to prepare for climate change but falling back constantly to the churn of development, with nearly 7 percent of the city’s tree canopy lost between 2009 and 2014.

The city had found a way to spare two other honey locust trees in the plaza, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said, and was investing additional money to make up for what was being lost. “We really are not happy we have to take down the trees,” he said, promising to replace the roughly 100 caliper inches of trees being lost as well as invest another $50,000 for an additional 78 caliper inches.

DePasquale and Department of Public Works commissioner Owen O’Riordan were also able to announce the start of work by the long-awaited Urban Forestry Task Force – ordered by the council in February 2017 – on June 12, followed by meetings on the last Thursday of every month for the next year. Consultant Reed Hilderbrand will be begin work with the task force and city immediately, O’Riordan said.

Running out of time

The City Manager’s Office needed council approval to get the state Legislature to take up the matter before it breaks July 31. The city can’t put the two-year, $6 million project out to bid without state approval, officials said.

The vote had already been delayed for two weeks by councillor Quinton Zondervan, who was concerned about an appeal filed by nearly two dozen citizens who believed the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District hadn’t fulfilled its role by giving adequate review to the redesign plans. But the City Manager’s Office worried that time was growing short, and the council wound up voting in anticipation of the Historical Commission deciding that appeal Thursday.

“Realistically, if we don’t make it, you’re looking at January” when the Legislature returns, DePasquale said. That would delay construction starting until spring of 2019. “I really feel that the best thing to do is wait to hear what happens Thursday. If we get a favorable ruling, we’ll move it forward on Friday … To wait any longer we’d be in clear jeopardy. ”

Plans for Inman Square add a plaza on Hampshire Street that bends it to the west where it meets Cambridge Street.

Divided community

Zondervan wound up among the yes votes, a turnaround that may have surprised some after his support of the citizens’ appeal.

“It’s been a challenging decision for me,” Zondervan said. “When I delayed this vote, it was to give the community more time to listen and to hear each other. I think it was sorely needed … while I do believe we could use even more dialogue, I’m aware the clock is ticking.”

He called the city’s design “the best compromise” but remarked that “the decision to divide Vellucci Plaza sadly has also divided the community, in particular the Inman Square neighborhood and two very passionate advocacy groups that you heard from tonight that are almost always on the same side … bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and the tree advocates. And that’s unfortunate.”

Emotional public comment

The public comment Monday tilted toward those who favored the city plan, including environmental researcher Michael Davidson, who broke down the carbon emission math comparing the loss of the plaza’s trees vs. the likely gains in bicycling, and Itamar Turner-Trauring, who recounted waiting for food in the Punjabi Dhaba restaurant and watching seven cars make illegal left turns in just 15 minutes. East Cambridge doctor Carolyn Koulouris said she urges patients not to bicycle through Inman Square “because I’m afraid they’ll die.” 

Two speakers had a more emotional response to the conflict. One, Phyllis Bretholtz, was “exhausted” and in tears over a “deeply contentious process”; the other was Taylor Buehler, who spoke in painfully personal terms about losing Phillips as a partner when she was run over by a truck two years ago.

Phillips’ death felt at first “like I had won the world’s worst lottery. I thought it was a one in a million chance,” Buehler said. “Then I found out there had been a meeting in 2016 before about how dangerous Inman Square is … and then I started seeing this wasn’t a lottery, it wasn’t random. It was more like a six-sided dice that you roll and hope that it’s not you.”

The Vellucci factor

Opponents of the plan were concerned that the dividing of Vellucci Plaza would be disrespectful to its namesake – Al Vellucci, a four-time mayor of Cambridge who served a total 34 years on the council in addition to terms on the School Committee. But DePasquale said the Inman Square proposal had the support of the Vellucci family, with whom he’d met several times.

Resident Chris Allison said he was surprised to hear Vellucci’s name being invoked against the reuse of a park – before his death in 2002, he was well known as the man who wanted to take Harvard Yard by eminent domain and turn it into a municipal parking lot.

“I don’t know if he would complain about losing a couple of trees in a plaza dedicated to his memory if it’s about preserving human life,” Allison said.