Thursday, July 18, 2024

Jamesia Dottin Square, named after a teen who died bicycling in 1997, is near Porter Square and a proposed residential building. (Photo: Gus Rancatore)

In a city of old streets, the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Walden Street is quirky. Walden Street ends in a T-intersection that is simply too small for all the different kinds of traffic that cuts across Cambridge from Concord Avenue and other roads leading to the metastasizing R&D areas of Fresh Pond, Alewife and Route 2. On the left side of the intersection is an Asian fusion restaurant called Wasabi at Porter in a one-story building. Across the road is a day care center and a Cambridge Health Alliance branch.The other corner is occupied by a South Asian restaurant that replaced another kind of culinary fusion, a combination of Taco Bell and KFC. And the North Cambridge Senior Center meets the Leonard J. Russell Senior Apartments, abutting a proposed development that has become the object of considerable concern in the neighborhood.

This stretch of Massachusetts Avenue has a median strip and, at the bow of the median heading south toward Porter Square and Harvard Square, a memorial sign for Jamesia Dottin. It is a simple sign without embellishment or explanation. Jamesia Dottin was a 17-year-old who died Aug. 9, 1997, after a crash while bicycling not long after midnight Aug. 6, according to the Cambridge police records unit.

When you find your way to Inman Square, there’s another memorial for a bicyclist – Amanda Phillips, who died June 23, 2016. This sign has a graphic that suggests a ghost bicycle, used to memorialize bicyclists who died while riding on city streets. There are some recent flowers attached to the signpost. Inman Square has for many years been a sort of junior varsity nightlife district containing famous and almost famous places: the original Legal Sea Foods, the S&S Deli, Lilypad, 1369 Coffee House, the Ding Ho Comedy Club and the club known as the “Inn Square Mens’ Bar Ladies Invited.” The biggest structure is a firehouse with a mural of firefighters that includes George Washington. There is also a Cambridge Health Alliance facility.

Amanda Phillips died bicycling in Inman Square in 2016. (Photo: Gus Rancatore)

After the death of Phillips, the city announced plans to reconstruct the intersection; a sign there says as much. The city moved with such speed that the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association felt ignored and sued the city over the taking of park property.

After the death of Dottin, the city didn’t announce much of anything in North Cambridge until Capstone Communities and Hope Real Estate presented a plan for an eight-story building. When the neighbors voiced reservations, the developers dropped to six stories at the rear by adding a ninth floor to the proposed structure at the front. (In January, that became a proposed eight stories at the front and six at the rear.) No tenant parking will be provided, but there is a promise of 51 bicycle parking spaces. All the traffic lanes on Walden Street are a bit narrow, so cars turning from any direction can create hesitation, and turning trucks simply bring the intersection’s traffic to a halt. Recently one of the traffic lights was knocked out of commission by a car accident.

The developers have offered a foot of land along the Walden Street edge of their property to widen the lanes; neighbors do not believe this is a convincing solution.

Basically the plan to build the housing – and the apparent response of the city to Dottin’s death – is to intensify activity. More cars, more people, more bicycles. Because of the location’s proximity to two red line stations and a bus stop, there is a presumption that most of the new residents will use public transit, although emerging traffic patterns suggest it will be as likely for the tenants to head toward the thousands of jobs around Fresh Pond and Alewife (which has another red line stop), along Route 2 and all the way north to Route 3’s growing corridor of robotics companies.

The primary concern of the North Walden Neighbors is safety. The groups want affordable housing, and they want it here. This is not a garden club of old New Yorker cartoon characters, nor is it a group of not-in-my-backyard housing hypocrites. They expect the city to respect their safety concerns, just as the city moved quickly to deal with safety issues in Inman Square.

Gus Rancatore has lived in Cambridge since 1973. He and his sister own Toscanini’s ice cream on First Street and soon to return to Lafayette Square.

This post was updated April 10, 2021, with newly confirmed specifics around the death of Jamesia Dottin.