Thursday, May 23, 2024

Cambridge is known for being a special place to live and visit. It has unique shops you can’t find anywhere else, eclectic music venues, wonderful ethnic restaurants and proudly local cafes where you get your morning coffee.

Because of its uniqueness, Cambridge is largely a destination shopping city, and many businesses rely on out-of-town customers visiting by car to survive. Without community input from those affected, Cambridge officials unilaterally razed metered parking to install flexi-post bike lanes, making it difficult – or impossible – for many Cambridge residents and visitors to shop, dine or even go to the doctor. This ongoing removal of parking imperils our city’s diverse character and vital mix of residential and retail.

The city has the chance to right this wrong by stopping the implementation of quick-build bike lanes until officials can adequately study the potential impacts on the community – and most importantly, until they get input from stakeholders before making more changes to our roadways.

In previous years, Cambridge officials were mindful about providing the street parking that businesses rely on while also ensuring that commercial parking and traffic did not affect quiet, residential side streets. Those days, sadly, appear to be long gone. When rightfully indignant local shops sounded the alarm about how reduced parking was making business plummet – by 40 percent or more in some cases – the city’s response was to put some of the lost parking and loading areas on side streets. Now residential areas have lost valuable street parking and are seeing their neighborhoods filled with commercial traffic.

How did we get here? Before implementing the quick-build bike lanes, the city hired the Consensus Building Institute to assess the proposed projects. In January 2019, CBI made the following recommendation to the city: Conduct an analysis evaluating the impact of the quick-build projects on small businesses and form a stakeholders’ group to work and consult with city officials. Yet the city moved forward without taking this advice.

Later that year, the Community Development Department conducted a survey of businesses in Porter Square and Lower Massachusetts Avenue and found that 70 percent of those surveyed needed more parking to attract customers. Now, two and a half years later, as businesses try to recover from the Covid pandemic, the city is taking away the one thing businesses said they needed most. It is unclear why time and money were spent on conducting these assessments only to ignore the findings.

None of this makes any sense. You can’t have a vital mix of residential and business if you remove parking – because then existing businesses can’t survive. Driven by Covid, vacant storefronts in Cambridge are becoming more prevalent, and without customer parking, they will remain vacant or will be snatched up by corporate entities. This means small-business owners will be pushed out and Cambridge will soon be unrecognizable.

As a commercial property owner in Cambridge for more than 35 years, I have never seen a project of this magnitude be undertaken without the appropriate parking, traffic, safety, environmental and economic impact studies. Worse yet, affected residents, business owners, people with disabilities and seniors were not asked for input before officials started implementation.

Only under pressure in early 2022 did the City Council pass policy orders to form a Community Advisory Committee and conduct an economic impact analysis to inform its actions. Yet still, nothing has been done and the city pushes forward with implementation. All we get is a series of Zoom sessions in which each neighborhood gets a chance to “tweak” the plan that was mandated in the 2020 amendment to the Cycling Safety Ordinance passed during the early days of the pandemic. Citizens want real involvement in the overall plans, not a patronizing illusion of being consulted after the fact.

Nobody is against bicycle safety. But surely there must be a way to keep cyclists safe without wreaking havoc on the rest of the community. A vibrant blend of residences and commerce is being replaced with vacant storefronts and congested side streets. Businesses won’t be able to stay afloat without customer parking, and homeowners won’t have enough resident parking for themselves, let alone their visitors or service vehicles. Both commercial and residential properties will be devalued.

So let’s hit the brakes on implementation and save our city before it’s too late. Let’s do the studies and planning and include affected stakeholders in the process. Let’s get all citizens involved in the future of our city. We need a plan that works for all users of our streets and makes changes that the majority feel are for the better. Let’s build “smart,” not “quick.”

Sharon Cerny, Cambridge Streets for All

Sharon Cerny sits on the board of Cambridge Streets for All and has been a broker and property owner in Cambridge for more than 35 years. She is a strong champion for minority-owned small businesses in the Porter Square area.