Sunday, May 19, 2024

Riverbend Park is made by closing sections of Cambridge’s Memorial Drive to car traffic. (Photo: Calla Walsh)

Whole-weekend openings of Riverbend Park, formed by closing a portion of Memorial Drive, won a City Council vote of 7-2 on Monday, encouraging Saturdays and Sundays of recreation instead of car traffic starting in the spring. The order continues the trend established at the outset of the Covid pandemic of opening the park for the whole weekend, though only Sunday openings are enshrined in state law.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s authority over Memorial Drive complicates the implementation of the policy order because the city and state government must coordinate the opening of Riverbend Park. Last year, a series of abrupt changes by the agency created confusion, and the agency has not yet announced this year’s first date for the opening of Riverbend Park.

Frustration with the agency and its approach to Riverbend Park reached a boiling point during the meeting. “DCR has been impossible to get to the table. They have abdicated, as far as I’m concerned, their responsibility,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said.

The addition of Saturdays to the schedule in past years prompted strong debate between those in favor of the park and those who worried about additional traffic on side streets, especially in the Riverside community. A subsequent series of public meetings appeared to lessen tensions, but the final two Saturdays for Riverbend Park in December were canceled abruptly by the city manager, again causing frustration.

A late set of amendments sought to address some of those concerns. The amended policy order asks City Manager Yi-An Huang to study traffic impacts and work on mitigation measures including adding signs and adjusting traffic signal timing. Councillor Paul Toner referred to attempts to reach language that could be supported unanimously by the council, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

Public comment

A vote on the order was delayed to Monday by Simmons’ use of her charter right on Feb. 13 to fight for those who had been “brushed aside” by the debate. New public comment featured many of the same arguments and voices as in months past.

“There’s overwhelming public support for the park. Ninety-four percent of Cambridge residents who use the park are happy with it, and a substantial portion of the written comments in the neighborhood are in favor,” said Ari Ofsevit, referring to findings in a non-representative survey in a transportation report conducted over the summer.

Some of those from the Riverside neighborhood, which surrounds the majority of Riverbend Park, reiterated concerns over the traffic detouring onto their streets and a feeling that the city has not done enough to hear their concerns. “This is a matter that has a definite two sides, and one side should be allowed to ram itself down the throat of the other side,” former mayor Ken Reeves said.

City Council reception

A perception that the Memorial Drive closings were unpopular in Riverside was raised by Toner too, saying “I really don’t care that we’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people who live in the Greater Boston area or in the Greater Cambridge area.” That was refuted by councillors Marc McGovern, who said that “narrative” was incorrect and divisive, and Patty Nolan, who cited efforts to address the concerns of “a very small number of people.”

The four co-sponsors of the policy order, councillors Burhan Azeem, Nolan, Quinton Zondervan and vice mayor Alanna Mallon, supported the continued opening of Riverbend Park on Saturdays and Sundays strongly while acknowledging more can be done to reduce the traffic burden in the Riverside neighborhood.

“Memorial Drive closures are extremely popular and important to the community to provide much needed open space,” Azeem said by text on Sunday.

Nolan said in an email Monday that “the policy order asks the city manager to work to improve traffic mitigation, so that the closure of Memorial Drive doesn’t excessively impact traffic congestion in the area.”

State-level meeting

Members of the state legislative delegation met with the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Monday to discuss the future of Riverbend Park. Details of the meeting could not be immediately learned. The state agency had no comment on Monday afternoon when reached via email, said acting communications director Ilyse Wolberg.

“I continue to support the recent practice of closing the road to automobiles and keeping Riverbend Park open for recreation, bikes and pedestrians on Saturday and Sunday. That said, I also support doing everything possible to accommodate the neighborhood directly impacted by the road closures.” said state Rep. Mike Connolly on Sunday, in the lead-up to the meeting with DCR.

“I did go out to Riverbend Park many times last year while it was closed to cars on Saturdays and Sundays. I generally found it to be well-used and enjoyed,” state Rep. Steve Owens said in an email on Sunday. “I hope that as we go forward those concerns can be addressed and we can learn from what happened last year to improve traffic conditions both when Memorial Drive is closed to cars and during weekdays as well.”

Absent from the conversation was state Rep. Marjorie Decker, whose district makes up the majority of the area surrounding Riverbend Park. A request for comment to Decker’s office was left unanswered as of Monday evening.

Last year the first opening of Riverbend Park was April 23, with an announcement on the city’s website coming just two days before. If the same schedule holds, the city may be gearing up for two more months of uncertainty over the future of Riverbend Park. The policy order asks city manager Huang to report back by next Monday.