Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Riverbend Park in Cambridge is used for recreation. (Photo: The People for the Riverbend Park Trust via Facebook)

The state has broken its silence on Cambridge’s Riverbend Park, saying the stretch of road will be open only Sundays only from April 30 to Nov. 12, returning to a schedule last seen before the Covid pandemic that is against the wishes of many residents and a majority of city councillors.

The response Monday from state Department of Conservation and Recreation officials took more than a month – it was Feb. 27 that the City Council voted 7-2 in favor of keeping Saturday hours – and missed a requested opening of the park in the first weekend of spring.

There was no reasoning given in the DCR announcement, keeping with the department’s silence on the topic since February. The silence had frustrated many. The StreetsblogMASS site called it “stonewalling” in a March article.

“This is very disappointing. Thousands of Cambridge residents, including most abutters, clearly want Riverbend Park to be open on Saturdays once again this season. Most city councillors and the city manager want this, too. But unnamed state officials have decided otherwise,” state Rep. Mike Connolly said via social media.

City councillor Patty Nolan agreed, calling on Gov. Maura Healey to overturn the decision, and residents weighed in as well, calling the decision “pathetic” and quipping that DCR should instead “should be called CAR instead” – the department of cars and roads. The park is formed by closing sections of Memorial Drive to car traffic so people can use the area for recreation safely.

Fellow councillor Burhan Azeem said he was disappointed not just by the decision, but the state’s approach to it “after months of obfuscation.”

“An incredibly popular community space is denied to residents even when the majority of public and council agrees” they want it, Azeem said, and DCR staff did it “without even giving a reason.”

In a letter to Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang and dated Monday that was shared with Cambridge Day, the reason is explained.

“Parts of the adjacent neighborhoods are classified as an environmental justice block group. DCR and the executive office are eager to ensure all communities have access to open space, but we must also ensure that no community disproportionately bears the impacts,” says the letter signed by Douglas Rice, commissioner of the agency. “This change is to ensure compliance with Chapter 457 of the Acts of 1985 and to address the impacts on those on the surrounding neighborhood.”

Connolly said the reasoning “makes no sense,” considering that most of Cambridge shares the environmental justice designation. “How does less open space and more highways help us?” he asked.

Sunday closings for recreation have been in effect since the 1970s but were enacted into law only in 1985. 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 Riverside Community Conversation report published by the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department in July found that 94 percent of residents in the neighborhood make use of Riverbend Park’s open space, but also noted that 10 percent experienced “unacceptable traffic.”

An email seeking comment was to DCR staff after the announcement, and a request to authenticate the letter dated Monday.

This post was updated April 5, 2023, with information from a DCR letter from Monday signed by Doug Rice.