Monday, June 24, 2024

Memorial Drive in Cambridge, where the state closes a section on some days to make it “Riverbend Park.” (Photo: Chris Cassa via Twitter)

Some Riverside neighborhood residents have two weeks to enjoy victory in minimizing the hours Riverbend Park is open before Cambridge city councillors return to session. That’s when debate can begin again over a motion asking that park hours be expanded again – part of a clash that’s been going on since 2020.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation decided April 3 that Memorial Drive, the roadway alongside the Charles River that becomes “Riverbend Park” from Western Avenue to Gerrys Landing Road when closed to car traffic, would return to its pre-pandemic schedule: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays between April 30 and Nov. 12. That disappointed thousands who hoped for full weekends of recreation starting the first weekend of spring, a request the City Council made in February in a 7-2 vote.

Potentially working in favor of expanding hours is a change in leadership at DCR, which oversees Memorial Drive. Brian Arrigo, mayor of Revere since 2016, becomes commissioner April 24, replacing Doug Rice.

Arrigo is seen by many as a likely champion, so much so that vice mayor Alanna Mallon considered the change “the elephant in the room” when it came to a Wednesday letter signed by Rice deciding Riverbend Park hours should be minimal.

“I don’t even know if this letter we have is valid, given that it was written on the way out the door” by Rice, whereas Arrigo “really understands how important it is for residents to have access to this outside parkland,” Mallon said. 

Minimizing park hours was called by Rice a matter of “environmental justice” for Riverside residents who would have to deal with Saturday traffic diverted from Memorial Drive, as they do on Sundays. “Parts of the adjacent neighborhoods are classified as an environmental justice block group,” Rice said.

This reasoning was scoffed at by supporters of expanding Riverbend Park hours, who outnumber opponents even in Riverside, according to proponents’ map showing signers of petitions and public letters. The reasoning “makes no sense,” state Rep. Mike Connolly said, considering that Cambridge has about half the open space of most cities and that most of Cambridge shares the same environmental justice designation.

The state has also not shared data showing that keeping Saturday traffic on Memorial Drive is better environmentally, critics say, but has shown evidence suggesting the opposite.

The sides also disagree on whether public process was fair. Ken Reeves, co-chair of Cambridge’s NAACP chapter and a former councillor and mayor, called it “dismal,” though three public meetings were hosted by councillor E. Denise Simmons, an expansion opponent, in addition to three hosted by the state and city and a survey.

Back for debate

With the City Council meeting canceled Monday for Patriots’ Day, the next time the council gathers is the day Arrigo takes office.

And that’s when a policy order by councillor Patty Nolan, co-sponsored by councillor Burhan Azeem, returns for discussion. The late order asks about the environmental justice designation and lack of data and questions the legal basis cited by Rice at the DCR. It asks councillors to vote to express disappointment in the state decision and release the information undergirding it, as well as for the city manager to keep looking at ways to decrease Saturday traffic in Riverside when Riverbend Park is open and to formally ask the state to reconsider its decision.

Five days later comes a “Rally at Riverbend” in support of the expansion. It is scheduled for 1 to 2 p.m. April 29 at the John W. Weeks Footbridge.

Elected officials’ role

Nolan’s order also asks for “details of written community feedback received by DCR, and discussions with elected officials and how they were factored in.”

Connolly and state Rep. Steve Owens are seen as vocal supporters of expanded Riverbend Park hours, while Riverside’s state representative, Marjorie Decker, has been suspected as an opponent. The StreetsblogMass site called Decker out in March as being “conspicuously silent on the issue, at least in public.”

Monday was the first time Decker was credited publicly for helping opponents of Riverbend Park expansion along with city councillors E. Denise Simmons and Paul Toner, the “no” votes on the February order asking for a full weekend of no car traffic on Memorial Drive. Toner quickly disavowed having a role in the new decision. “I have nothing to do with DCR’s decision,” Toner said. “Although I do concur with it.”

His proposed compromise had been to close Memorial Drive to car traffic until 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, allowing car traffic at night. Mallon mentioned the idea again as worth exploring.

Playing in traffic

Simmons did not address her role in the DCR decision. When she spoke, it was to decry the “very real undue burden on a subset of Cambridge residents” whose voices “though perceived as being small in comparison to the activists that have spoken out on this do deserve a to carry a greater weight.” She also said that anyone who wants recreation along the Charles River on Saturday can have it – just with car traffic. They will “have to be mindful of cars like they’d have to be mindful of cars if they wanted to use Memorial Drive Monday through Friday.”

“So nobody is stopping people from enjoying the Charles River on Saturdays,” Simmons said, implicitly questioning the value of Riverbend Park’s existence. “But we do want to be fair.”

Fairness arose again as she used her “charter right” as a councillor to stop discussion of Nolan’s order temporarily. “If we want to use that thing called transparency and fairness and talk about equity, then we don’t bring in a late policy order,” Simmons said. Without giving residents a chance to talk about the order during public comment, the council would be “adopting an order like thieves in the night.”

Legal authority question

There were four public commenters on the DCR letter, and three of those cheered the state’s decision and blasted the councillors who wanted full weekends. 

“You want what you want and you don’t want to be truthful to all parties,” Riverside resident Lawrence Adkins told the council, referring to the diverted traffic as “an invasion” of his neighborhood. He also suggested that all of Memorial Drive be closed to traffic for Riverbend Park, not just the current section. “Make use of the entire riverfront, not just that single front at Riverside. Why do we need to take on the penance that you wish to make,” Adkins said.

The two remaining opponents of expanding park hours cited the DCR letter’s argument that the state lacked legal authority to comply with the council’s February order. 

“The neighbors do not understand how if the law says it cannot be done without statutory authority the majority of the council take the position ‘could you please close it,’” Reeves said. “These neighbors want to know why the people they elected will not support them on what is the legal not-right to close Memorial Drive on Saturday.”

The final speaker, Chris Cassa, and councillors who spoke later all made the same argument: The law being cited by neighbors sets a minimum of hours, not a maximum, and doesn’t limit DCR’s power to close any of its roads. Indeed, Riverbend Park’s Sunday closings went on for a decade before becoming a law in 1985.