Monday, June 24, 2024

State Rep. Mike Connolly speaks at an April 29 rally for expanded Riverbend Park hours. Clyve Lawrence is at left. (Photo: Tom Meek)

While most state representatives, city councillors and other politicians staked out a position long ago on the future of Saturday closings of Memorial Drive to create Cambridge’s Riverbend Park, state Rep. Marjorie Decker only broke a noted absence from the public debate Wednesday, sharing a form email meant for constituents with Cambridge Day. 

The document lays out Decker’s positions and seeks to correct perceived wrongs in the media. The statement, in slightly different versions, was emailed to at least two constituents May 24.

Among supporters of the Saturday closings, Decker’s absence generated rumblings that she was behind the decision against them by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, but her email seeks to set the record straight: “I have not ever publicly or privately advocated against Saturday closings. My goal for the past year has been for DCR to engage with impacted community members and elected officials.”

Decker’s email attempts to stake out a neutral middle ground on the issue while shifting the blame to the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the governor. “DCR reached out to me and the entire legislative delegation to inform us that, due to the expiration of the public health emergency laws, they could no longer continue closing the street to vehicles on Saturdays. DCR and the governor reviewed this decision and concluded that Saturday closings would require amending the 1985 Mass General Law that closed Memorial Drive from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.”

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui speaks at the April 29 rally, backed by other city councillors.(Photo: Tom Meek)

Whether the law needs amending is something that is less settled than Decker’s email claims. Advocates for the closings point out that traffic was closed on Memorial Drive on Sundays for 10 years before being enshrined into law. When reached via email on Wednesday for comment, state Rep. Steve Owens pointed that DCR “clearly have the authority to close the road to traffic for special events, and even closed a section back in April so Matt Damon and Ben Affleck could film a movie.”

Another complication for advocates of the closings is the reality that it is customary for legislation to come from the representatives whose districts are most affected. Decker’s district covers the vast majority of the area surrounding Riverbend Park. With a Democratic governor and supermajority in the Legislature, any amendment to the 1985 law stands a reasonable chance at passage, but without Decker’s support it would be unusual for such a measure to reach a vote in the first place.

If there is one sign of common ground among the various divisions in Cambridge, it is with universal disdain for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. “I understand your disappointment in DCR’s decision. I share your frustration with how DCR has managed the entire decision-making process,” Decker said in the form email. While there was hope that a new leader at its helm would begin to turn things around, as of June no changes are apparent.

A spokesperson for the state agency noted that Riverbend Park was the last of its properties to return to a pre-Covid schedule – but suggested no return to the hours of the Covid era was likely.

“While this effort was a success in expanding access to outdoor recreation, it was not without its negative impacts, including concerns about elevated traffic and pollution in surrounding residential neighborhoods,” DCR spokesperson Chloe Gotsis said.

Gotsis’ statement included two rationales for limiting Riverbend Park hours that are controversial, including that some areas affected by changed traffic patterns “are classified as environmental justice communities.” Proponents point out that much of Cambridge, a densely built city with about half the average community’s amount of open space, is classified the same way – not just Riverside,

The other is the argument that the limitations are “established by statute,” and that a change to DCR policy will require a legislative fix.

That requires legislators – and at least one of Decker’s constituents who received the form email is unhappy with her approach. “Rep. Decker’s response was basically a generic letter that closed the conversation and didn’t allow for any dialogue,” said Clyve Lawrence, a transportation columnist at the Harvard Crimson and chief editor of the Harvard Undergraduate Urban Sustainability Lab. “Every other state senator or state representative has made time to discuss the issue with us, so it is frustrating that we still have not been able to speak to Rep. Decker.”

For state Rep. Mike Connolly, a noted supporter of the Saturday closings, the continued finger-pointing and muddled messaging from local officials is the reason the question surrounding Riverbend Park remains unresolved in the first place. “It’s time for the local reps to speak with one collective voice, if we were to get that, I have every expectation that DCR would respond in kind,” Connolly said when reached via phone on Wednesday.

This post was updated June 16, 2023, with comments from DCR spokesperson Chloe Gotsis.