Thursday, July 18, 2024

State Rep. Marjorie Decker speaks Tuesday at a meeting at the Cambridge Community Center in the Riverside neighborhood. Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Brian Arrigo is at right. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Riverside neighborhood residents already outraged by traffic pushed onto their streets by regattas, half marathons and music festivals were in no mood Tuesday to hear about state plans to put Memorial Drive on a “road diet” that would reduce its car lanes permanently, or how the state was still considering Saturday closings to car traffic as part of Riverbend Park.

Riverbend Park is a 40-year-old tradition that allows a mile of Memorial Drive to be used for recreation on Sundays from the end of April to mid-November. Saturday closings were added during the Covid pandemic, but some residents wanted to continue having whole weekends of Riverbend Park; the Department of Conservation and Recreation made a series of confusing reversals about keeping or ending Saturday hours.

At the latest signs that Saturdays might return to Riverbend Park permanently, some 60 Riverside residents, city councillors and state officials packed into a meeting room at the Cambridge Community Center. 

“You need to go home and put a halt to this whole entire thing,” said Lawrence J. Adkins, a resident who led the meeting, to DCR commissioner Brian Arrigo.

State Rep. Marjorie Decker, who called the meeting with neighborhood organizers such as Adkins, also had sharp words and questions for Arrigo about Saturday closings. “What’s changed that you all are revisiting that, and what does that mean?” Decker asked. “Congregations are stressed out. The neighborhood is stressed out.”

Decker said she’d been seeking a meeting like this for as long as two years – and at least the nine months Arrigo has been in office. “I spent over a year trying to get these meetings because the City Council, with the exception of a couple, did not engage the neighborhood to find out ‘How does this impact you,’” Decker said.

Surprise to many

Lawrence J. Adkins, right, cuts off a comment by Clyve Lawrence at Tuesday’s meeting. (Photo: Julia Levine)

The meeting took many Cantabrigians by surprise, including other state legislators, city councillors and city staff, as well as advocates for expanded Riverside Park hours. Many learned about it the night before – if they listened through to the announcements at the end of a 5.5-hour Cambridge City Council meeting, 

After learning of the meeting, “people who want the closure started sending around a flurry of emails. I had elderly residents who said ‘Marjorie, should we have security here?’ Because they were afraid of their voices being drowned out,” Decker said.

There were few Riverbend advocates there, though, and Adkins set rules at the start that people who went off script from the goals of stopping Saturday uses at Riverbend and the road diet plan would be “purged” from the room. When Harvard student Clyve Lawrence stood to speak to note that traffic mitigations offered as far back as 2022 could make Saturday closings into a good thing for everyone, Adkins stopped him.

“That’s not what this meeting’s about and I acknowledged that early on,” Adkins interjected. Another resident organizer, Sheila Headley Burwell, added: “Take that to the other meetings that you have the opportunity to be at.”

“We don’t want any of it.”

Sheila Headley Burwell shows a video Tuesday of Riverside traffic. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Burwell spoke at length about how annual events such as the Head of the Charles regatta, Boston Dragon Boat Festival, Boston Calling music festival, recurring road races and Sunday closings of Memorial Drive – and even the Dance Party held once a summer at City Hall – affected traffic patterns in Riverside, trapping people in their homes and clogging the air with pollution. “We don’t want to entertain the world,” she said. “We don’t want any of it.”

Residents urged the state to put Saturday closings somewhere else along Memorial Drive.

The road diet concept, to shrink space for car traffic to make walkways and bike lanes safe and accessible, enflamed things. Arrigo said a plan has been in the design phase for years – long before his arrival – and was still not quite ready for a full discussion. The design phase was 50 percent to 75 percent done, he said, and generally the agency start to engage the public and get feedback at 75 percent.

“Tonight, we’re building out a team to do a little bit more public facing and public communication,” Arrigo said at the start of the meeting. “We know that’s been a place where we need to improve as an agency.”

Among the voices expressing concern about the road diet was city councillor Paul Toner. Though the state’s safety goals were good, Memorial Drive is “the one throughway we have,” Toner said.

Race and class

Riverside residents said they felt misrepresented by city officials over the Saturday park extension and believe their voices have been drowned out by its supporters. “I don’t know where it started. I don’t know who asked for it. We were never told it was coming. It just happened,” one attendee said. “This community is not considered part of the decision-making body politically, administratively in the city, in the state, in the country,” another resident said.

“It’s race and class,” Burwell said.

Decker agreed: “What I care about is that the community that’s been impacted, that has not been engaged, is disproportionately people of color and elderly.” Scrutinizing the state staffers in the room, she added, “equity is not about being a part of a community that is very organized and has hundreds of people emailing you.” 

Supporters of expanded Riverbend Park closings are better organized and more technologically savvy than the Riverside residents and have dominated the conversation, residents at the meeting said. “You cannot erase the [role] that racism and white privilege has played in this,” Decker said. Others also urged officials to listen more to the voices of the “black and brown” people in the room (but not to listen to Clyve Lawrence, who is black but a Harvard student).

Community meetings in 2022

Decker criticized her colleagues for not being more involved in discussions with these residents. “I have a colleague, a rep, who’s gone out to rally for this,” she said, referring to Riverbend Park Saturdays. “I begged that rep, Mike Connolly, I said please come to the neighborhood. Please come meet with constituents before you go rally for this.”

The record shows Connolly did that. The city held three community meetings online and in-person in 2022 about Riverbend Park that were advertised in the neighborhood with laminated posters attached to street signs. Online notes by city staff for two of them say who attended, including Connolly. Decker is not identified as attending. A survey and other requests for opinions at the June 28 event drew comments in favor and against; an online meeting Sept. 14 drew 140 people; the in-person forum Oct. 6 had approximately 60 people, about the same number as Tuesday’s meeting.

The reconsideration of Saturday closings came about because a release of state documents in July showed that there were flaws in the state’s earlier decision-making process about Riverbend Park. Those included claims that the City Council was opposed, the neighborhood in general was opposed and that the state’s legal counsel said Saturday hours weren’t allowed by law – all untrue.

More engagement coming

In the trove of documents was an email from Rebecca Tepper, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, to Gov. Maura Healey in which Tepper said “Decker is staunchly opposed.” A month earlier, Decker had broken a long silence on the matter to say she had “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 seemed to clarify her position on Memorial Drive at the Tuesday meeting, saying, “I’m agnostic about whether or not this is closed. I’m not agnostic about the community that’s been impacted and hasn’t been engaged.”

Arrigo, asked to make a firm commitment to return to continue the conversation, proposed the third week of February. Residents asked that the meeting be held in the auditorium of the Martin Luther King Jr. School, 102 Putnam Ave., which was also the site of the Oct. 6 community meeting in 2022.

In addition to Decker and Toner, officials at the Tuesday meeting included state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, School Committee member Caroline Hunter, Mayor E. Denise Simmons and councillors Patty Nolan, Joan Pickett, Sumbul Siddiqui and Ayesha Wilson.

This post was updated Feb. 7, 2024, to correct that city councillor Joan Pickett attended the meeting.