Meeting of the minds, professional grade

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kristen Green
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2008

As a transportation consultant, Mark Chase is irked by a lot of things in Davis Square. Cars endlessly cruising for parking places. Limited bike access. Heavy traffic on neighborhood streets.

Last summer, Chase realized how many urban planners and architects live in the neighborhood. He also realized that the city didn't have the money to hire expensive consultants like him to address all of its issues.

So he decided to put together a team from the community to tackle a local problem.

To make the project appealing to busy professionals, he promised that the work would be completed in 12 weeks. He talked to his alderwoman, Rebekah Gewirtz, who put out a call for volunteers.

In July, a dozen Davis Square residents, many of them architects and city planners, assembled in Chase's backyard. He said he found that "we were all kind of frustrated that there isn't more change in the transportation arena."

Chase, whose sister Robin was a cofounder of Zipcar, said his goal was to use the group's skills to do "something really neat that could work across the city, not just Davis Square." He wanted to come up with an affordable solution that would have a chance of being implemented.

He also wanted to make sure the Monday meetings were fun. Group members brought lemonade or beer, and after the meetings ended some folks would always linger and talk for a couple more hours.

Cassie Arnaud, a housing project planner for Cambridge who lives next door to Chase, said most of the participants are professional planners and recognized "we had to do something somewhat realistic."

But at the same time, Arnaud said, "We also wanted to decide on something and run with it and see where it took us."

Robert Mantell, an employment lawyer who had a beef about the way stoplights are timed around buses in the square, said he found the work exciting.

"I really just came in as a lay person and was caught up in it," he said. "I found myself rushing home from work to go to these meetings because I enjoyed them."

After considering many ideas, the group decided to address Willow Avenue, "a project we knew we could get our arms around," Chase said.

One of the members, Daniel Shugrue, lives on Willow, a one-way street off Elm between Davis and Porter squares, and was concerned about how difficult it can be to cross, especially for his 6-year-old son, Henry.

Cars tend to speed when they see that the light at Summer Street is green, which makes it difficult to develop a sense of community because no one wants to hang out in their front yards, Shugrue said.

The group came up with several proposals, then presented them to the neighborhood at a community block party. Chase set up a blog as a place anybody could go for updates on the group's work.

And when the group decided on one proposal, Shugrue went door-to-door in the neighborhood to get signatures supporting it.

Members liked Cambridge's "bump-outs," which extend the sidewalk and narrow the street, giving pedestrians less pavement to cross. But at a cost of $15,000 to $30,000 apiece, it didn't seem feasible, Chase said.

Instead, his group recommended that high-quality decorative planters, which can cost as little as $800, be placed on the sides of street, along with paint delineating the traffic lane, which would slow traffic by narrowing the lane.

They also recommended installing a bike lane, which would further encourage cars to slow down. And they suggested installing an electronic speed indicator so drivers would be reminded how fast they're going.

The total cost for all their improvements: $57,000.

To become a reality, their plan needs approval from Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, whose spokesman said he would consider it.

Alderman Bob Trane, who sits on the city's Traffic Commission, said he would prefer to focus on more dangerous intersections, which were identified in a recent study by the city. While he called the improvements to Willow "a great idea," he said, "I don't know if it's at the top of the priority list."

But Alderman William A. White, who is chairman of the board's Public Health and Public Safety Committee and saw the group's proposal this month, said his committee has asked for the mayor's endorsement.

"I was very impressed and sort of enthusiastic," White said. "It was good for a group of neighbors to get together and come up with recommendations, some of which were sort of cutting-edge, low-cost alternatives."

Gewirtz, who has joined Chase's group, agrees. "It's a really unique thing that happened," she said.

Chase said he wants not only for the group's proposal to be implemented, but for his approach to be imitated.

"Our hope is that other professionals in Somerville and anywhere else will do the same thing," he said. "Especially for a town like Somerville, which has really limited resources for this kind of stuff, it's good to leverage the professionals that live within the communities."

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