Belmont brings residents into redesign process

Forums tackle town center’s traffic woes

By Sarah Thomas
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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From her boutique near the corner of Leonard Street and Channing Road, Lee Gaston has a ringside seat to the traffic problems that plague Belmont Center.

“The parking lane is very confusing, because sometimes people don’t realize it’s also a traffic lane,’’ said Gaston, owner of Bessie Blue. “They’ll whip out of the parking spaces and there will be cars rushing by. There are probably 10 near misses a day.’’

Though the solution she advocates — making Leonard Street one way and widening the sidewalks — isn’t shared by all who work or shop in the small hillside downtown, her frustration with Belmont Center is all too common.

“This is an affluent community, and there’s no reason we can’t have a really cute downtown that will be a destination to shoppers from other cities,’’ she said on a recent afternoon.

That may be more than a pipe dream. The town’s Transportation Advisory Committee is nearing the end of a series of forums to refine a proposal for redesigning the downtown traffic grid.

“This is the right time to talk about this area and put changes back on the table, because it’s time to fix the roads,’’ said Glenn Clancy, Belmont’s director of community development. “If we fix the surfaces of the roads without doing any changes, no one is going to want to revisit the area and problems will persist for years.’’

The last of four meetings on the traffic redesign proposals is set for Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall, which at 455 Concord Ave. sits in the heart of the target area. The sessions began with citizens floating such ideas as roundabouts at Concord Avenue and Common Stree, and turning Leonard and Pleasant streets into one-way routes, and planners examining how feasible they might be.

“Every time, we firm up the plans a little,’’ Clancy said. “We model the suggestions and see what can work and what can’t.’’

Clancy said he hopes to have a final offering ready to present to the Board of Selectmen this spring. If the selectmen approve a proposal, Clancy said, planners will start working on cost estimates and financing options.

A forum last month was conducted by Peter Briere, project director with the town’s transportation consultant, BSC Group, and the Transportation Advisory Committee. The suggestions under discussion included:

■ A partial redesign of Leonard Street that would accommodate additional parking (either parallel or back-in), widen sidewalks, and increase bike access.

■ Removing the wall along Concord Avenue between Leonard and Pleasant streets, grading a small park, and widening the roadway.

■ A small parking lot and drop-off area for the train station near Common Street and Royal Road.

The forum lasted more than four hours and drew about 30 people, who voiced a wide range of opinions on the plans.

Sara Oaklander, a member of the town’s Vision Implementation Committee, said it was important to look at the transportation plan in the context of community space.

“Parking isn’t the most important thing,’’ she said. “The thing I’ve heard residents speak about with the most passion is when they talk about creating places to gather and interact as a community.’’

Gerard Natoli was concerned about lighting and bicycle access.

“Having bikes on Leonard Street is a disaster waiting to happen,’’ Natoli said. “I’ve also talked to many merchants who say they are concerned with the amount of lighting in the intersections. There could be an elderly driver going through that can’t see if someone is crossing the road.’’

Kevin Foley, on the other hand, said he was impressed with the plans but concerned about the town’s ability to fund significant changes.

“Recently, we’ve lost trash barrels in Belmont Center because the town couldn’t afford to remove the trash,’’ Foley said. “If they can’t pay a few thousand dollars to maintain a trash barrel, how will they be able to afford millions on a redesign?’’

An informal survey of downtown stakeholders found a mix of views on how to fix traffic problems and revitalize the area.

While Gaston favors the idea of one-way streets, the owner of a jewelry store half a block away has other ideas.

For 30 years, Marcou Jewelers was in the Watertown Mall, owner Doug Marcou said, and he never had to worry about having enough parking for customers.

“Having this be a one-way would mean half as many people coming by,’’ he said. “It wouldn’t be a good thing for businesses.’’

Rose Papazian, manager at the Irresistibles clothing store, said she had one concern: “There could be more parking here.’’

Despite the traffic problems, downtown is still drawing new businesses, such as the Craft Beer Cellar, which arrived this fall.

“I’m not a transportation engineer, so I don’t know what the solution is, but I think everyone is concerned with how traffic here works,’’ owner Suzanne Schalow said on a recent afternoon.

“Who knows? Maybe we just need to get rid of all the cars,’’ she added with a smile. “Then there wouldn’t be any problems.’’

Sarah Thomas can be reached at