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Board of Aldermen hedge about closing Somerville roads for events

Posted by Laura Gomez  April 5, 2013 12:37 PM

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Tired of residents’ complaints about loud car horns, bumper to bumper traffic and frustrated screams from car windows, Somerville aldermen are reconsidering a request to close streets for summer events.

The SomerStreets Series, which includes outdoor festivals, concerts, and parades to promote active living, last month asked the Board of Aldermen to approve five street closures from June 2 to Oct. 20.

Aldermen, who face complaints from residents but support from businesses for the events, are hedging about approving the requested street closures, which include Somerville Avenue, Highland Avenue, Shore Drive and East Broadway. They are considering keeping the events but altering street closures so that they are less inconvenient. A date to discuss altering the street closures has not yet been set.

The events, heading into their fourth year, bring the community together, but also stir complaints from residents about the inconvenience, said Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz.

“It took me an hour from Davis Square to Union Square because of one of these events that I think was actually down on Somerville Ave,” Gewirtz said at last month’s meeting. “I saw people out their windows, yelling actually. I was surprised. You don’t see this behavior that much.”

Gewirtz said a few residents called her to complain about the traffic on these days.
Resident Courtney O’Keefe said in a letter to aldermen that moving public events to open spaces might be a solution.

“I would also hate to see road races canceled or decreased because of the amount of revenue it brings to local businesses,” O’Keefe said. “Believe it or not, Magoun Square benefits from road races run in Davis Square, which serves as great visibility for the business district.”

Alderman Maryann Heuston liked O’Keefe’s suggestion.

“I think that there is a way to have these events, but maybe on Somerville Avenue, not take the entire avenue and really have the traffic engineer way in on how traffic can keep flowing,” Heuston said.

Jackie Rossetti, deputy director of communication for Somerville, works closely on SomerStreets on behalf of the mayor's office and said the events are scheduled on Sundays to avoid traffic jams.

“Overall, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Rossetti said. “There are some negative impacts on traffic which we continue to work to fix.”

Rossetti said the road closure on Somerville Avenue causes the most traffic, but shortening the route would compromise the meaning behind SomerStreets.

“We know it's a long stretch of road, but there is so much to highlight and offer at our events,” Rossetti said. “We're really giving residents and visitors an opportunity to explore the world outside of car -- encouraging biking, walking, dancing, anything that gets people to learn about ways to be more active in a city where it may not be intuitive.”

Area businesses say they can deal with the street closures because the outdoor community festivals bring more customers.

“Our foot traffic makes up most of our customers,” said Debbie Soares, manager at Fortissimo Coffehouse and Bakery. “We really like the bikers and people who walk. Because of the car meters on Somerville Avenue, people don’t often stop for this coffee if they’re driving.”

Soares said the coffee shop embraces the street closures because it allows the area to grow as a community and for people to get to know each other.

People who otherwise would never travel to Union Square stop in Two Little Monkeys, a children’s consignment shop, during the Fluff Festival and SomerStreets’ Halloween costume parade, said Margaret Pipes, one of two store employees.

“Each time, we get probably a little increase in traffic,” Pipes said. “We love it. It brings people to this area who don’t always come in, and then it brings regulars by who are attracted to the festival. It’s always good for us.”

Pipes said the area is home to many young families who might not take part in community events if streets were not closed.

Katie Leavitt, the manager of Rite Aid, said business at her store might decline during the street closures, but community get-togethers were important for Somerville.

“It might hurt the business as a whole, but what are you going to do, say no? It’s a community thing,” she said. “At Halloween they do a parade type walk, so we set up a table and give out candy. That affects us a little bit, but the kids love it.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between The Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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