By Karen Klinger
(Second of three parts)
On a recent morning at rush hour, the traffic on Beech Street in Porter Square was stalled in both directions. Cars trying to get to Massachusetts Avenue snaked in a long line up Elm Street toward Davis Square. Meanwhile, cars going in the other direction were backed up on Mass Ave.
It was a mess. Nothing exceptional, really, for two-blocks-long Beech, which is a heavily traveled link between Somerville and North Cambridge. It was just a bit worse than usual.
But if a controversial 46-unit condominium complex is built as planned with the entrance and exit to a 64-space underground parking garage on Beech, neighborhood residents fear that the traffic tie-ups every day will be much as they were that morning.
That, in part, is what some of them told the Cambridge Planning Board at a public hearing October 20 to consider a request by Oaktree Development for a special permit to build the condos at the corner of Beech and Mass Ave. The project would be built partly on land owned by St. James’s Episcopal Church and partly on adjoining property formerly occupied by the Cambridge Car Wash.
(Members of the planning board are scheduled to discuss the permit request at their next meeting in November. Staff member Liza Paden said they could make a decision then, but under the law, they have 90 days, or until January 18, to vote on the application.)
In a letter to the board, representatives of the Porter Square Neighbors Association (PSNA) said abutters and nearby residents “adamantly opposed” placing the parking garage entrance on Beech Street instead of Mass Ave., for several reasons, including the prospect of worsening traffic backups. (Disclosure: the writer lives on Beech Street).
But what angered and dismayed the neighbors as much as anything was the notion that the decision to put the entrance on Beech was made by Susan Clippinger, the city’s director of traffic, parking and transportation, even before the results of a required traffic study were known.
In a supplemental letter dealing just with the traffic concerns, the PSNA said the group’s objections to Clippinger’s decision resulted partially from the fact that it was made “without any consultation with neighbors and before even the preliminary draft of the traffic study report was available.”
The study in question, by the traffic engineering firm Vanasse and Associates in Andover, found that the impact on Beech Street from the additional cars going into and out of the condominium complex would be negligible.
But as Vanasse consultant Scott Thornton conceded at a contentious meeting with neighborhood residents September 10, the study was narrowly focused, looking only at the intersection of Beech and Mass Ave. and part of one block. It did not look even a few yards further on, to the intersection of Beech and Orchard streets, or to the intersection with Elm.
Why? Because the city traffic department did not want it to, Thornton said.
In addition, the study was done on June 9, after most students in area colleges had left for the summer. Thornton said that did not make a significant difference in the traffic equation, an assertion challenged by audience members, including State Representative Alice Wolf.
The PSNA said that problem, and other flaws, including that the study ignored the likely impact of deliveries to the condo building and the effect of other planned developments only a few blocks away, meant it could not “be taken seriously and needs to be done again.”
Other reactions to the study have been less diplomatic. Beech Street resident Preston Gralla said Clippinger’s directive to the consultants made the study outcome a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Michael Brandon, an officer of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, which has coordinated with the PSNA in taking part in neighborhood meetings on the condo project, was even blunter. “It was a rigged process,” he said, but “nevertheless, it will be rubber-stamped.”
Traffic Director Defends Decision, Fails to Settle Questions
For her part, Clippinger defended her decision that the garage entrance should be on Beech Street at the planning board hearing, saying she was confident the street “will not be adversely affected” by cars going into and out of the condo’s garage.
She said she wanted to keep additional traffic off Mass Ave. and felt that the traffic flow could best be regulated by locating the garage entrance near the traffic light at Beech and Mass Ave (a “signalized location” she called it).
However, she acknowledged that her department was “taking the incredibly unpopular position” and that “I probably should have” told the consultants to study the two additional traffic intersections on Beech. But she added, “I don’t think it would trigger any more information than we have today.”
Among those having difficulty understanding Clippinger’s logic is City Councilor Craig Kelley, who said, “I am still perplexed as to why the garage can’t exit out onto Mass Ave and why the City is thought to be unlikely to change its mind on that issue.”
He added, “Even on the busiest day, there would be fewer cars coming out of the garage than came out of the car wash and, as far as I know, those exiting cars didn’t cause traffic problems.”
In other cities in Massachusetts, residents might be able to appeal the traffic department’s decisions to a citizen advisory board. In fact, state law mandates that cities establish such boards and those that have include Somerville, Newton and Brookline. Arlington and Belmont have what they call citizen “transportation committees.”
But Cambridge has nothing like that, in apparent contradiction to Section 2.10 of its own traffic regulations. Those regulations state that a traffic board “shall be constituted as provided by the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and shall have the power under certain conditions to void regulations made by the traffic director…”
They go on to stipulate that the traffic board should “consist of three citizen members to be appointed by the city manager.”
City Manager Robert Healy, though, has never appointed a traffic board, leaving Clippinger accountable only to Healy (in a sort of municipal version of “the Lowells talk only to the Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God”).
All of which has left many residents unhappy and frustrated. At the neighborhood meeting in September, one person wondered why “city officials can’t understand the problems we face” from the traffic impact of the condo development. To which a longtime PSNA member replied, “They understand—they just don’t care.”