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Proposal to Limit Memorial Drive Weekend Closures to Sundays Sparks Resident Backlash

The Cambridge City Council convened to discuss COVID-19 protocols and other important city matters Monday evening.
The Cambridge City Council convened to discuss COVID-19 protocols and other important city matters Monday evening. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Cambridge City Councilors debated a proposed policy order limiting the weekend closures of Memorial Drive to Sundays during its meeting Monday night. In advance of the meeting, a petition circulated by Cambridge Bicycle Safety collected nearly 2,200 signatures in opposition to the change.

The policy order, sponsored by Councilor E. Denise Simmons, was not voted upon Monday night after Councilor Paul F. Toner exercised his “Charter Right” — a practice through which any member of the Council can postpone consideration of “any ordinance, order or resolution.”

The regular closures of portions of Memorial Drive began after a one-time closure for a public picnic in 1975 and a four-week pilot program in 1976. A 1985 Massachusetts law later codified the weekly closures “from the last Sunday in April through the second Sunday in November” from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

These closed portions of Memorial Drive, in addition to the green space alongside the Charles River, are known as Riverbend Park.

In 2020 and 2021, Memorial Drive was closed on both Saturdays and Sundays to create more outdoor space for residents to use while social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

More than a month into its 2022 season, Memorial Drive currently closes from Western Avenue to Gerry’s Landing from 8 a.m. Saturday to Sunday at 7 p.m.

Introducing the policy order at the City Council meeting, Simmons said residents were not sufficiently consulted on the extension of the closures to Saturday. She argued that when the Saturday extensions began during “the height of the pandemic,” Cambridge’s level of vehicular traffic was low.

Simmons said the city has not sought appropriate public input on the closures from impacted neighborhoods since more traffic has returned to the area.

“It never stated, ‘in perpetuity,’” she said during the meeting in reference to the decision to extend the Saturday Memorial Drive closures. “It also never said, ‘Let’s not talk to the community.’”

Residents who spoke in support of the limitation of the Memorial Drive closure to Sundays during the meeting’s public comment period primarily cited concerns of increased traffic in residential areas.

One resident, Sheila Headley-Burwell, argued that the traffic was “overwhelming.”

“We are hostage to yet another day,” Headley-Burwell said. “How does one justify such an inconvenience and impact on and into our community, affecting various streets by pushing traffic into the front of our homes?”

Resident Lawrence Adkins’ account of weekend traffic on Western and Putnam Avenues elicited applause from some attendees at the meeting, prompting Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui to remind the audience of the Council’s meeting rules.

“I have never been in a time where I cannot leave my house without being stuck in traffic for 20 minutes,” Adkins yelled.

Residents who opposed Simmons’s policy order argued that the weekend closures of Memorial Drive provide the city with more open space for biking, rollerblading, walking, skating, and other outdoor activities.

“For most of the week, almost the whole city is cut off from the river by four dangerous lanes of fast-moving traffic,” resident Benjamin C. Rolsma said. “But on Saturdays and Sundays, Memorial Drive becomes a thriving and safe place that thousands of residents can enjoy.”

Former vice mayor of Cambridge Jan Devereux described in an interview the results of an intercept survey conducted in April by The People for Riverbend Park Trust — an organization in which she serves as a trustee — on the closures of Memorial Drive.

“People were really enthusiastic about having it both days,” Devereux said. “It’s viewed as a great amenity for the Harvard Square area particularly, but really, people come from all over.”

Christopher Cassa — a representative of the Memorial Drive Alliance, a coalition of more than 25 local organizations that promotes pedestrian and cyclist access to the Memorial Drive Parkway — praised the closed parkway as a safe recreational space in an interview.

“It’s just really heartwarming to see families and kids learning how to use a bike, or people being able to run around peacefully without having to worry if their kids might be too close to cars,” Cassa said.

During the Council’s discussion of the policy order following public comment, several City councilors expressed understanding for the experiences of both residents who supported the proposal and those who opposed it.

Marc C. McGovern described the closures as both “a tremendous resource” and “an inconvenience to a lot of the folks who live in the neighborhood.”

“I think we need to do some community outreach with those folks to see if we can mitigate the problem,” Toner said.

As a result of Toner’s exercise of the Charter Right, the policy order will next be considered during the Council’s meeting on June 6.

Cassa argued — as several residents had during the meeting — that traffic management measures could be explored.

“It’s something that could be managed with better signal timing, or better signage to help people avoid an area that might be closed,” he said. “It’s just so short-sighted to me to see people talk about closing it, rather than specifically addressing and trying to figure out ways to make this more manageable and less impactful on residents.”

Devereux agreed that the city should consider various traffic mitigation measures, but said she does “not believe it is the job of the City Council to eliminate all inconvenience to drivers.”

While she acknowledged that public meetings could “guide remedies,” she said the complaints of a group of residents “shouldn’t be a way of delaying or canceling” Council initiatives.

Devereux referenced the thousands of signatures on the Cambridge Bicycle Safety petition as “a mandate.”

“It’s important for a climate — for the riverfront environment — that we stop treating it like decoration for a highway,” she said.

—Staff writer Katerina V. Corr can be reached at katerina.corr@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @KaterinaCorr.

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City PoliticsHarvard SquareCambridge City Council