It’s 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, and every seat in the Citywide Senior Center is occupied.
White-haired activists shift in their chairs, whispering about the upcoming decision. Each party’s lawyer presents their case. The audience grows more and more lively, and one by one, individuals step up to the microphone to share their concerns.
The public comment period is now over, and the Cambridge City Board of Zoning Appeal delivers its decision: the appeal to stop construction in Inman Square has not been granted. The room goes silent.
This was the latest attempt by Inman Square residents and businesses to stop the City Council’s planned two-year renovations of Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci Community Plaza, the park off of Inman Square’s major intersection. The new design aims to reduce the number of car and bike accidents at the intersection of Hampshire St. and Cambridge St., which has been the site of ten bicycle accidents and 50 car accidents in the three years prior to fall 2018, including a fatal bike accident in 2016.
However, Friends of Inman Square, a group of residents and businesses, say the redesign won’t make the intersection safer. Rather, they claim the City Council plan will both be detrimental to local small businesses and fundamentally alter the personality of the Square.
Safety concerns are the main issue at hand, and Friends of Inman Square has disputed the safety of the city’s plan. The group’s website claims that three “safety flaws” for pedestrians and bicyclists are created by the City’s redesign.
In January, preparations for construction began, and four locust trees were removed from Vellucci Plaza to allow for the rerouting of Hampshire St. Friends of Inman Square protested the event, but to no avail. Now, three bulldozers and construction cones sit on spray-painted asphalt where there was once a shady cluster of trees. A fading plastic sign with a construction update leans against a nearby bulletin board.
John R. Pitkin, one organizer from Friends of Inman Square, says that he felt he had no choice but to participate in the group’s activism. “It’s going to completely change the character of the area that I live in. I would love to ignore it. This is not how I want to be spending my time. The city is just doing something that is not in the interest of the residents who are living in the city,” he says.
In September, the City Council voted 7-2 to approve the redesign plan. According to Friends of Inman Square, as of March 15, 2019, 15 businesses had signed a petition to stop the redesign.
Jenny D. McBride, one of the petition’s signatories, is a co-owner of Inman Oasis, a massage parlor and wellness center that has been in Inman Square for 13 years. McBride is worried about the construction’s effects.
“Parking will be an issue, getting around will be an issue, [and] noise will be an issue,” McBride says. “I think some of the businesses out here will feel vibrational impacts from digging up the street.”
Pitkin estimates that the construction will eliminate half of the public parking spaces in the business district, which many local businesses depend upon. “Some of those businesses will not survive,” he says.
However, not everyone agrees that stopping the city’s current plan is the right thing to do. Virginia B. Johnson, owner of gather here, a fabric and yarn store, did not sign the Friends of Inman Square petition. She says that her affiliation with the East Cambridge Business Association Board was part of her decision to refrain from signing.
“The reason that I don’t want to be included on this list is that currently, I feel like it’s in my best interest as a small businesses owner to find ways to positively work with the city to ensure that whatever impact this construction project...has doesn’t negatively affect our small business,” she says.
Johnson also feels that Friends of Inman Square has not paid enough attention to the severity of the Square’s safety problems. “Obviously, something needs to change, and I didn’t feel like [the group] addressed the fatality issue,” she says, referencing the 2016 accident.
In addition to safety, members of Friends of Inman Square are also concerned about the cost and duration of the project, which will total $6 million dollars and last about two years. “I have a bridge to sell you if you think it’s only going to take two years,” Berman jokes.
Even more than just cost or length, residents feel that the redesign is part of a larger move away from the personal feeling of the Square they know well. Many residents do not feel that their voices have been heard by the city government. Pitkin says, “The city refused to discuss the alternatives.”
However, the city government claims that the public was involved in the decision process. “During the design process, we evaluated many different options for improving the safety of Inman Square and we firmly believe that the final plan is the best viable solution for improving Inman Square so that it is safe for all and creates a vibrant open space in the heart of the square,” wrote Katherine F. Watkins, assistant commissioner for engineering at the Cambridge City Department for Public Works, in a statement over email.
Watkins added that over the course of the design process, six “widely attended public meetings” were held, as well as other “approval processes” including open houses and a Tree Removal Hearing.
Yet according to Pitkin, the Cambridge City Planning Board, in accordance with provisions of the Zoning Ordinance, should have been required to hear the presentation of alternative design plans. Pitkin alleges that the council decided on a plan, but no alternatives were presented. However, according to Watkins, “During the design process, [the City] evaluated many different options” when considering the redesign of the Square.
Pitkin hired a lawyer and tried to appeal their decision. On April 11, the zoning board decided not to grant the appeal because it found that “the City’s laying out and construction of a public way is not subject to zoning,” Watkins wrote.
Friends of Inman Square doesn’t buy the zoning board’s argument. “We thought the board was going to follow what the law said, but they’ve made an interpretation that is poorly reasoned,” Pitkin says, criticizing the City’s enforcement. He is unsure of what he plans to do next. “We have an option of appealing to court… The question is whether that would do us any good,” he says.
Berman worries that Inman Square will face the kind of development seen in other parts of Cambridge. “Harvard Square is a place where you can find any chain store that you want, and we don’t want Inman square to be like that,” she says.“We want our small, local, independent stores.”