Alewife Neighbors, Inc. > projects > south_alewife > BCF Sept, 2003 - New Town Could Be Built at Belmont's BorderNew Town Could Be Built at Belmont's Border

The following article appeared in the September 2003 edition of the Belmont Citizens Forum Newsletter, available online at www.belmontcitizensforum.org

New Town Could Be Built at Belmont's Border
By Michael Nakagawa

The City of Cambridge has undertaken the planning of five million square feet of new development in a one-half square mile area just off Concord Avenue. (Cambridge is six and one-half square miles in total.) The plans would add the equivalent of three Hancock towers worth of residential and commercial space, or as much square footage as is planned for East Cambridge's North Point. This would double the existing density on the land under study, which stretches from the Fresh Pond Mall west to the Belmont border and from the Alewife Reservation south to Concord Avenue. Development of this magnitude would likely add 18,000 vehicle trips per day to what is already a congested area, and much of that traffic would end up in Belmont.

Planners are suggesting that more multi-family housing be built along Concord Avenue, that new streets be laid out between Fawcett, Wheeler, and Moulton Streets, that a pedestrian bridge be built over the commuter railroad tracks to the Alewife T-station, that portions of the Fresh Pond shopping center be enclosed, and that a connecting road be built from Alewife Brook Parkway into the light industrial area known as the Quadrangle, which is sandwiched between Concord Avenue and the MBTA commuter rail line and which would be extensively redeveloped for mixed use.

Situated in what was once The Great Swamp, this land is an obvious spot for redevelopment. Much of it is already covered with impervious surfaces: asphalt parking lots and concrete block buildings. It would be a boon to the surrounding community if Cambridge were to expose underground streams here to the daylight, provide parks and flood storage, and add residences and jobs close to public transportation and shopping. To succeed, however, the development would have to be easily accessible on foot from the Alewife T-station and the Fresh Pond shopping area.

Traffic Impact Needs Serious Study

David Dixon of Goody, Clancy & Associates, the lead consultant on this project for the City of Cambridge, is an advocate of high-density development, which he has said can help prevent urban sprawl and create more cohesive communities. Unfortunately, the plan now under discussion does not take into account the traffic impact on surrounding communities. The city's consultants consider the severe traffic back-ups at Alewife to be "a regional problem" and outside the scope of this project. The residents being formally consulted on the plan are only those who live within the small Cambridge Highlands neighborhood between the former Sancta Maria hospital and Blanchard Road, an area that houses just 700 people. North and West Cambridge (with their 30,000 residents) as well as Belmont (with its 24,000 residents) are not represented on the Concord-Alewife Study Committee, which is reviewing the project.

While, at first glance, increased development near a subway station in an already dense city might seem reasonable, topographical and transportation-related constraints mean that irresponsible development here will have an impact for miles around.

Drivers looking to bypass the traffic bottlenecks at Alewife will stream through residential side streets far from the study area. Citizens anticipate that the neighborhoods of Belmont and Watertown bounded by Pleasant Street, Mt. Auburn Street, and the Cambridge and Arlington borders will become cluttered with cars commuting between the northwest suburbs and Boston. Once this area backs up, Trapelo Road will probably be next.

Currently, intersections in the Alewife vicinity have a Level of Service rating of "F" during rush hour. This means that cars waiting at a light cannot get through the intersection in one signal cycle. Therefore, each arriving car simply adds to the length of the lines, once the capacity of the junction has been exceeded.

Stormwater Sewers Inadequate

Equally problematic, the proposed development is almost entirely within the Alewife Brook floodplain. This area of Cambridge, Arlington, and Belmont experienced significant flooding in 1996, 1998, and 2001. Because these three communities still have sewers that combine wastewater and stormwater, heavy rains overwhelm the system and untreated wastewater flows into Alewife Brook and surrounding areas, raising public health concerns.

To alleviate some of the overflow, Cambridge has planned to separate some of its sewer and stormwater pipes, directing only the wastewater for treatment at Boston Harbor's Deer Island facility. However, instead of using a portion of the Concord-Alewife area as a stormwater detention pond for the newly separated stormwater flows, the city plans to pipe the area's 57 million gallons of street runoff each year past the Quadrangle and directly into the Alewife Brook Reservation. This would increase flooding downstream during the largest storms. The downstream sewers serving Massachusetts Avenue are no longer scheduled for separation under the revised plans and will continue to overflow with untreated human waste during heavy storms.

Opportunities to Improve Land

Expansive development without the infrastructure improvements needed to handle it adequately can be a recipe for disaster. Rather than simply trying to maximize density, the planning for this tortured natural resource area should begin with an exploration of the area's best use in the context of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Sensible development could actually be used to restore some of the land's natural functions. For example, a park with a prominent pond tied into the stormwater system could help alleviate area flooding and sewer problems, while providing a pleasant environment for new residents and local businesses. Even if only a small percentage of the area were set aside for a functional amenity such as this, it would be significant, since this percentage would amount to [should have been "...since this would be a percentage of..." - MN] hundreds of acres.

The Concord-Alewife Study Committee will hold a public forum, tentatively scheduled for December 10, 2003, to discuss plans for the area. (Check the Cambridge Community Development page at www.cambridgema.gov for the exact time and place.) Residents from surrounding communities should grasp this opportunity to voice their support for sustainable development here.

Michael Nakagawa lives near Alewife Brook in North Cambridge