Tonight I will be voting yes to move forward with the Inman Square redesign. It is not a decision I have come to lightly, or without doing my homework. I have talked with my neighbors at multiple community meetings as well as sitting with them one on one to hear their individual perspectives. I have met with City leadership over the past few weeks, and had detailed conversations with our City Manager, Traffic and Parking, the Assessors’ Department, and more, and asked tough questions about the proposed plan. I have talked with commuters of all kinds, whether they be drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. I have been in constant contact with the East Cambridge/Inman Square Business Association and individual small businesses to truly understand the impact on retail that a multi-year construction plan will have. And with regards to the Inman Square firehouse, I spent this past Friday night shadowing our Fire Department to see their equipment needs and challenges first-hand, and understand what firefighting looks like in 2018 so that I can support them in successfully serving our community.
I want to respect the City’s community engagement process surrounding this redesign, particularly because the majority of it predates my time on the Council. But contrary to what has been said, not only is it okay to critique the process, especially when it yields a less than desirable outcome, I believe it is my job as a City Councillor. When I ran for office, people often asked me what set me apart from other candidates, and why, in such a crowded field, I was the one deserving of their support. My answer was always that I had the ability to truly listen to multiple perspectives, sit at the table with opposing stakeholders, bring people together, and have the difficult but productive conversations that lead to results. That’s why being a City Councillor is like putting together a puzzle. When I hear from constituents or advocacy groups, they are each presenting me with their piece of the puzzle, and through their lens, their piece is always the most important. But when all of these pieces are laid out on the table in front of me, they are equally important, and it’s my job to put them together and form the big picture. I have taken my Inman Square decision seriously, especially as the only Councillor who lives in this neighborhood. This issue represents the largest puzzle I’ve gotten yet: pedestrians, cyclists, businesses, neighbors, environmental activists, Public Safety officials, and the City all have their own pieces, and it’s my job to take a holistic approach and thoughtfully put them together.
Projects like the Inman Square redesign require leadership that is methodical and thoughtful, and they require someone that’s willing to engage every stakeholder, ask tough questions and hold people accountable. I’m proud of the work I’ve done to do this. Since my comments last week, I have been able to address many of my concerns, and I hope, yours too. Retail will no doubt take a hit from the two year construction timeframe, and I have worked with our Assessors’ Office to spearhead an active engagement process, especially with our small businesses. City staff will be actively seeking out small business owners to offer tax abatements to ease cost burdens during construction. Our Economic Development Department will also be considering a number of “rapid response” methods to respond to unforeseen concerns during construction, and the City is committed to working on streamlining the permitting process for outdoor dining in anticipation of the new Velucci Plaza. Seniors and those with disabilities who regularly access the Health Alliance, Urgent Care, and the Inman Pharmacy have expressed concerns about the sidewalk design, and I have worked with the City to ensure not only ADA compliance, but to create a friendly environment for those who have impaired mobility. The loss of the large, mature trees in Velucci Park will have an adverse effect on the direct abutters of the park, whose residences used to benefit from the buffer between noise, traffic particulates (emissions), and general public view. I am working with Traffic and Parking and other City staff to add additional greenery to the remaining park that will protect those residences from increased exposure. And lastly, the size of the trees we plant in the new Velucci Plaza need to be large enough to recover our tree canopy in that area more quickly, and reduce the heat island effect.
This plan is far from perfect. It was not the first choice of the neighborhood, or even the City, and to some groups, such as the cycling community, it was the last choice. Earlier and more popular alternatives such as “the peanut” were thrown out immediately due to the needs of the firehouse, but ironically at this very same meeting tonight, we are approving $575,000 for a new, smaller fire truck that’s more suited to urban environments. I won’t repeat my thoughts about the future of the Inman Square firehouse here (to read my previous statement, look here: https://alannamallon.org/inman-square-redesign/), but had a more holistic approach to this design been taken from the beginning, the City may not have been caught in the “this or nothing” situation we are in now.
I ran on a platform of making streets safer, and I cannot justify a complete rejection of this plan, which does include protected bicycle infrastructure and shorter pedestrian walk times. But future projects cannot take this piecemeal, zero alternatives approach. As your City Councillor, I will always stay involved in a thoughtful, methodical way to ensure that the City approaches projects holistically in the future.