January 18, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald
In this third part of a three-part series that examines Belmont’s ten-year comprehensive plan, I examine aspects of the plan that have not been pursued in the eight years since it was adopted. The progress taken to implement some aspects of the plan, as considered last week, should not mask the lack of progress elsewhere.
Much of what has not happened involves our local business centers. The comprehensive plan recommended that Belmont “establish a more predictable approval process [for new development] that focuses on design standards and impact analysis.” The plan noted that existing zoning focuses on “height, density and use,” factors which do “not ensure compatibility of new development with [Belmont’s] historic character and development patterns…” These new standards have never been considered. The plan recommended rezoning Belmont’s business centers to allow “mixed uses,” a combination of residential and commercial uses, an action not taken. This failure, the plan says, “inhibits an appropriate mix of uses and scaled new or infill development which can enhance the vitality of these districts.”
Re-visioning Belmont’s “commercial centers” was recommended. For example, the plan recommended defining new business centers, including Central/Palfrey Square, East Belmont and Brighton Street (“Hill’s Crossing”) (nearby Hill Estates), each having its own individual character. This recommendation has been ignored.
Preserving Belmont’s neighborhoods received considerable attention in the comprehensive plan. The plan indicated that Belmont first needs to “strengthen [the] physical definition of neighborhoods.” After doing that, the plan recommended “establishing neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards [that] can reinforce historical character and development patterns.” This has not been pursued.
For historic preservation, the comprehensive plan recommended a by-law to protect “specimen trees,” along with increased use of “scenic road designations.” (Somerset Street is Belmont’s only “scenic road”). Neither have been pursued.
Increasing the “walkability” of Belmont is one essential strategy for a sustainable community. The comprehensive plan recommended that “sidewalks should be included in road reconstruction policy.” That is still not done. Not too many years ago, the Board of Selectmen determined that Belmont’s limited resources should be devoted to road repair and reconstruction, excluding sidewalks. Perhaps now that there are sufficient resources for road repair, a corresponding sidewalk repair and reconstruction plan should be prepared.
Some things recommended in the comprehensive plan are beyond the direct control of Belmont and have not been pursued. Improving bus connections to Alewife (such as diverting existing 128 shuttles to/from Waltham) is one example. Advocacy by Belmont’s leaders is what is needed, not direct decisionmaking.
Some action steps, seemingly reasonably “easy,” have not been pursued. Improving signage for Belmont Center parking has never occurred. One certainly does not drive down Waltham’s Moody Street and wonder where municipal parking is located. Similarly, developing a signed pedestrian circulation plan for the Leonard/Common/Concord intersection, as recommended by the plan, should be manageable. Why do people feel they must risk their lives to get from Clark Street / White Street / Belmont Center to the Post Office? Is that process more difficult than it sounds?
The comprehensive plan recommended steps increase bicycling to school. Designating bike routes to school, marked by signage, was one recommendation not pursued. But who decides? The Selectmen? DPW? Office of Community Development? Similarly, “providing bicycle parking/storage at transit stations” and other public destinations was recommended but not done.
Comprehensive plan recommendations to increase housing alternatives have received some of the least attention. The plan recommended consideration of allowing accessory/in-law apartments and allowing three-family structures where they have been historically located. Allowing increased attached single-family housing and townhouse development was recommended for consideration. None of these have been considered, let alone adopted.
The failures identified above, if inaction can even be considered a failure –“failure” may be unduly harsh of a word– cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Selectmen. Multiple decisionmakers can/should consider what was recommended in the 2010 comprehensive plan and what needs to be done to bring forth those recommendations for decision. Inaction may simply indicate the lack of resources to pursue all of the plan’s recommendations, even over eight years. Inaction may also simply indicate the inherent difficulty in converting a “recommendation” into a “proposal.” Ultimately, while much has been done since Belmont adopted the town’s 2010-2020 comprehensive plan, much remains to be done.
Roger Colton has been a Belmont resident since 1985 living in the Cushing Square neighborhood. He is also the host of Belmont Media Center’s podcast, “Community Conversations” and a guest host of Belmont Media Center’s weekly news program, “Belmont Journal.” He’s a Town Meeting Member and chair of the Belmont Energy Committee. Colton can be reached at Colton.Conversations@comcast.net.