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Traffic or Parkland? State Stonewalling Leaves Riverbend Park In Limbo

3:52 PM EDT on March 31, 2023

Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Photo by John Phelan, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 3.0.

The state's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) still hasn't announced a schedule for Cambridge's popular Riverbend Park weekends, which typically begin in April each year, and supporters are raising alarms that the car-free events are once again in danger of being cut back in favor of car traffic.

"We have no comment at this time," wrote Ilyse Wolberg, a DCR spokesperson, in an email to StreetsblogMASS on March 14th. "We'll be in touch when more information is announced."

Hundreds of Cambridge residents and the majority of the city's State House delegation have expressed strong support for continuing the open street events on Saturdays and Sundays.

In February, the Cambridge City Council voted 7-2 to pass a policy order that directed their city manager to "expeditiously confer with the appropriate departments and agencies to continue Riverbend Park closures on Saturdays and Sundays... based on last year’s successful pilot, starting the first weekend of Spring (i.e., on March 25) and ending on the last weekend of Fall."

A brown-haired white woman with glasses, wearing a red blazer
Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge.
Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge.

But one crucial lawmaker – Rep. Marjorie Decker, whose district encompasses the Riverbend Park area – has been conspicuously silent on the issue, at least in public.

Some of her constituents suspect that she may be the reason why DCR won't make a commitment to a 2023 park schedule.

“I've reached out to her twice, and there's been no response,” says Clyve Lawrence, a Cambridge resident who lives in Rep. Decker's district. “Memorial Drive as an open space is a community asset for thousand of residents every weekend... It’s frustrating that her office is not willing to meet with constituents."

“I've sent her staff emails twice this week, and have not heard back," said Ari Ofsevit, another Decker constituent. "I’m not the only one. We’re asking for her help to push the DCR and come up with solutions. We have legislators so that when agencies are not responsive, they can hold them accountable."

Rep. Decker also did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls from StreetsblogMASS over the past two weeks.

Since the 1970s, DCR has closed Memorial Drive to automobile traffic between Gerry’s Landing Road and Western Avenue on Sundays to transform the city's riverfront from a congested four-lane highway into “Riverbend Park,” a place for people to enjoy safe access to the city's riverfront without the threats of traffic and  tailpipe pollution.

When the pandemic forced people to stay home in the spring of 2020, the Cambridge City Council asked DCR to extend the Riverbend Park events to Saturdays as well as Sundays in order to increase residents' access to outdoor space with adequate space for social distancing.

For the three years since then, Cambridge has enjoyed a car-free riverfront on both Saturdays and Sundays from April until mid-December.

At one point last August, DCR unexpectedly announced that it would cease the Saturday events, and leave Riverbend Park open only on Sundays, as it had been before the pandemic.

But the agency quickly changed course after an uproar from park supporters and Cambridge elected officials.

Instead, DCR and the City convened a series of public meetings last fall to hear feedback about the expanded Riverbend Park schedule.

At those hearings, officials heard broad and overwhelming support for the open street events. A compilation of written public comments from the Memorial Drive Alliance (which supports full-weekend access to Riverbend Park) counted only a handful of park opponents among hundreds of public comments submitted to the DCR and Cambridge City Council.

Park opponents have alleged that the weekend road closures shunt more traffic onto nearby residential streets in Cambridgeport, but park supporters think that minor traffic signal adjustments at intersections could easily address those concerns.

"The lights are optimized for weekday rush hours, so some minor changes to the signals could solve any traffic issues that might exist," said Ofsevit, who also holds a graduate degree in transportation from MIT. "But it’s on the DCR and Rep. Decker's office to coordinate and make those changes.”

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