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It’s Official: State ‘Conservation’ Agency Will Reduce Park Access to Bring Back Motor Vehicle Traffic

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

On Monday afternoon, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) announced that would dramatically reduce public access to the Charles riverfront in Cambridge in favor of re-opening Memorial Drive, the four-lane roadway that encroaches on the public's parkland, to motor vehicle traffic on Saturdays.

Since the 1970s, DCR has been closing 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.

In the three years since the pandemic's stay-at-home orders of 2020, however, Riverbend Park has been open for Saturdays and Sundays from April until mid-December.

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."

But for the first few months of Governor Healey's new administration, DCR's plans for Riverbend Park in 2023 remained unknown.

Contrary to the City Council's request, car traffic remained on Memorial Drive through the first two weekends of spring without any word of re-opening Riverbend Park.

That uncertainty ended Monday afternoon, when, in a brief press release, the DCR announced that Riverbend Park would only be open on Sundays this year, and not until April 30.

In a written statement on Wednesday, DCR spokesperson Ilyse Wolberg claimed that the full-weekend closures of Riverbend Park were "not without its negative impacts, including concerns about elevated traffic and pollution in surrounding residential neighborhoods, some of which are classified as environmental justice communities."

Wolberg did not explain why the agency believes that inviting drivers back onto a four-lane riverfront highway would reduce the traffic pollution that afflicts those communities. According to state data, the DCR's "parkways" rank among the biggest sources of air pollution in the City of Cambridge.

In 2021, drivers traveled about 181,600 miles a day on DCR highways within the City of Cambridge. That traffic generates roughly 73 metric tons of climate-heating tailpipe pollution every day.

Wolberg did not respond to questions from StreetsblogMASS about how its decision to reduce Riverbend Park access aligns with the agency's conservation mission and with the Healey administration's climate goals.

Wolberg did note that DCR had also shut down several other park roadways to motorized traffic during the pandemic, and all of those streets have also been re-opened to car traffic.

StreetsblogMASS has also reached out to state Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, whose district encompasses Riverbend Park and who has been conspicuously silent on the issue even as her colleagues in neighboring State House districts have clamored for preserving the public's access to the city's riverfront.

Decker's office has yet to respond to our questions, but this story will be updated if we hear from them.


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