The Charles River Regional Chamber last week celebrated its first in-person fall breakfast in 3 years, its first since changing its name from the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber and adding Wellesley to its ranks. Among a few hundred new and old friends, attendees were reminded that we’re in this together—this being a re-emergence from pandemic isolation, new thinking about commercial and real estate development, and how we live our lives.
“In this day and age when we’re talking about housing, and talking about transportation, these are not local issues, these are regional issues and these are state issues,” said Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop, speaking on a panel of municipal leaders at the gathering. “Just looking around the room thinking about all the ideas alone that would be in this room to improve Wellesley businesses, Needham, Newton, Watertown collectively is just going to improve the community as a whole, and we have to think regionally on everything we do…”
Thoughts on this and other topics were shared by fellow panelists—Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, and Watertown City Manager George Proakis—during a discussion moderated by Chamber President Greg Reibman.
The panel discussion followed a presentation by city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck, who I learned is something of a celebrity in this field, even signing books at the end focused on his ideas about walkable communities. Walkability has been found to have environmental, health, community, and business benefits.
Speck, now living in Brookline, was more familiar with Needham, Newton, and Watertown than Wellesley, and devoted much of his talk to work being done in those communities. This includes the ambitious transformation of the Riverside MBTA station and rail yard property into a mixed use space that will see new housing and an obliteration of a large surface-level parking lot into a garage, with plenty of green space. (Trail access to those in Wellesley has been in the works for years to this area as well.) Walkability progress is happening across the region, from Newton getting its first roundabout to Watertown rethinking the tangle that is Watertown Square to Needham’s magic tent that enlivened its common during the pandemic.
Parklets and parking
In Wellesley, the planner’s attention had been brought to the much-used Central and Cross Street parklet erected over the summer, and he seemed surprised that some local merchants weren’t wild about it due to vehicular traffic flow and other concerns. “Things like this when they come to cities generally are very effective in bringing downtowns back to life,” he said.
One thing Speck warned the town against, having seen a couple of conceptual streetscape plans from architects, is not to go with widened vehicular lanes in Wellesley Square. Wider lanes encourage speeding in urban areas, as he pointed out during parts of his presentation.
The Wellesley Select Board, working through the town’s Traffic Committee, has begun evaluating streetscape features in Wellesley Square, and has had conceptual plans displayed in downtown windows to help familiarize the public with possibilities.
Jop noted during the panel discussion that in meetings with merchants about Wellesley Square redesign concepts, concerns were raised about losing any parking (see also: “Merchants raise ‘Parking, parking, parking’ concerns in Wellesley Square”).
“All we heard is ‘If I lose one parking spot my business is going to die,’ and that’s tough to combat,” Jop said. “We’re trying to show if we revitalize and you get pedestrian movement…We have a lot of restaurants coming into town, but when you have restaurants you need retail to stay open later to really gain the benefits of those individuals coming.”
(On parking, Speck crowed over Cambridge’s recent elimination of minimum parking space requirements for developers as progress on the walkability front.)
Other subjects addressed by Jop during the discussion included:
- Encouraging more diversity among business ownership and within town government to help build a more diverse community. “We have a growing Asian population, so we’ve been working really hard with our Chinese American Network along with our Wellesley Chinese Language School to make sure that we [address any language barriers to make meetings or decision making more inclusive],” she said.
- Positive outcomes during the pandemic included the combination of parklets and outdoor dining options that emerged and helped entice even more people to get outside. As did the Wellesley trails system, which allowed people to discover or rediscover nature in town, and get to and from commercial districts without cars. She gave a special shoutout to the lesser-known trail along the Charles River at Wellesley Office Park on William Street.
- The importance of making more town services, including permit applications, available online.
You can watch a NewTV recording of the chamber’s fall breakfast event.