City faces uncertain fight for Lechmere market; some unsure it will fight

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

The Lechmere T stop could become a public market if Cambridge government fights for it, according to discussion at an April meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The plan to build a public market in the proposed Lechmere Square in East Cambridge is not yet out of the question, but the city will have to doggedly negotiate with state transportation officials.

At a Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee meeting April 28, city councillor Craig Kelley acknowledged the council does not have as much clout in these matters as the state Department of Transportation, but said Cambridge will work to make the state aware of residents’ wishes.

“My fear is, once the state and NorthPoint get their respective plans to a certain point, we won’t be able to impact them much,” he said.

Building the market will also depend on the development of NorthPoint, the 43-acre development that will become home to the Lechmere MBTA station and train yard when the stop moves from its current location.

To build the 30-stall, 1920s-style public market in the emptied station space, the city will have to block a plan to expand Monsignor O’Brien Highway. Widening the highway, even by a bit, would render plans for the market unfeasible.

Expanding the highway, however, would give drivers the chance to make a right turn onto First Street, which could ease the flow of traffic down Third Street toward Kendall Square. The highway would narrow again after the turn.

But cutting down on area traffic may not be that simple: As East Cambridge resident John Paul pointed out during the hearing, First and Third streets let out in different areas, meaning many people may keep their current routes to and from Kendall Square through Third Street.

“If that’s the case, it doesn’t really relieve the traffic,” he said. “I’m not advocating increased traffic on Third Street either, but I’m saying if it’s perceived as largely commuter traffic, why not send it further on down to the intersection near the Museum of Science, where there is a lot of room … rather than sending it through city streets, and turning what is an urban residential condition into a suburban superhighway condition?”

With Lechmere Station on the other side of the highway and a wider highway, some commuters would have to cross six lanes of traffic to get to East Cambridge homes and businesses.

Reluctant champion

Heather Hoffman, a Cambridge resident and real estate attorney, suggested those relying on the city to fight for a market and against widening the highway had chosen a reluctant champion. Based on attendance at Green Line Extension meetings, she felt Cambridge’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department was motivating the widening of the highway.

Somerville is against it and has made its concerns known to the Department of Transportation,Hoffman said.

“Somerville doesn’t want to be split in two by a surface highway,” she said. “Somerville is actively working, as I understand, to change the road dramatically. And yet, what Cambridge is insisting on … I was told in no uncertain terms that every bit of this push [to widen the highway] is coming from Cambridge. If Somerville is trying to make this a significantly better road to have in a city, to make it possible for actual humans to cross the road, then what the heck are we doing undoing all of it?”

Somerville wants to “boulevard” the highway — lowering as it passes through the city — and is working with the state on a study to see if it is possible, but results will not be released until 2012.

Further complicating matters is the fact the city’s traffic and pedestrian data come from a study completed nearly eight years ago, and the picture may be significantly different now and when the project is completed. Transportation committee members were also unsure who would build the new Lechmere Station – The MBTA, NorthPoint developers or the city of Cambridge?

Kelley said he will order a request to City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr. to look into contracts with NorthPoint and verify who is responsible for building the station. He also said he will seek updated traffic study numbers, and any decisions about the fate of the area would have to wait a number of weeks until the committee has better information.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

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