A $1.3 million proposal to renovate a 1-mile strip of Charles River walkways and green space along Greenough Boulevard in Watertown and Cambridge has drawn praise from joggers and cyclists, but also criticism from residents worried about traffic.
The proposal calls for narrowing Greenough Boulevard’s four vehicle lanes to two in most areas between the Eliot Bridge in Cambridge and Arsenal Street in Watertown, using the extra space to widen the 7-foot walkways to 10 feet, build a green-space buffer between traffic and pedestrians, and add pocket parks along the route. The plans also call for paring back some vegetation to improve views of the Charles, and upgrading storm-water drainage so roadway pollutants no longer run into the river.
Though traffic analysts studying the proposal say the effect on traffic would be minimal, anticipating that the most congestion would be seen on the eastbound side during the morning rush hours, some local residents said backups would be unavoidable.
“Reducing Greenough Boulevard to just one lane each way would cause a major area of confusion where it intersects with Soldiers Field Road and Memorial Drive,” Paul Gorenstein, a Coolidge Avenue resident, said at a July 10 forum. “If it’s restricted, there would be more traffic. I think improvements could be made without narrowing the roads.”
Gorenstein said he also worried that drivers would divert to Coolidge Avenue, which is somewhat parallel to Greenough, to avoid traffic.
“There’s already a lot of bus traffic on Coolidge Avenue bringing people back and forth between Watertown and Cambridge to business parks,” he said. “Burdening traffic to Coolidge Avenue would have a very unfair impact on us.”
But many joggers and bicyclists flocked to the forum to show their support for the project, saying the riverside pathways’ current condition and proximity to speeding cars prove too frightening for families and individuals to use regularly.
Ethan Davis, chairman of Watertown’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, said he thinks “traffic concerns are wildly overstated and flatly wrong.
“During rides, I paid particular attention to traffic in that area, and I’m impressed with how little traffic there is,” Davis said.
He also said he thinks four lanes for cars proves “disproportional” for the amount of traffic, and it encourages fast driving.
“This would not only remove something actively bad for community, but would replace it with something terrific,” he said of the proposal.
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation would help oversee the project, as the state owns the dilapidated walkways snaking along the Charles River, but money for the design and construction is being raised privately. The Wellesley-based Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Greater Boston’s parks and greenways, has already pledged $500,000 to the project, and will soon embark on a fund-raising campaign for other private donors to contribute so construction could start by next spring.
State and local officials say the improvements would bolster activity along the mile of waterfront, which many described as an underused gem within walking distance for 80,000 people, according to state figures.
“This stretch of the river is so outstanding — it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the Charles River basin,” said Herb Nolan, deputy director of the Solomon Foundation. “To be able to reclaim and bring people back in a comfortable park-like setting would be a tremendous transformation and a huge asset to Cambridge, Watertown, and Boston. It would be one of the best 5-kilometer recreational loops in Greater Boston.”
The new walkways would also connect to the 16 miles of trails along the Charles River between the Watertown Dam and the Museum of Science, and would create a 3-mile loop with the Herter Park area in Brighton, said Dan Driscoll, the DCR’s director of recreational facilities planning.
“This is one of the biggest gaps — there are some points where there is no pathway at all,” Driscoll said.
At the forum, a resident, who declined to give his name, said traffic along Greenough Boulevard has built up increasingly in the past half-dozen years, and he doubts that taking away two car lanes would have a minimal effect.
“I think this is a great project, but I think we would have to deal with a lot of unintended consequences,” he said. “If you drop a lane, you don’t have to be a genius to know that will greatly exacerbate the morning and evening rush hours.”
Watertown Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she was worried about previous renderings that showed a fairly short left-turn queuing lane from Greenough Boulevard onto Grove Street. However, a new design expanded the length of the turning lane, which she said proved satisfactory.
“DCR did listen to my concerns about the queuing lane onto the Grove Street extension,” she said. “The proposed changes are certainly a much-warranted safety improvement from the original rendering.”
Joan Blaustein, who lives across the street from the proposed improvements, said she settled nearby with the Charles River in mind, and supports the idea of upgrading access for residents.
“This is one of the reasons we all like to live here,” she said. “Streets are for every user — bikers and pedestrians as well as cars. No longer do we put cars at the top of the food chain.”
Other local residents said they liked the enhanced safety offered by the current proposal.
“I have been walking along the river for almost 30 years, and I’ve been almost killed many times trying to cross Greenough Boulevard,” one resident said. “It’s terrifying. There’s no reason this needs to be a highway — we need a park.”
“As a runner, I keep thinking there’s this beautiful river I’m not quite connecting to,” another resident said. “As a biker on this section, it’s a little scary’’ navigating between the pedestrians and the traffic. “I’m not sure if I want to run over runners or be hit by cars.”