Steve Rich offered some bold ideas on how he would go about revitalizing the Cliftondale Square area so it’s a viable and economically thriving part of Saugus again.
What Cliftondale needs is “a grade separation,” Rich advocated at Monday night’s Cliftondale Community Forum. “A grade separation – separate the pedestrian activities and magnet [an attraction that draws the people] from traffic that wants to go through,” Rich – a retired architect and engineer – told the audience of about three dozen people who gathered in the MEG Building to learn the results of a public survey conducted by the Cliftondale Revitalization Committee or to share some of their own ideas about how to proceed in the future.
“No more rotary. Get rid of the rotary,” Rich said. That would be a small part of an underpass concept he offered that would eliminate the vehicle access route through Cliftondale’s central retail area.
Rich came armed with extra copies of the architect sketch he drew of an underpass concept that would include a new market with park benches, a farmer’s market, a fountain, a weather kiosk with a clock, an art gallery, outside dining and a landscaped area where people could walk without worrying about traffic. The plantings would include shade trees, shrubs, planters and lighting. There would be the possibility of a new parking garage. Pedestrians would have convenient access to southside parking lots to the market area.
“It would be very expensive,” Rich noted, adding “But the advantages would outweigh the costs.”
Rich’s futuristic concept of what the Cliftondale Square area could become was one of several ideas offered by the public. Rich’s presentation intrigued Cliftondale Revitalization Committee Chair Joe Vecchione, who hailed it as “the most interesting feedback” he received from the public on Monday night.
A commendable proposal
Vecchone said he was impressed by Rich’s “of a truly ‘out of the box’ idea.” He marveled at Rich’s concept of “diverting traffic underground in the district and creating a pedestrian-dominated plaza akin to a European plaza or locally, the Rose Kennedy Greenway that replaced the old raised expressway following the Big Dig,” referring to Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project.
“As an architect by trade, this level of thinking is always compelling to me. Logistically, there would be many challenges, including access to the residential side streets and [it] would qualify, just by scale alone, as an urban renewal project,” Vecchione said.
“With that said, I commend the boldness and the thought that had gone into his proposal, the potential benefits from a proposal this bold, and out of the box ideas that are very few and far between at a municipal level,” he said.
Rich offered his underpass concept during a public feedback session following the release of the Cliftondale survey via a PowerPoint presentation. Other people shared their ideas.
Precinct 10 Town Meeting Member Peter Manoogian suggested that the Board of Selectmen preserve liquor licenses for a period time for any potential new restaurants that might want to locate in the square area – town officials should be thinking about ways to create incentives for new businesses. Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano said the town currently has three
to four liquor licenses “that aren’t up for grabs.”
“If somebody wants to come into Cliftondale, we can make it a little easier,” said Cogliano. One of the duties of the Board of Selectmen is to approve the issuance of liquor licenses.
Bruce Williams offered a number of suggestions on how to spruce up Cliftondale Square and make it more attractive: “get rid of the ugly telephone poles,” put the utility wires in the ground, plant trees, put the awnings back on downtown buildings and place planters with flowers around the area. “Have a center of focus – a magnet – something that brings people into the area,” Rich said. “Have unique activities.”
Then Rich suggested that the town consider “grade separation” to be followed in any plans of revitalizing the square. Grade separation is the method used by engineers in aligning two or more surface transport axes at different heights so traffic flow will not be disrupted. A new underpass that draws cars underneath would keep pedestrians away from the traffic, according to Rich’s proposal for Cliftondale.
A productive forum
Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member William Brown said the problems of Cliftondale date back decades and “are still the same.” He suggested that “focus needs to be given to a particular problem and then move on” to the next one. Brown noted “there are so many moving parts” to fixing Cliftondale that it’s important to focus on one issue at a time to accomplish what is truly needed to be done.
But Vecchione said he doesn’t think “a piecemeal approach” will work, as has been demonstrated through years of inaction. “The town needs to find a way to incentivize private property owners to relieve ownership of their lots, underutilized or not, whether that is through zoning incentives, partial subsidization of facade improvement, signage improvements or infrastructure improvements [like external grease traps],” Vecchione said.
“While there are plenty of issues to iron out, including liability, continuous maintenance, signage, metering/enforcement and getting stakeholders to the table, I think the Town should put their best foot forward and strive to achieve this substantial goal to finally get some traction in Cliftondale,” he said.
Vecchione admitted that he was initially pessimistic about the attendance of this week’s forum, particularly on a hot day just days away from the July 4 holiday weekend. But, he said, he was “pleasantly surprised to see that the room was filled with over 30 people, including our Planning Department, and there was engagement in the discussion rather than just listening to me talk and leaving,” he said.
Vecchione was also encouraged by remarks from one attendee about the organization “Main Street America,” which hosted a three-day conference that Vecchione attended in April. “She was quick to point out that the simple organization of people and vision can help expedite physical results,” Vecchione said. “I feel the Town and private stakeholders are not as in sync as they need to be in order to realistically tackle the issues that persist in Cliftondale, and have over decades. An organization of people – stakeholders, officials, planners and business owners – will help facilitate the conversations and cooperation that needs to be had in order to get over the proverbial ‘hurdle’ in Cliftondale.”
The committee will take a break this month before reconvening in late August or early September to begin drafting its final report – which will be due on Nov. 1.
“In the meantime, we will continue to gather information, receive feedback, reach out and converse with stakeholder and town officials and look out for opportunities short term and long term,” Vecchione said. “We are also still awaiting word on the state’s decision on our Shared Streets and Spaces application that our Planning Department submitted at the end of May seeking $100,000 for improvements in Cliftondale.”