Editor’s Note: The Cliftondale Revitalization Committee is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Monday via Zoom teleconferencing to consider whether to adopt the “Final Report of the Cliftondale Revitalization Committee” as the committee’s official deliverable to Saugus Town Meeting. For this week’s column, we interviewed Joseph John Vecchione IV, the Precinct 2 Town Meeting member who chaired the committee. He is also a member of the town’s Planning Board. It was Vecchione, a lifelong Cliftondale resident, who authored the Town Meeting article which established a study committee to focus on the revitalization of Cliftondale Square. Vecchione is a third-generation Saugus resident – and fourth-generation Joe (IV). His great-grandfather – Giuseppi/Joe Sr., immigrated here from Italy. Joe IV is a member of the Saugus High School Class of 2009. After graduation, he attended Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture (2013) and a Master of Architecture degree (2014).He is a licensed architect. After growing up in the Cliftondale neighborhood, he bought his first home with his wife, Katie, in 2015 on Baker Hill, just above Cliftondale Square. They are the parents of a daughter, Amelia, 2. Highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: I see you are scheduled for a Zoom meeting on Monday night, which is Martin Luther King’s Day. Is that still on even though it’s a federal holiday?
A: Yes, the plan is to hold the meeting on Monday on Zoom to close out committee business. As this is a Zoom meeting, there is no need for a government building for this meeting and it is accessible to the public who would like to be present though there is no discussion planned beyond the vote to adopt the report as our deliverable and approve previous minutes.
Q: Do you plan on introducing any articles at this year’s annual town meeting or special town meeting having to do with proposed zoning for Cliftondale?
A: I may submit minor articles into the warrant to help Cliftondale short term; slighting amending the definition of a sign to clarify how it differentiates from public art to leave less grey area in what is considered a mural and what is considered public art. I also would like to work with the Town Manager to see if supplemental funding is required to ensure the $98,000 Shared Streets and Spaces grant we were awarded by the Commonwealth last July can be successfully completed. That means any police detail, DPW staff and other entities are funded to complete this important work.
Q: What about the zoning?
A: As far as zoning goes, I strongly believe this should be facilitated through the MAPC [Metropolitan Area Planning Council] or other planning agency to formalize as a draft zoning article as was the process for the BHSD [Business Highway Sustainable Development Zoning District], Mill District and Waterfront District as laid out in detail in the report. I will be strongly advocating for the hiring of an agency to complete this work and am strongly considering submitting an article to complete that work this year for adoption at a Special Town Meeting later in the year or early 2023. If I can’t get anywhere with that effort, as a last resort I would draft a formal zoning overlay myself using the guidance available in the report, which is certainly not ideal, but I feel the appetite is there to make significant changes in Cliftondale.
Q: With the pending adoption of this report, are you optimistic that more will get accomplished this time than in the past? Do you expect the Master Plan to put a lot of focus on Cliftondale revitalization, and essentially increase momentum for revitalization?
A: I am very optimistic that more will be accomplished this time around, and from what I’m told by some members of the Saugus United 2035 advisory committee, Cliftondale is certainly a focus in terms of identifying areas of potential economic development and revitalization.
I think – between the two reports – all of the information needed to proceed towards meaningful revitalization is out there. The biggest challenge will be, given the way our town’s government is structured, is to have our executive branch of government on board and truly committed and invested in Cliftondale; and when I say invest, I mean more than simply financial investment. While press releases elaborate on the importance of revitalizing Cliftondale, I judge by actions, and I think 2022 is going to be an interesting year to see what unfolds with both the committee’s report and the Master Plan published.
Q: Any word on when the Master Plan is coming out?
A: I’m told the Master Plan should be released in this quarter of the year. I have not seen a draft yet and that report will eventually go before the Planning Board to adopt.
Q: In the short term, what do you see coming out of the report?
A: I think a few steps that can be taken this year is to onboard a planning agency to draft the zoning overlay using the committee’s report as a guideline, completing the work for the Shared Streets and Spaces grant we received last July, releasing the Cliftondale parking and traffic study that was drafted last spring, reconnect with local property owners to begin a parking management plan, put together a signage package, plan an Appreciation Day and achieve many of the short-term goals laid out in the report. This may seem like a lot but with proper delegation and a firm understanding of the urgency required, and actual collaboration with the many bright minds in Town government, these initiatives are all certainly achievable.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
A: I know as long as I’m a Town Meeting member, I’ll be applying as much pressure as possible to forward the initiatives this committee developed over the past year, and when I originally ran in 2019, revitalizing Cliftondale was a top priority of mine, and that priority has become even more urgent since the onset of the pandemic that has expedited the deterioration in this business and housing district. And I’m sure I won’t be alone in this effort. Cliftondale in its current condition is a big black eye for the Town. I’ll go as far as saying it’s embarrassing how much we’ve let it go.
I know there may be things the Town Manager disagrees with in the report, but it’s important to understand that this report is a collection of professional analysis, committee discussion, public input and local precedent. Like anyone else who reads the report, there are things that even I may not agree with in the report, and the same goes for the entire committee. There is no solution where 100% of constituents will agree with. In fact, there are likely to be some that harshly disagree with some of the things in the report or conclude without even reading the report that “nothing can be done” in Cliftondale, and that’s OK. That’s civic discourse.
The wrong answer would be to take no action or worse, intentionally obstruct. We all have different opinions but, as a committee, I believe we found a great balance that will certainly move Cliftondale in the right direction and over time, become a thriving downtown that Saugus lacks and has lacked for many decades. I just urge everyone from the top down to keep an open mind, maintain an attitude that there is plenty we can do here and work with rather than at odds with one another to make it happen. That’s the key to success in Cliftondale.
It’s certainly been difficult challenging the way people think about Cliftondale, getting people out of their comfort zones and traditional mindsets, urging people to leave the Saugus “bubble” to see what’s been successful in the communities around us, and realizing the many possibilities this district presents, but I will continue to be up to the challenge until meaningful progress is made in this important and historic part of Saugus. The question should be “What can we do?” rather than “What can’t we do?”