Meeting the needs of homeowners, business owners, workers and commuters alike is part of the balancing act for any good city planner. For the 28 graduate students in "Community Growth and Land Use Planning," (11.360) the challenges were no different.
Since September, the students have worked closely with their client, the Belmont Citizens Forum out of Belmont, Mass. to study--and propose improvements to--the Trapelo Road corridor. The two-mile stretch of road is considered the main street in Belmont. Within it are two out of three of the town's busiest areas for commerce, including both Cushing and Waverly squares.
"The town has been struggling with the street for some time," said Eran Ben-Joseph, associate professor of urban studies and planning. This is his first year involved with the class also taught by adjunct Associate Professor Terry Szold.
Taught for more than 10 years, by Szold, the class has garnered a strong reputation in the Boston area and internationally. Towns facing significant planning challanges invite the class to help. "They view us as an unbiased entity," said Ben-Joseph. "We come to the projects with a clean slate." Last year, the town of Needham hired the class to make suggestions for improvement.
This clean slate was particularly important in Belmont where many residents initially seemed "resistant to change," said city planning graduate student Karla Solheim.
At the beginning of the semester, the task always seems daunting, said Szold. "The students have to get familiar with the whole road," she said. "But once they start identifying the underlying issues, they start thinking like planners.
The class divided into three groups, each studying a different part of the corridor, from the Cambridge line to the Waltham line. During September and early October, they walked the street, interviewed homeowners, shoppers and business owners, and focused mainly on beautification, better use of space, and safety.
On Oct. 14 they held a meeting in Belmont's town hall to hear from residents. On Dec. 2, they presented their findings at a meeting sponsored by the Forum at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, with nearly 120 people in attendance.
Most of their proposals--such as a larger sign marking the Belmont town line and changes in zoning to allow for more housing--were met with praise. Another was to improve safety at the Grove Street intersection, referred to as the "run for your life" intersection, by creating a pedestrian island, improving traffic signal timing and marking bicycle and turn lanes.
Two more controversial recommendations will have to undergo further study and discussion. The first--making liquor licenses easier to obtain--would encourage more restaurant development in the area. As of now, Belmont gives out only three liquor licenses a year. "We believe restaurants are a very important component and right now, it is difficult for restaurants to thrives," said Solheim. The group also recommended changing parking zoning in some areas so that shop workers and business owners could park on residential streets. The final report is available at http://web.mit.edu/11.360/www.
Solheim said she is hopeful the suggestions will have an impact. "It was so exciting to be able to work on a real-world project with a real-world client."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 15, 2004 (download PDF).