By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — A proposal to make a change in the sidewalk bump-outs that are part of the city’s renovation of Main Street set off a heated discussion at the City Council this week — and very nearly got bumped out of consideration.
As if anticipating the controversy, Mayor Ted Bettencourt attended Thursday night’s meeting to argue in favor of reducing the size of the bump-out in the vicinity of the Peabody Institute Library, to provide two more parking spaces for businesses.
To make it happen, he explained, the council would have to vote to submit the change to the state Department of Transportation.
The bump-out was designed partly to address safety concerns. Bump-outs extend the width of the sidewalk, forcing traffic into two lanes, rather than four. The narrower roadway makes it easier for pedestrians to cross, while at the same time slowing the traffic.
Councilor Dave Gravel, who operates a business in the downtown, argued against making the change.
“I have people ... illegally parking in my lot all the time,” he noted, adding that parking spaces have been lost in other areas as well. But, he added, “The time for change was before. Not now.” He warned the board was about to set a worrisome precedent.
“Go back to the DOT?” Gravel questioned. “How long is that going to take? And the rest of us are going to have to suffer with a dug-out driveway and a dug-out sidewalk?” The bump-outs, he argued, improve “the line of sight for anybody coming in and out of driveways.”
“We did this improvement to help the downtown, to make the downtown safer,” added Councilor Barry Osborne. “... They knew what the plan was.” Details like the bump-outs were intended to increase safety, he said.
“We have had a pedestrian killed downtown and we ought not forget that,” Councilor Anne Manning Martin warned, citing the death of Maria Assuncao in 2011.
“I see this as a strong plan, a good plan,” she said of the original plan for a larger bump-out. “... A lot of thought went into it.”
She lamented the “Indianapolis” traffic hurrying through and pedestrians “playing chicken” against it. In addition, she noted that eight spaces in total have been lost. Putting back just two “is not going to suffice. So where do we stop?”
But Councilor Barry Sinewitz, who also had a downtown business, expressed sympathy for Main Street retailers. “I never supported this to begin with, and this is one of the things I warned about. ... Business fought for a handful of spaces and we’ve just eliminated two of them.”
Arthur Athas, who represents the downtown ward, stressed that businesses need parking, and he minimized the change.
“The bump-outs are still there,” he said. “We’re talking about a 60-foot bump-out as compared to a 20-foot bump-out. ... The overall plan is to make things better. Why would you not want to make things better?”
Bettencourt cited Teresa’s Crafter’s Boutique and Pat’s Discount as two retailers suffering with the loss of parking. Three business people looked on as the matter was debated, including downtown real estate agent Arthur Gordon.
The change was approved by a vote of 6 to 4, with Councilors Jim Liacos, Dave Gravel, Barry Osborne and Anne Manning Martin voting against it. Councilor Bob Driscoll was absent.
“In the future,” said Athas, “we’re going to have to look at some parking for the downtown. ... some kind of parking area.”
Speaking after the vote, Bettencourt agreed. He downplayed it as “a minor change” meant to help small businesses.
“The hope is that this project is going to be the start of the revitalization of the downtown,” he said.