Picture a European city center where people stroll easily and cars occasionally roll at a crawl … or think of a walk through the paved paths of Mount Auburn Cemetery as cars slowly circular – that is vision that Victory Field Committee may head toward to tame the driveway and parking area in the complex.
Tuesday night, the committee looking at Phase 2 of the Victory Field renovations explored parking and the driveway area of the park and athletic complex on Orchard Street.
All agreed that the roadway at Victory Field can be a treacherous place for people to walk or bike, with cars sometimes barreling through. However, they also agreed that pedestrians wander around the paved area already.
Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon proposed turning most of the parking area and the entire driveway into a shared area where motor vehicles are allowed, but pedestrians get priority. Cars would need to be able to get through, because more than half of Victory Field’s parking spots are on the far end of the driveway.
Magoon said he first saw such a mixed area in Europe, where not only are cars and pedestrians sharing the street, but restaurants set up tables on the street. At first, he worried about someone at a bar stumbling in front of a car, or a vehicle veering into tables full of diners, but that did not happen.
The key would be to do something that visually shows a change of the expectations and rules.
“After the front parking area we could have a raised table and a different road treatment and make it a mixed-use area,” Magoon said. “Cars would recognize they can go there but they need to go slow.”
Such mixed areas are planned at Arsenal Yards (the renovated Arsenal Mall) and at the Arsenal on the Charles. There are examples nearby in Harvard Square, between the two sections of The Coop bookstore. A resident said people and vehicles share the roads through Mount Auburn Cemetery with no conflicts.
Magoon said some people will be skeptical about whether a change in the color and texture of the road would be enough to change drivers’ behavior. Committee member Mark Leonard was one of them. The president of Watertown Youth Soccer hails originally from Ireland and said Europe has different relationship with cars in urban areas.
“To expect someone to drive from Wilmington (to watch a game at Victory Field) on 93 or 95 and when they get to Victory Field to change their behavior because there is a change in road surface is not going to happen,” Leonard said. “It works in different countries, but I think there is a different culture in Europe.”
Leonard said he would rather see a sidewalk along the driveway so people can be separate from the vehicles. Designer Glenn Howard of CDM Smith said that parts of the driveway too narrow already, making it tough for cars to go in opposite directions, and a sidewalk would not fit.
Councilor Vincent Piccirilli, chairman of the Victory Field Committee, said he believes people speed through Victory Field because it used to be a roadway. It had been the extension of Marion Road, but now is blocked off on the back by a gate. While drivers frequent the drive, people are already walking, riding bikes and pushing strollers around the driveway.
“We could build in the separation [a sidewalk] and my concern is people may not use it and we would have failed as a committee to solve the problem,” Piccirilli said.
While some committee members seemed interested in the concept, several wanted to see more details before they would support the idea. The committee asked Howard to come back at a future meeting with a concept for how the area might be turned into an area shared by pedestrians and drivers.
Victory Field has 41 parking spaces plus a handful of unofficial, unpaved spaces between trees near the basketball court.
Recreation Director Peter Centola said most afternoons the parking lot is full, and he wanted to see more parking added. He suggested 15 more spaces.
Creating a bigger lot would be tough because the committee has already voted to recommend keeping the tennis and basketball courts in their current location. A proposal from 2014 called for moving the courts farther from the football/baseball field and to add parking where the court had been.
Several residents at the meeting opposed paving over more of the complex. Victory Field neighbor Ann Cox said she would not like to see more parking spots added.
“I would much rather have people parking in front of my house for a couple hours than to add more parking,” Cox said.
There was no support on the committee to remove paved parking, however, Councilor Tony Palomba said he would like to see the parking under the trees removed and have the area return to green space.
The group voted 6-3 to keep the current number of paved parking spaces, and to let the parking under the trees revert to green space. Centola, Magoon and Watertown High School Athletic Director Michael Lahiff voted against the proposal.
Bus and Car Turn Arounds
With the tight driveway and limited parking, buses have problems getting out of the lot after dropping off and picking up teams playing at Victory Field. A bus turn around was included in the proposal from three years ago, but that was with the expanded parking lot near the tennis court.
Currently, buses for Watertown High School teams will load up for away games and coaches have a key to open the rear gate so buses can leave out Marion Road, Lahiff said. Buses carrying visiting teams are not supposed to use the Victory Field driveway, but instead are supposed to go to the Department of Public Works facility parking lot, on the other side of the football field. When the do come into Victory Field, the visiting buses have to either find a way to turn around or back up down the driveway, Centola said.
CDM Smith tried to design a turn around circle near the rear entrance to Victory Field, but Howard said there is not enough room to do it properly.
Committee member and Marion Road resident Elodia Thomas said that Marion Road residents do not oppose having a few buses use the rear gate. They do not, however, want the gate left open all the time or for long periods.
Another option would be putting the turnaround between the track and tennis courts, but that would mean losing green space and trees, Piccirilli said. He added that he believes the current system of letting buses out the back gate could work if the gate is monitored more closely.
The committee voted 8-1 to scrap the idea of a bus turnaround and to refine the operation of the gate. Centola voted against it.
The committee also looked at a way to put in a turnaround for cars. The circle would not have to be as wide as it would be for a bus, so it could fit in the area at the end of the driveway, near the basketball court.
One obstacle to building the circle is a utility pole near the baseball field. Piccirilli said it only has a telephone line that was for a phone booth at the field that is no longer there. It also has a street light on it. Members of the committee said they want to explore removing the utility pole, and others on the site, and putting the wires underground.
They also want to make sure that buses can still get through the back gate if there is a turnaround circle for cars. Howard said that buses would be able to maneuver through the circle to get out the back.
The committee voted 8-1 in favor of the car turnaround. Centola voted no, saying while he likes the concept of the turnaround, he thinks the committee should go further and have areas for drop off and bus parking.
The Victory Field Committee’s next meeting is on Sept. 19, and it also has meetings scheduled for Oct. 3 and Oct. 17. Piccirilli said he believes they will also need to meet in November to finalize their recommendation to the Town Council.
At their previous meeting, the board heard about lights for the tennis courts and track. They wanted a demonstration from the manufacturer and Piccirilli said lights would be set up at Victory Field on a temporary lift on Sept. 14 from 7-9 p.m.