Community Profile
Belmont struggles to keep small-town flavor
Retail chain stores, development seen changing way of life

By Alice Giordano, Globe Correspondent, 3/24/2001

Belmont at a glance
Incorporated: 1859
Area: 4.7 square miles
Distance from Boston: 7 miles
Population: 24,720
Tax rate: $11.70
Form of government: Limited town meeting
Public schools: Four elementary, one middle, one senior high
Hospital: McLean (mental health facility of Massachusetts General Hospital)
Libraries: Main library, Waverly Square and Benton branches
Houses of worship: 12 Protestant, 3 Catholic, 1 synagogue
Transportation: MBTA bus and two commuter rail stations
Cultural/recreational: Pleasant Street historic district; Waverly Oaks and Rocky Meadows conservation areas; Habitat Inc., nonprofit conservation-education group; nine playgrounds plus public indoor facilities offering swimming, ice skating and tennis
Cable TV: AT&T Broadband
BELMONT - Paul Winters, a 53-year resident of this affluent Boston suburb, is eager to polish his hometown's reputation. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

"Belmont is a very, very diversified community with a good ethnic balance. It has a friendly, small-town atmosphere," Winters said.

Such businesses as Slattery Funeral Home, Andros Diner, Ohlin's Bakery, Salon di Elio and an active civic organization called the Belmont Chinese Community bear out Winters's claim about the town's diversity.

Winters, a broker with Century 21 Adams, also noted that Belmont "has a reputation for putting a lot of kids through Harvard."

The median price of a home here was $440,000 in December, the most recent month for which data is available, according to The Warren Group, which publishes Banker & Tradesman, a Massachusetts real estate and banking journal.

That compares to a median home price of $400,000 only one year earlier, in December 1999.

Despite such steep and rising prices, 281 houses and condominiums were sold in Belmont during the calendar year 2000, a drop from the 343 sold in 1999, according to statistics provided on The Warren Group's Web site,

Among the homes listed for sale recently were some in the $300,000 range, including a two-bedroom Village Colonial on Falmouth Street listed with Natoli Real Estate for $369,000.

Belmont, named in 1859 after a wealthy businessman's estate, bears the nickname "Town of Homes" because of its long resistance to commercial development.

Sue Bass, a New Jersey native who moved to Belmont nine years ago from Chelmsford, is concerned that Belmont is seeing the wrong kinds of development. She is president of a newly formed group, Belmont Citizens Forum.

Among its main concerns are five separate office building developments proposed in the area known as Alewife, a crossroads of Cambridge, Arlington, and Belmont.

Belmont itself has a building moratorium in the Alewife area.

Foremost on her group's plate, Bass said, is a proposal by McLean Hospital to build town houses, a senior community, and a research and development complex on surplus land.

It has proven to be one of Belmont's most divisive issues. Last year, voters approved a rezoning package that cleared the way for the plan.

In December, 10 Belmont citizens filed a motion with the Massachusetts Appeals Court seeking to block a deal the town cut with the hospital in an executive session.

The group said the town made an illegal deal to "to buy down zoning" by paying McLean Hospital $2.2 million in taxpayers' money. In return, the hospital reduced the square footage of its research and development complex.

"It felt like a betrayal," said Bass, whose group was not involved in filing the motion, but supports it.

"The town should be more committed to preserving open space. Its preservation of open space has been a major part of Belmont's draw," she said.

Belmont, where cable televison once was out of the question because it would have tainted the town's old-fashioned culture, appears to be losing its battle against retail chain sprawl.

The medley of mom-and-pop storefronts that make up Belmont Center, Waverly and Cushing squares are being replaced gradually by establishments such as Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and The Gap.

Winters, who served for 20 years as president of the now-defunct Cushing Square Association, said business owners in part must blame themselves.

"Belmont lacks a plan, someone to encourage business development like storefront repairs, upgrades, nice period street lighting, [and] encourage landlords to fix up facades, but no one wants to step up to the cause," he said.

Belmont boasts some of the prettiest municipal buildings in New England. It also is home to two country clubs and several public parks.

In addition, it once was rated as having the highest per capita of BMW owners in the United States.

The town of 25,000, only seven miles from downtown Boston, relaxed its longtime liquor ban a few years ago in an attempt to attract restaurants, hoping to compete with neighboring communities.

Unfortunately, the plan didn't work, Bass said. "It never led to the influx of wonderful restaurants like they have in Arlington and Waltham."

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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