WALTHAM — For three years, Moody Street was the site of a radical experiment.
From May to October since 2020, Waltham officials closed a half-mile of the commercial corridor to cars and let pedestrians wander freely. Al fresco dining abounded. Parking spots gave way to a fashion show of Indian evening wear. “And kids could explore,” said resident Saul Blumenthal, “without looking for drivers not paying attention.”
Supporters called the program “glorious,” “freeing,” “fantastic.”
Now, they worry, it all might go away.
The pedestrianization of Moody Street happened hurriedly at the beginning of the pandemic to help flailing businesses, and it transformed the historic district near the river and commuter rail station into a vibrant destination for residents and visitors alike.
But with COVID easing, Waltham is locked in a fierce debate about whether the new approach to the city’s major thoroughfare should return this summer.
It’s a conversation going on all over Massachusetts, as municipalities from Boston to Springfield ruminate over open space extensions they launched in 2020 with little hesitation. Communities created patios, pedestrian paths, and outdoor dining at the height of COVID. Now, as the statewide emergency declaration is slated to end, they’re considering which of the changes should stay for good, and what that would mean for people, businesses, and the very nature of public space.
“Everywhere, anywhere, we’re talking about open space,” said Mark Chase, founder of Neighborways, a planning and design firm that led several local open space projects. “We’re thinking about it like never before.”
In Waltham, that means balancing the impact of closing streets on different types of businesses that share the same block. Restaurateurs that set up outdoor tables believe the Moody Street closure benefits the community, and their bottom line. But a cluster of businesses that serve nearby immigrant communities — boutiques, barbershops, and grocery stores — is against shutting four lanes of street space to cars again. Removing parking pushes customers to municipal lots farther away, they say, and pummels their profits.
What comes next could be telling.
“These past few years, our downtown has become something different, something extra special,” said City Councilor Cathyann Harris, who helped craft the pilot project in 2020. “People who want the cars and parking again say, ‘Oh, we’re back to normal. We don’t need this anymore.’ But what if this is our new normal?”
The reevaluation of public space began swiftly in spring 2020, with a newfound focus on the outdoors as pivotal to both economic and social survival. With fewer people commuting, cars were no longer the priority. Brookline and Somerville reconfigured streets to accommodate social distancing. And looser restrictions on outdoor dining statewide helped restaurants grappling with capacity restrictions.
Beyond that, the state was ready to pour money into the problem. Since June 2020, a Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program has distributed $50 million to around 500 projects intended to strengthen mobility and commerce. The funds went to everything from a dining parklet in Arlington to a hybrid event space and eatery in a former Brockton bus terminal.
Attempting to track how many of those projects have become permanent is “like throwing darts at the wall,” said David Loutzenheiser, a senior transportation planner at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, because many were introduced by individual municipalities and debuted haphazardly.
Still, a number of success stories have emerged.
In Melrose, for example, city planner Denise Gaffey repurposed a drivable alleyway into a place for gathering and pop-up shops. Worcester officials added four permanent parklets and finished Carroll Plaza, a lounge area in Federal Square with a seating and performance stage. Even the small Central Massachusetts town of Clinton hopped on the trend, launching outdoor dining and finishing a 10-mile sidewalk network connecting downtown to surrounding neighborhoods.
“When we stopped treating these areas like a roadway and more like a community space, the feedback we have got was overwhelmingly positive,” said Phil Duffy, Clinton’s director of community and economic development. “It’s simple: We’re creatures who love to see other humans.”
But in some places, the concerns that reined in public space projects before 2020 are resurfacing.
Take the North End, where Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration sharply curtailed outdoor dining this summer to accommodate residents’ concerns about traffic and trash. The decision sparked outrage among the Italian enclave’s some-90 restaurants and complaints from visitors who flock to eat pasta al fresco in the summertime.
For another case, look to Cambridge. In three years, the city made outdoor dining permanent, converted parking spaces into public patios in Inman Square, and brought in interactive experiences — including a piano and magnetic poetry board — to Palmer Street, a pedestrian alley in Harvard Square. But two of its largest efforts are now in dispute.
During COVID, officials closed a mile-long stretch of Memorial Drive known as River Bend Park to traffic on both Saturdays and Sundays, a move residents and city councilors pushed to make permanent. But the Department of Conservation and Recreation announced this month that the state road would only be car-free on Sundays this summer — as it was before COVID — due to “elevated traffic and pollution” created on neighboring roads by the closure.
And Starlight Square, the municipal parking lot-turned-community haven in Central Square, is now caught in the crossfire of the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal.
Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District, hailed the three-year project as “truly great urbanism,” a place for outdoor performance, dining, and small business. Advocates are vying to make it permanent, but have encountered concerns about noise from residents and criticism from city boards.
“We got such a great taste of what is possible during COVID,” Monestime added. “All we have to do is lessen the burden and restrictions today to keep these programs in place.”
In many ways, Waltham — and Moody Street in particular — is the prime battleground for this debate.
A recent survey showed that over 90 percent of respondents want to ban cars from the road this summer, but the ongoing discussion has caused a stir regardless.
Dozens of business owners on Moody Street said the pedestrian model has driven customers — particularly those who are elderly or disabled — to shop somewhere else entirely.
Christine Ho, co-owner of Femi Nails, said the influx of evening diners at restaurants is no use to the rug shop, vacuum cleaner store, or nail salon that close before dark.
“It’s ruining us,” she added. “We are seeing much less people.”
But Erin Barnicle of the bistro and bar Tempo said the Moody Street expansion is a boon for her restaurant, which spent thousands on tables, barriers, and the flourishes that make her patio sing: painted walkways, floral designs, even a selfie wall from a muralist in Salem.
If that is not enough, she added, “the Moody Street opening has helped make Waltham a destination.”
The debate will come to a head later this month, when the Waltham Traffic Commission will decide between two opposing proposals. City Councilor Jonathan Paz introduced a plan keep the the pedestrian-only closure for four months a year through 2025. But a proposal from Mayor Jeannette McCarthy would make Moody Street a one-way road for cars from Sunday to Thursday evening, and a pedestrian-only zone each weekend.
“I tried to consider the neighbors, the traffic, public safety, and the fact that Moody Street is diverse,” she said. “It’s about trying to find a balance.”
But Paz said that choosing a structure that favors car traffic will speak volumes about whom streets are for, and whom the community values on the other side of COVID.
“This is a huge decision,” he added. “Now, we wait and see.”