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Discussion of Needham Street's Future Dampened by Budget Realities

Residents discussed many potential improvements to the business corridor at a city-sponsored meeting.

Many possible improvements to Needham Street were mentioned at a meeting held Wednesday night to discuss residents' hopes for the corridor, but the talk was tempered by the reality that Newton likely won't have the money to make significant changes in the near future.

City planning officials are preparing to write a new master plan for the Needham Street business corridor, and before doing so, held the latest in a series of meetings June 1 to generate resident input.

Newton's planning department has made the development of a new master plan for Needham Street a priority. Such a plan would dictate how long-term changes in the street's layout would help to encourage pedestrian traffic, mixed-use development and a more unified business district, officials say. (Read earlier Patch coverage on the plan's development .)

Residents presented 10-minute summaries of how new traffic configurations, sidewalk improvements, underground utility lines and even a possible MBTA Green Line extension could help revitalize the Needham Street business district. Presenters acknowledged, however, that the goals they proposed would require significant funding. "Possibilities, not limits" was a common mantra.

Sean Roche, vice-chairman of the Newton Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force, suggested that the main problem with Needham Street traffic flow is that drivers constantly make left turns into businesses that line the street, using a middle lane designed exclusively for left turns.

"The left turn lane is good in theory, but stand out there for five minutes and you know it doesn't work," he said.

Roche suggested converting Needham Street to a boulevard-style road, which would limit drivers to right turns, save for a few locations where they could change directions.

Srdjan Nedeljkovic, a resident representing the Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council, suggested the city push for the MBTA to use an existing former freight rail bed to extend the Green Line to the Needham Street business district, saying that no other tranportation options would bring the kind of increased business traffic needed to revitalize the area.

"The only way to facilitate the kind of growth we envision is this extension," he said.

George Kirby, chairman of the Newton Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force, pitched using that rail bed as a short-term walking path. He said former rail beds have been made into successful bicycle paths like the Minuteman Trail, which runs through Lexington, Arlington, Bedford and Cambridge.

According to Kirby, the nonprofit Iron Horse Preservation specializes in converting old rail beds to walking paths, and funds its efforts exclusively through salvaging steel in old rail tracks. He said Iron Horse is currently working in Masaschusetts, and urged the city to consider contacting them.

John Koot spoke for Citizens Organized for Responsible Government, saying that all of Needham Street's stakeholders need to endorse and advocate for a comprehensive plan for the street.

"In the 30 years I've lived in Newton, there have been five different studies on the Needham street corrridor," he said, noting that all were abandoned after receiving initial praise.

For his part, Koot said he hoped a new plan would help reduce curb cuts and push for utility lines to be buried underground.

Such changes will be hard to come by, according to Chuck Eisenberg, a real estate professional and the chairman of the city's economic development commission. He told attendees that the related costs would make any immediate or significant changes almost impossible.

"It can be made a prettier place, but we've talked for 25 to 30 years about taking utilities down, adding sidewalks," he said. "Things like that cost money."

Eisenberg added that a corridor like Needham Street — which is primarily a traffic corridor for drivers traveling through Newton — follows its own economic rules, and can be difficult to change.

"Needham Street is a problem," he said. "We can make the best of it, but we can never make it what we want it to be, because we don't control enough of it." 

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