A forum for at-large City Council candidates in West Roxbury this evening focused on two issues of concern mainly to the neighborhood: A city proposal to reduce the number of lanes on Centre Street from four to three between the Holy Name rotary and Spring Street to promote pedestrian safety and a proposal by Roxbury Prep to build a high school on the site of the former Clay Chevrolet on Belgrade Avenue at West Roxbury Parkway.
Incumbent Councilor Michael Flaherty said he once would have stood shoulder to shoulder with West Roxbury residents opposed to narrowing Centre Street and that, in fact, he vigorously fought both state and city transportation agencies that wanted to do something similar on L Street and Day Boulevard in South Boston in response to the 2018 death of a young child, killed when a car involved in a crash jumped a curb.
Flaherty said he was particularly concerned about the potential loss of parking spaces in a neighborhood where, he allowed, "folks would rather give up their car than their parking spot."
But, he told a forum at the fall meeting of the Bellevue Hill Improvement Association, the "road diet" has actually worked out well and meant "major, significant safety improvements" along L Street and Day Boulevard, and he now sees the benefits of such proposals.
Still, Flaherty stopped short of telling West Roxbury they would benefit as well from a city proposal, drafted after a neighborhood resident in a crosswalk at Centre and Hastings streetswas struck and killed by a driver who says she was blinded by the sun.
"It worked in my neighborhood and it may or may not work in this neighborhood," he said, adding that West Roxbury residents and Centre Street business owners "need a seat at the table" and need to have concerns about traffic winding up on side streets addressed.
Incumbent Annissa Essaibi-George said the city should take some immediate steps, such as repainting crosswalks and adding flashing lights at key pedestrian crossing points before working with residents on more major changes to the road.
Other candidates agreed that residents and business owners need to be at the table in planning any traffic changes in the neighborhood, but took an actual stand on the specific Centre Street proposal.
Erin Murphy, one of the challenges for the four at-large seats in the November election, unequivocally supported the proposal. She said she was in Recreo Coffee on Centre Street when Marilyn Wentworth died while crossing the street to get a cup of coffee there - and called for a moment of silence in her memory.
Incumbent Michelle Wu also came out in favor of the proposal, although she criticized the way the city fails to do adequate planning on major issues - such as changing the main thoroughfare in a neighborhood. "We need to be planning for safety across the city," rather than simply throwing together proposals after somebody has been killed or seriously injured.
Challenger Alejandra St. Guillen, who lives in West Roxbury, and challenger David Halbert also supported the proposal. An advisor to challenger Julia Mejjia, who did not attend, said she also backs the idea.
There was a clearer break between the candidates on this issue, also known in the neighborhood as 361 Belgrade.
Essaibi-George said she has long opposed the proposed school. Flaherty said he stands with the Greater Belgrade Avenue Neighborhood Association, which was initially formed to fight the school. Neighbors, he said, "know what's best for the community."
Murphy, a Boston Public Schools teacher, said the site is simply too small for a school with the number of students Roxbury Prep has proposed. "As a Boston Public Schools teacher, I don't think the city should be supporting charters coming into the neighborhood."
Wu said she is "very torn" by the Roxbury Prep issue. Ultimately, though, she said she opposed the proposal because the city should be concentrating on fixing its existing public schools. "Our kids are not being served" by BPS, she said, pointing to the shutting of the former West Roxbury High School.
Mejjia's advisor said she opposes the school both because she is generally opposed to any charter expansion in the city and more specifically because Roxbury Prep has issues with excessive disciplining of students.
Two candidates supported the school.
Halbert called for a sort of middle way. He said that he would require the school to meet with neighbors and draw up a compact detailing how the school would minimize neighborhood impact from traffic and students - with a proviso that if the school fails to meet those goals, it would be ordered shut at that location.
St. Guillen, who called herself a BPS supporter, said she would still favor letting Roxbury Prep build on the site. "It's an equity issue."
Incumbent Althea Garrison did not attend the forum, but association President Ginny Gass said Garrison has strongly supported the residents in their fight against the school. In May, Garrison proposed a resolution that would have the council formally oppose the proposal - which drew the ire of even district councilors who agree with her but who don't think at-large councilors shut butt into their turf or get the council enmeshed with the BPDA project approval process.