Features 2002

Sadness, vulnerability and anger linger

 ... Reprinted from the Melrose Free Press dated 12/27/01

by Brigid Alverson

The attacks of Sept. 11 reminded all of Melrose how small the world has become and how no place is immune from the world's upheavals. Melrose saw two of its own killed in the terrorist attacks. The Victorian Fair was postponed. And still, even with the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan finished but perhaps the most dangerous missions still ahead for U.S. troops, the pall and shock of Sept. 11 lingers.

With the sadness of September still keenly felt, normal life continued. Melrose elected a new mayor -- by 10 votes, in a recount, and saw another mayor resign. Land use issues and what they mean for Melrose's finances and the community's quality of life dominated the news, along with an ill-fated attempt to construct badly needed athletic fields at Mt. Hood with fill from the Big Dig.

Local, national or international, the Free Press' top stories for Melrose in 2001 follow.

September 11 events hit the heart of Melrose

New York may be 200 miles from Melrose, but the hijacking of four airplanes on Sept. 11 hit this city in its heart. Many Melrose residents lost friends and relatives in the tragedy, including the Rocha family, whose son Ray was in the World Trade Center when it collapsed. Maclovio Lopez, who worked in Melrose and left friends and colleagues behind, was also killed in the attacks.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the people of Melrose gathered to pray and grieve together at services in the Unitarian Universalist Church on the evening of the attacks and in Memorial Hall the following day. The School Department offered counseling to students, and Mayor Richard Lyons met with police, fire, emergency management and health officials to ensure that Melrose would be ready for whatever came next. Fortunately, nothing did.

Time passed. Melrose police officers and firefighters held their own memorial services and traveled to New York to attend the funerals of fallen colleagues; some also pitched into help at the World Trade Center site. Members of the military reserves and the National Guard answered the call to serve. Ordinary citizens donated blood and money to help the victims of the disaster, then began the return to daily life with a renewed sense of awareness and vulnerability.

Dolan elected by slim margin

If Melrose voters ever doubted that every vote counts, this was the year they learned otherwise. After a lively four-way race for mayor, the election wound up in a dead heat: on the evening of Election Day, Board of Aldermen President Rob Dolan and School Committee Chairman Rich Connolly both had exactly 2,842 votes. Although tensions ran high in City Hall, Clerk of Elections Dottie Maguire kept her cool as the ballots were secured and locked in the vault, guarded by a State Police officer, until the next day.

On Wednesday morning, in the presence of the candidates and their lawyers, Maguire opened envelopes containing four ballots that the voting machines had been unable to read. Three of the ballots were blank. The fourth was for Dolan.

Three weeks later, the ballots were recounted and Dolan's lead opened up to landslide proportions: 10 votes. Connolly graciously conceded and Dolan began to prepare his transition; he takes office on Jan. 7. And the 60 percent of Melrose voters who did not bother to vote that day were left with something to think about--maybe.

Mount Hood questions continue

This was the year that Mount Hood erupted. Mayor Patrick Guerriero's original plan was relatively straightforward; Developer Gator Hood would bring clean glacial till excavated from the Big Dig to Mount Hood, where it would be used as landfill to reshape the 12th hole and level several areas for playing fields, including a badly needed Babe Ruth League-size baseball field. Gator Hood would pay the city 70 cents per ton to accept the fill, and that money would help pay the costs of completing the ball fields.

That's not how it worked out, for several reasons. One problem was environmental: The clay-like material did not stay where it was stockpiled but eroded into nearby wetlands, clouding the water, coating the bottom and suffocating wildlife.

The other problem was financial. Under its contract with Gator, the city did not accept the money for the fill and then spend it through the usual channels. Instead, Gator kept the money and spent it at the direction of Parks Supervisor Rick Amirault. In April, Guerriero announced that an outside auditor had found that the project had been mismanaged, although there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The report criticized the city for not properly documenting expenditures and not seeking competitive bids where necessary. The State Inspector General, responding to a complaint filed by former alderman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Linda Benezra and her husband Jerry, began investigating the project in July. So far the IG's office has issued several letters about apparent missteps, but no allegation of criminal wrongdoing.

In June, the Park Commission began negotiations with Gator Hood to accept up to another 1 million tons of fill at Mount Hood. Even as they were discussing that contract, however, the Board of Aldermen was voting to order Gator Hood to stop bringing fill to the site. Gator Hood pulled out of the project and stopped delivering fill in mid-July.

That left the piles of dirt and a cloud of innuendo. When former mayor Richard Lyons took over as acting mayor, he asked the Park Commission to hire engineers, Camp, Dresser and McKee to tell the city what needed to be done to clean up the site.

CDM put together a proposal that would have stabilized the piles of fill, completed the 12th hole and cleaned up the damaged wetlands, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Lyons recommended that the city issue a bond to cover the work, and the Park Commission raised golf fees to cover the cost of the bond payments, but the Board of Aldermen refused to authorize the bond. After a year of wrangling, the 12th hole is no closer to completion, the dirt still sits in piles, and the wetlands remain contaiminated by the gray, clay-like glacial till.

RIO sent packing

After stirring a lively debate about zoning and land use in Melrose, Mayor Patrick Guerriero's Revitalization Initiative Overlay died a quiet death in January.

The RIO proposal would have changed the Melrose Zoning Ordinance to permit residential, office, assisted living and mixed-use developments in certain parts of the city that are currently zoned for business and industrial use. Developers would not need to get variances or special permits but would have needed to pass a site-plan review. Proponents claimed RIO would encourage development of underused areas of the city, while opponents countered that it would give developers too much freedom.

In January, Guerriero asked the Board of Aldermen to withdraw the proposal from consideration. In October, the board voted to give the order "leave to withdraw," effectively killing it.

Public comment scuttles SEC

Stoneham had everything to gain from the Stoneham Executive Center, and Melrose had everything to lose.

Set on the site of the former Boston Regional Medical Center, surrounded by MDC land, the office park would have little effect on traffic and storm drainage in Stoneham. It could have had a profound effect on Melrose, especially the Ravine Road area, which is down slope from the project. Residents of that neighborhood immediately began a campaign to stop the development.

The Gutierrez Company planned to reuse the old hospital and medical office building as offices, build three four-story office buildings and add 2,000 parking spaces, some in a garage and the rest as surface parking. Although Melrose was officially notified of the project, the city did not respond in time to be included in the state's request for an environmental impact report. Nonetheless, city officials, including Mayor Patrick Guerriero, Acting City Engineer Joe Lynch and City Solicitor Don Conn, sat down with the developer's representative to try to negotiate some of the issues. Meanwhile, both the city and a group of private citizens filed lawsuits to stop the project and Medford state Rep. Paul Donato filed a bill prohibiting the MDC from widening Woodland Road or adding traffic signals.

In October, the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs rejected the Environmental Impact Report that Gutierrez had filed for the project, stating that the developer must consider the impact on surrounding communities, including Melrose, and either mitigate the impact or reduce the size of the development. In his rejection letter, state Secretary of Environmental Affairs Robert Durand cited the hundreds of comments he had received from the public as a factor in his decision.

Guerriero steps down, Lyons steps in

At an emotional press conference in February, Mayor Patrick Guerriero announced that he would not seek re-election in the fall, making a vague allusion to "new challenges" that awaited him. In May, he revealed what the new challenge would be: a position as deputy chief of staff for acting Gov. Jane Swift. Guerriero officially stepped down on July 9, a date that some speculated was carefully chosen to prevent Rob Dolan,  president of the Board of Aldermen, from taking the interim mayoral post. Aldermen-at-large John Dunne and Paul O'Neill tried to nominate Dolan anyway, but Dolan asked that he not be considered. Instead, the aldermen chose former mayor Richard Lyons, who was then serving as Ward 4 alderman, to be the interim mayor.

Heavy rain causes flooding

Heavy snow in early March closed the city and took down power and telephone lines all over Melrose, but the rains that followed later that month posed more serious problems for local residents.

Firefighters had to evacuate residents of Converse Lane in rubber boats when their neighborhood flooded, and residents of the Steele House had to leave their building when rising water penetrated the electric panel and the emergency generator and the power had to be shut off. Roads flooded and manhole covers rode on a cushion of water all over the city. The lower floors of Melrose Middle School flooded for the third time in five years.

There was some good news, however: Residents had high praise for the emergency personnel who aided them, and several neighborhoods that had recently undergone flood mitigation work were spared the brunt of the flooding.

Water issues plague city

Twice this year, Melrose firefighters faced their worst nightmare: no water and a working fire. The first incident occurred in March, when firefighters responded to a fire at 93 West Emerson St., next to the library, and had to back out. They lost valuable time, because rocks in the water line clogged some of their hoses.

"We were making good progress," said Fire Captain Robert Spindler, who was in command that night. "The windows were open, and we were pushing the fire right out the window, and then I lost water."

In May, firefighters responding to a brushfire off Beacon Street in Ward 7 could not get enough water from a nearby hydrant for firefighting purposes.

Angry residents of the surrounding neighborhood came to the Board of Aldermen to demand that the city guarantee their water system would be sufficient for firefighting purposes in the future.

Acting City Engineer Joe Lynch, working with engineers and firefighters, flushed the pipes, tested the system and determined the insufficient flow was caused by an undersized pipe in a single area. However, the discussions that followed brought to light another fact: Fire response to that area depends on the city having three fire engines in service at all times because one engine acts as a portable pump. As Lynch began drafting plans for permanent pump stations to resolve that problem, Mayor Richard Lyons set aside funds to keep Engine 3 in service through the end of 2001, giving trhe city three engines on duty at all times.

Middle School proposal fails

In April, Mayor Patrick Guerriero presented the Board of Aldermen with a plan for a $40 million renovation to the Melrose Middle School. State reimbursement would have cut the city's share to $12 million, and Guerriero planned to fund that through a debt exclusion, a temporary override of Proposition 2 1/2.

The renovation would have replaced the Daffinee Gym and the sixth-grade building, added a library and a music wing, and sealed off the lower floor which is prone to flooding. This last feature disturbed the aldermen, who protested that they didn't want to spend that much money on a school that would still flood.

A second design, which would have razed the old school and built a new one outside the flood plain--but closer to the neighbors on Union Street--met with strong opposition from the neighbors, and ultimately the aldermen voted to kill it.

Worth noting: the aldermen had their own representative on the committee planning the middle school project, but none of the issues surfaced until the project plans were presented to the board.

Pembroke proposes Apartments on Main Street

Pembroke Real Estate, a subsidiary of Fidelity Investments, brought forward a proposal in the spring to build 578 aprtments and 20,000 square feet of retail space on the site of the Armatron factory building on lower Main Street. The property, which Fidelity has owned for years, spans the Malden line, and 400 of the apartments and all of the retail would be built in Melrose.

Pembroke said it designed the complex to fit in with Melrose's architecture and to take advantage of nearby Oak Grove, and predicted the project would bring the city $1.2 million in new annual revenues and $600,000 in building permit fees. But residents of nearby neighborhoods criticized the project as being too big and worried about the impact on traffic, water and sewer issues, and the quality of life in Melrose.

The Planning Board, which has the power to grant some of the project's required special permits, began hearing comments from the public in December. Its deliberations will continue into next year. If the project clears that hurdle, Pembroke still will have to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for another set of variances and special permits before going ahead with the project.

January 4, 2002


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