This is a tale of two commons that appear to have a lot in … common. Many residents don’t see much difference, but to those who spent nearly a decade planning and designing the recently completed town square, the changes are significant.
The decision to redo the area in front of Town Hall, as well as the finished product, have had mixed reviews from residents. Some love it, some believe it was unnecessary, and some still don’t like the changes.
“It needed to be done, the existing trees were diseased, major work underground was also needed,” said 50-year resident Tom Keating. “However, I do not like the two pergolas. They’re out of character with the Town Hall architecture. They look like something from Logan Airport.”
Julie Tierney, who grew up in Needham, said the new look of the common feels very urban and does not have enough green.
Others believe the common is not at all welcoming. “It’s more like a landing strip,” said Terry Windhorst, who’s lived in the town for 30 years. “It’s not particularly welcoming in bringing people together. It looks very industrial.” She added that the town should have used more sustainable landscaping practices like the pollinator gardens in the Needham Heights common.
Sophia Dedek, 20, agrees it doesn’t feel as inviting as it once was. “I think it was good that the town fixed the bricks and made it more accessible, I really appreciate that, but they didn’t really add anything else,” Dedek said. “I heard rumors they were potentially adding a mini venue. I think that would have been an improvement.”
Residents also expressed concern about the town using money on a project they did not believe was necessary while other more pressing projects remain in limbo.
“My hypothesis is that most of the town are thrilled with the changes, and that a very vocal minority complained about things — tree removal, red chairs — that the majority could care less about,” said Doug Fox, longtime resident and Town Meeting member. Fox spoke in favor of the project at the 2021 Special Town Meeting.
Cindy Osgood, lifelong resident and co-owner of Salon di Carlo on Highland Avenue near the common, said she thinks it looks beautiful. She sees a lot of potential for local business with the redesign. “My mom goes there and meets friends for coffee. I leave work and I see kids playing there. It’s a nice space, and they designed it to have some sort of entertainment [options].” She said she hopes more programming will be considered for the space, which she believes would liven up the downtown and be good for business.
To a passerby, the new common may not look all that different from the one it replaced. However, in addition to the noticeable changes such as more picnic tables, two large shade canopies, and new BigBelly trash cans, other less evident updates have been made. The paths have been repaired and are now fully ADA compliant, as are the new picnic benches. The benches are graffiti resistant and match those around the exterior perimeter and permanent supports for a tent have been installed. New irrigation will provide appropriate watering, and the area was amended for proper drainage. Electrical infrastructure was installed to provide power and sound for community events.
And then of course there are those Wellesley-colored cherry red Adirondack chairs — perhaps the most contentious addition of all.
“They were a mistake,” said Ed Olsen, superintendent of parks and forestry. “As a group we had chosen a neutral color, much like the ornate benches that surround the common.” He said when the chairs were delivered they were the wrong color. “I was ticked off for a second, but I said let’s put them out there and see. It looks beautiful, it gives some artistic pop to the common.”
The Strategy of the Common
A confluence of factors prompted the initial decision to update the green in front of Town Hall. The space was used for staging during both the Town Hall renovation and the streetscape project, which left the paths cracked, the soil depleted and the grass compressed. At the same time, many of the trees were becoming diseased, including the popular blue tree.
Once the Department of Public Works put together a plan to remediate the environmental issues, the conversation turned to practical elements and design features such as more green space, paths compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, shade features and dining tables.
“Now Needham is a destination for eating,” said Carys Lustig, director of public works. “We wanted to keep that activity alive and be a meeting place for the community.” She also said that a few more “fun” amenities would be installed soon, including two large bench swings under the shade structures and catenary lighting — like that found at outdoor restaurants — suspended across the square.
Despite the longevity of the planning process and public meetings, many residents were surprised to find the common razed last summer.
“People were shocked when the trees came down,” said Ed Olsen, parks and forestry superintendent. “Nobody wants to take down trees.” Now, he said, there are 21 trees planted strategically to create a canopy that will grow together over time. They were selected for their ability to thrive in this environment, and represent a variety of species to prevent a complete demise in the event of a species-specific pest.
By unanimous vote, the May 2021 Town Meeting approved $1,364,000 for the common project, using $1 million from the Community Preservation Act (CPA) and $364,000 from the Town’s Free Cash – unspent funds from the prior year. CPA funds can only be allocated for certain uses, which include preservation of historic buildings and landscapes.
A state Earmark Grant of $175,000, part of the commonwealth’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund, was used to pay for the furniture and other amenities. To date, the project is within the allotted budget.
Between delays on the town side due to lingering discussions within specific boards as well as ongoing construction and supply backups, the project was completed a year later than anticipated. The town plans to have a grand opening in the fall once the remaining elements are installed.
Interested readers can visit the town website for a comprehensive overview of the common renovation project.