A preliminary concept rendering of Needham Center / Credit: Environmental Partners

As Needham prepares to begin the next phase of reconceiving the downtown space, it has chosen to move forward with the firm Environmental Partners (EP). The selection committee and the Select Board reviewed presentations from four groups, and the vote for the firm was unanimous, said Department of Public Works Director Carys Lustig. 

Lustig said there were a few reasons EP was offered the project. “They had the most bold vision of any of the consultants, and it’s much easier to pare down something that’s bold than to take something less innovative and make it aesthetically and functionally better.” She said EP offered the most dramatic change. Another big selling point was that the team made it very clear they were responsible for the town meeting its deadlines; usually it’s the other way around. 

During the pandemic, it became evident residents’ priorities for the town were shifting.

 More people wanted spaces that were pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, with welcoming destination spots and outdoor places to congregate. 

“We’re at a generational inflection point,” said Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley. “We’re only going to do this real change once, we need to be serious about the fact that we’re making a change.” 

She said she hopes that despite the fact the intended scope of the project extends along Great Plain Avenue between Linden and Warren streets, someone will look at it through the broader lens of the entire downtown area. This includes the rail crossing on Great Plain Avenue, which is being considered as part of the Quiet Zone proposal. “That’s why we have said that we are thinking of breaking up the Quiet Zone into different sections,” she said. Quiet Zone requirements can be built into the EP designs.

Cooley said she hopes the redesign will shift from being optimized for motorists to being optimized for people enjoying the area outside of cars. “I want a downtown area that is vibrant, that has people in it in addition to businesses, that is safe for pedestrians, bicyclists, people with strollers, people with small kids, people who need extra accessibility,” she said.  

Lustig said the EP team listened to the feedback from the town and the Select Board when putting together its proposal, which bodes well for the public outreach they hope to begin as soon as a contract is in place. 

“They want to be very physically present on the common,” she said. “They actually want to talk to kids because it’s in proximity to so many schools. They’re trying to do some of that data collection at the beginning of this project before people go on vacation and leave town so the design work can get started.” 

“It was really clear to us that to actually achieve the goals of the community we had to push the envelope as to what improvements were being proposed,” said Margot Schoenfelder, EP senior project manager for the town redesign. “We took the strategy that it’s a lot easier to show a bold vision that’s inspiring. If we have to pull back a little, that’s a lot easier than trying to push from the middle of the road.” 

Schoenfelder, who has 12 years of experience in transportation engineering and planning, specializes in pedestrian and bicycle facilities, among other areas. She said implementing a pilot program that uses inexpensive materials such as paint, flexi posts and temporary planters would be a good first step to help people envision what the changes would look like and the effects they would have on traffic and mobility. The goal is to create enthusiasm for the project. “It’s more likely that the public will be happy with the final outcome because they’re more aware of what the final outcome will mean for them,” she said.

The EP team hopes to implement the pilot over the summer. They are starting with research to help determine the priorities of those who use, visit, or just pass through the town’s center. Schoenfelder said they also want to understand the decision making process to ensure all stakeholders are in the room when changes are being discussed. She said there will be many phases of engagement to inform residents of the process and receive their feedback as it moves along. She said they also plan to set up a website where all information will be regularly updated and readily available. 

“Needham’s population has a wide range of interests,” said Schoenfelder. “There are a lot of people who have been in Needham a long time and are happy with how things are operating. And there’s also an influx of residents from other communities like Cambridge and Boston looking to incorporate innovative techniques. We want to find a solution that all these stakeholders will be happy with and respect Needham’s history.”

Lustig said the town hopes to have decided on the scope of the work and have a contract in place next month. Following the pilot program, with approval of funds, construction could begin the following year. 

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