Four firms present concept renderings for downtown redesign / Credit: Fuss & O'Neill, Environmental Partners, Weston & Sampson, GPI

Picking up where it left off more than a decade ago, the town is looking at a reimagining and design of the Great Plain Avenue corridor from Linden Street to Warren Street. Back then, the needs and desires of Needham residents were different from the expectations they have today, so it was back to the drawing board. 

“It was an outdated design,” said Carys Lustig, Department of Public Works director. “It didn’t meet the needs of the community. The goals in 2014 were different, it was to move traffic faster through the downtown without sacrificing parking and make it look pretty.” 

“Goals right now are more about multimodal transit, pedestrians, more life in the downtown like outdoor dining and ways to bring people to the outdoor spaces,” said Lustig. “Pedestrian safety has become a much stronger focus.” 

The pandemic was a catalyst for this change. Outdoor dining, families walking and riding their bikes more, among other things, shifted priorities to a more pedestrian/cyclist lifestyle with a focus on revitalizing the downtown and bolstering business.   

Concerns over the poor coordination of downtown traffic signals prompted the original conversation, said Lustig. A plan was developed and broken up into several phases, the first of which was completed in 2017 and included the Great Plain Avenue sidewalks and crosswalks around the common. The designs for subsequent phases were presented at the start, but Lustig said that today, residents use the space very differently than they did 10 years ago. 

Four certified firms that have done extensive work in the town before and have completed similar projects throughout New England presented proposals to the Select Board in the past month. Having reviewed resident priorities as well as those identified by the board, each submission focused on issues of strong public engagement, a vibrant downtown, traffic, bike and pedestrian safety, green infrastructure, trees, stormwater drainage and signage. 

It was clear that all four groups understood the assignment, presenting fairly similar proposals and conceptual renderings based on a first round of feedback. Teams of engineers, landscape designers and traffic specialists, among others, offered tiered options that included narrower lanes for traffic, wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes and trees to manage “urban heat islands.” 

Ideally, the transition will be from a concrete-heavy, urban look to more of a village center. Select Board member Kevin Keane said the town that was designed in the ‘50s and ‘60s with a get-a-cup-of-coffee-and-leave feel no longer serves the needs of the community. “It’s the wrong model. It’s like a strip mall,” he said. “Walking around creates the vitality. That’s what we need. People will park — there’s plenty of parking in town. We want them out of the cars, we want them walking around.” Right now, much of the downtown is dedicated to cars, he said. 

“With any streetscape project or any project where you’re approaching removing parking, people just lose their minds,” said Johnathan Law of Weston & Sampson, one of the firms offering a proposal. He said store owners fear losing business if people can’t park in front of their store. However, he said they have found the opposite to be true, as in the case of Main Street in Concord, New Hampshire, where they had a vacancy rate of 50% before Weston & Sampson’s redesign shrunk the street from four lanes to two. Now they have almost 90% occupancy. 

“Being the design experts that we are and having done many projects like this we recognize that if you provide a safer environment for people to walk, a wider sidewalk, trees, places to rest bikes, sit, much comfortable place for someone to walk down, you may park three blocks away from your original destination, but instead of walking and parking and going to one store, you may end up going into five or six stores and spending more money.”

Key to the success of the project is robust stakeholder engagement at all phases, said Lustig. 

“My most successful projects have a stakeholder committee which represents a diverse cross-section of the community,” said Arnold Robinson, who leads public outreach for Fuss & O’Neill, another of the proposing firms. “They become my connectors to other audiences.”

The four groups gave examples of successful and creative public engagement programs they’ve used in the past such as charrettes, pop-ups in the common to chat with residents, and visiting sites that have completed similar large-scale renovations. Lustig said looking at each firm’s approach to engagement will be a determining factor in the selection process.

The firm GPI suggested a bold approach to engaging the public, which involves running a pilot for short money and temporary materials that may include paint markers on the street and flex posts to divide roadway from bike lanes. 

“We implemented a pilot on State Street,” said Carolyn Radisch, GPI’s senior transportation planner.  “We monitored before and after traffic volumes, travel times. We can visualize, we can see a lot of things in the ground when you put a pilot in place.” 

Keane said he hopes the town chooses to go “bold” with a design. He wants people to think creatively. He thinks the biggest setback is imagination. “People will be very hesitant to try something new.” 

“It’s not working, so we have to fix it. And if we fix it it will be really good,” he said. My goal is to make a downtown that’s awesome, that works for the people visiting and the businesses selling. It has to be a home run for everyone.” 

Lustig said the town hopes to select a vendor in April and begin the design process over the summer. “My goal is to think about construction for summer of ‘25, but more likely ‘26,” she said.  

The town will look at state and federal funding sources to help pay for the various stages of the project. It will also tap into Chapter 90 funds, NPDES and funds for climate resiliency. Appropriation of monies for feasibility and design will be voted on at future Town Meetings. 

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