When Josh Conlon looks out over the old quarry nestled in the corner of Claxton Field, he doesn’t see just an unused patch of grass surrounded by high walls of rock.
Instead, in his mind’s eye, he sees what could be possible in just a few years: ramps, half-pipes, maybe a pump track filling the space. On it are BMX riders, skateboarders, kids on scooters, adults wearing inline skates – everything.
“Skate parks are pretty fun,” said Conlon, a Needham resident and former member of Team Rollerblade, the elite skating-demonstration group. “I spent a significant amount of time in them, and it’s a really accepting, cool place where everyone’s like, whatever. You’re just skating and everyone has a good time.”
If what he’s imagining becomes reality, it will provide something Needham is missing — a community play space for teens separate and apart from traditional team sports, requiring minimal maintenance, available nine months of the year and similar to facilities built recently in Framingham, Allston and Nashua, N.H., among others.
“I think it’s needed. A place for kids to hang out, which I think the town is severely lacking,” Conlon said. “Towns are popping them out. They’re good. They’re healthy, they’re outdoor exercise.”
A Needham skate park – now more commonly called an action park — to incorporate more potential uses has been a possibility for decades, with studies dating back to the 1990s. But its backers believe it is now close to becoming a reality, in a way it never was before.
“Because we got the piece of land,” Conlon said. “We understood that land was the issue.”
Those previous efforts had cast a wide net, confident that there was demand in the town but never really focusing on a specific plot that all could agree on. But Conlon and fellow supporters such as Needham resident Lindsay Page and the Needham Community Action Network recently identified the unused quarry area in the northeast corner of Claxton as a truly suitable location for an action park, and that has given the project a momentum it lacked in the past.
At May’s Town Meeting, members approved $35,000 for a feasibility study to determine the potential impacts of an action park on the site. The focus is on Claxton, said Needham Park & Recreation Director Stacey Mulroy, but the study will also consider other options.
“The feasibility study will look at Claxton specifically,” Mulroy said. “But it also will look to see if it is truly the right place. So it will take a look at a couple other places to see — are we backing ourselves into a corner? Is this the right space? Do we have space to grow?”
The feasibility study also will explore the possibility of adding pickleball courts to Claxton Field in a separate area of the park where a playground stood until recently. Claxton Field is built atop the site of an old landfill, and the playground was torn down when ash and solid waste were discovered coming up through the soil. While the two projects are being studied at the same time, it’s possible that one could ultimately happen without the other. It’s also possible that the two projects could proceed in tandem, according to Lisa Rhoades, a town resident helping to lead the pickleball project.
“It comes back to the money,” Rhoades said. “It comes back to whether or not we’re going to end up raising the money concurrently as a joint project or not. It could go either way.”
Pickleball has become a hot topic after verbal altercations between tennis and pickleball players and the destruction of several pickleball nets at Mills Field made regional news broadcasts, but the plans to create a dedicated pickleball space long predated those incidents, Rhoades said.
The feasibility study is the first step toward making the projects a reality. Once it is underway, it will explore traffic and land-use issues, bathroom access and, particularly, parking. Claxton is sizable but already has several heavily used ball fields, and larger events already strain its parking capacity.
“Parking is already somewhat limited,” Mulroy said. “If we have a high school softball game, those spots are full.”
If the feasibility study determines that those issues can be sorted out, then it’s possible that funding for the next phase — design — could be voted on at the spring 2024 Town Meeting, Mulroy said. That would be followed by voting on actual construction funding in the spring of 2025. The earliest realistic groundbreaking would then likely be in the summer of 2025, with an opening possible in 2026.
Rhoades did not have a concrete number available for the costs of the pickleball project — they are still determining things like the number of courts and whether they would be multiuse to allow for additional activities such as basketball. But Conlon said the action park he is envisioning, at somewhere around 15,000 square feet in the quarry area, would cost about $1 million to complete. Funding would largely be borne by the town, from capital funds and the Park & Recreation budget.
“There is no push back at all, anywhere on this,” Conlon said. “You know, everyone’s like, it’s a good idea. This is a good idea.”
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.