What’s the Center Streetscape Project?
If you’ve walked, biked or driven around the Town Center anytime since Patriots’ Day, you’ll know it’s impossible to miss the large portions of Mass Ave. sidewalks once again occupied by construction crews and machinery. The Town is continuing the Center Streetscape Project, which began last year after about a decade of design and public process.
The project’s goals include: Renewing the mid-century landscape, improving pedestrian safety, accommodating bike traffic and making sidewalks and crosswalks more accessible for people with disabilities. The project scope comprises resurfacing roadways, replacing trees and installing new lighting, seating and bike racks. The Town has contracted with engineering firm BETA Group, Inc. and construction company I.W. Harding to complete the project.
What’s the project’s current status? When will it be done?
The project has a timeline of two years overall, and is currently about halfway done. The first phase of construction was completed last fall, including new concrete, brickwork and benches in several areas; successes of last year’s work include the pace of construction, brickwork quality and lighting improvements, Town Engineer John Livsey said in a video update on the project. Work in the two current zones of construction is expected to continue throughout most of this month (and you can view the Town’s interactive map of current construction zones here). Throughout Center Streetscape construction, “we still expect to have a minimum of two lanes of traffic open at all times,” Livsey said.
“We expect this construction to be substantially complete this construction season,” he added, meaning “by 2023, the construction crews will be gone, and you’ll be able to enjoy a more vibrant and accessible downtown.”
What are those black plastic things the Town is installing under the sidewalks right now?
It’s a modular suspended pavement and irrigation system called a Silva Cell; it helps “support large tree growth” and manage stormwater flow. Among other things, the system can relieve tree roots of pavement weight while facilitating healthy root growth and allowing room for lots of lightly compacted soil.
What does this project mean for local businesses in the Center?
In its communications about the Center Streetscape Project, the Town has consistently stressed that businesses, including direct abutters, remain open. “Building a project in a live environment and keeping it open is very difficult… that cooperation [from businesses] is critical, and very much appreciated,” Livsey said.
How are businesses handling the ongoing project a couple weeks into its latest phase? LexObserver spoke with employees at four local establishments directly abutting current construction.
The construction impacts Sweet Thyme Bakery because customers don’t know they’re open, according to Chris, an employee – the sooner it’s finished, the better, in his view.
On the other hand, Tim, a long-term manager at Mario’s Italian Restaurant, has been pleasantly surprised so far by the lack of impact to the eatery. Despite concerns going in, “it really hasn’t affected our business too much,” he said.
Joyce Karvelas, a night manager at Via Lago, said the construction especially hampers business from elderly customers. “I do think it impacts us…we have a lot of elderly folks here, and if they can’t park out front, they’re not going to come in at all,” she said.
Still, since the construction has only just started, “we haven’t seen a big impact,” she added. “We don’t really know yet.”
Joel Belbin, manager at Abbott’s Frozen Custard, said it has not been ideal for construction to begin just as the weather warms (though spring is a standard construction season). “It is definitely negatively impacting our business,” he said. “It’s a shame that it happened right upon summer, the beginning of May – which is supposed to be our busiest time as an ice cream shop, as you can imagine.”
This round of construction comes after the pandemic has already struck a body blow to many businesses, including Abbott’s, Belbin added; “It’s been tough for Abbott’s as a whole – we had the pandemic, and we just keep hoping for one good summer, and now we have this construction on us…It’s kind of a bummer.”
Chris almost wishes the Town had moved ahead with construction earlier in the pandemic, when there was less foot traffic anyway; now, “it’s a little bit hard,” he said. They want to cooperate with the Town, but don’t feel like they have much say in what happens, Chris added.
Outdoor dining impacts
In the fall, construction did not impact Via Lago’s outdoor dining, according to Karvelas. This year, it’s another story. “We do have a lot of people asking us, when are you going to put the tables outside for service?” Karvelas said. From the construction estimates, she hopes to be able to do so early next month, “but who knows when that’s going to happen.”
Despite the current inconvenience, Karvelas acknowledged that there could be worse timing, too; “we’re kind of glad they’re doing it now and not in the middle of June and July, when people really want more outdoor dining,” she added. “We just want it to be done soon – so I was glad to see them out there working in the rain [Wednesday].”
Tim of Mario’s is impressed with the pace of construction: “The speed that they’ve come through here is phenomenal,” he said. That’s a relief because, like Via Lago, Mario’s was “concerned about losing our outdoor dining – and it looks as though we may have it before the season’s over at the rate they’re going.”
Mostly good communication
“The Town has kept us up to date through most of the phases of the construction process – they actually notified us in advance, which is good,” said Tim. He talks to the supervisor of the construction all the time, and thinks the people doing the construction “are great to deal with.”
One example of their speed of work and collaborative demeanor alike: About two weeks ago, an elderly woman using a rolling walker came into Mario’s through the front door for lunch, to avoid the stairs on the back entrance. “In the short time that she was here, they took up all the sidewalk to the point where she was unable to get out on her own,” Tim said. So everyone pitched in to help her leave safely: “The construction guys and myself and the police, we actually all assisted her – we stopped traffic, we cleared a path to get her out onto the street and we walked her around to the crosswalk itself.” Overall, “the communication with the guys has been great.”
Belbin has appreciated Town communication, but doesn’t think it’s been perfect. Similar to Tim’s experience, “a couple of weeks before it [started], the foreman came to me personally and said, ‘We’re going to be doing this project,’” which was helpful. He also provided information to receive weekly project updates, Belbin recalled. But Belbin has not found those updates “particularly useful” so far, and he has not received other information he would have liked; for instance, when both streets forming the corner Abbott’s sits on were blocked off one day this week, “that would’ve been nice to know” in advance, he said.
Understanding the Town’s goals
Will the construction be worth it? “I certainly hope so,” Belbin said. He can see the need for the project; “The bricks in front of our doors particularly are loose, and I have one patron that comes in every day in a wheelchair – it’s tough for them to get in and out,” he said. “If they make an advance on that, I would say it would be worth it…It could have been better timed for us particularly, but you can’t help how things go.”
Karvelas understands and agrees with the goals of the project; she believes it will be worthwhile for the Town once completed. Tim of Mario’s also believes the construction will be worthwhile for the Town “in the long term,” he said. “We’re kind of sad to see the trees go when everything comes down, but you’re replacing utility lines and doing a lot of work that is really going to make a difference 10, 20, 30 years out.”
How community members can help – stop by
“Come in,” Karvelas said. “Eat dinner here; eat breakfast here; eat lunch here.”
Any kind of advertisement from the Town is helpful, Belbin said, which the Town has provided physically and online – Tim expressed appreciation for billboards beside the construction sites listing open businesses.
Belbin echoed Karvelas: “We are open; we are here.” Abbott’s also plans to launch a delivery and catering website within the next week. “Just come by and see us,” Belbin said.