Lexington Center at night with holiday lights.
Town Engineer John Livsey, who worked on the Center Streetscape project for nearly half of his 27-year career, is looking forward to taking his wife to see the renewed Lexington Center lit up by holiday lights. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

In 1966, a Town planning document outlined a key design objective for the mid-century modern Lexington Center: Achieve distinctiveness – and avoid mediocrity.

The Town must “rescue the Center from easy mediocrity…mediocrity is inadequate functionally or symbolically for a community of Lexington’s aspirations and heritage,” the document stated.

That line must have spoken to the Center Streetscape Design Review Ad Hoc Committee, which included the quote twice in its 2017 report. And the Town has stayed true to both that mid-century modern aesthetic and perpetual hunger for excellence. With the completion of Center Streetscape construction last month, Town leaders and community members can finally celebrate the realization of a renewal conceptualized in public process over the past decade to improve the Center’s safety, accessibility and aesthetics.

Town Engineer John Livsey has worked in the Town for 27 years. A cornerstone of the project team, he’s been shepherding the Center Streetscape project forward for nearly half of that career.

“This was, without a doubt, the most extensive public process I’ve ever been a part of,” he said in an interview. “It was exhausting – a lot of sleepless nights.” But that public process, in his view, succeeded at developing a design that aligned with what the community wanted.

The Center was originally designed to be “the community’s living room,” Select Board Chair Jill Hai said. Having that design renewed after years of weathering the pandemic, “it’s just so nice to see people gathering again, and to give people the ability to do so out of doors.”

A few dozen community members and leaders gathered at Emery Park Thursday for a ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of the long-awaited Center Streetscape project. John Livsey spoke about the long road to get the project done and thanked the many Town volunteers, staff and partners who made it happen, as well as local businesses in Lexington Center for their patience and collaboration throughout two years of construction. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

The project began about a decade ago primarily as an endeavor to perform necessary maintenance and “replacement of infrastructure that’s past its useful life,” Livsey said. 

“The safety, the accessibility, the maintenance just had to be done,” Hai said. “The aesthetics are a wonderful bonus.” With proper maintenance, the new streetscape is designed to last the community another 50 years.

The full streetscape renewal price tag surpasses $10 million, including about $9.1 million in construction funds approved by Town Meeting in 2019, $550,000 in design funds approved in 2018 and $700,000 to cover a few additional sidewalks extending from the Center approved at Special Town Meeting this year.

Among the sweeping renewal’s components are new sidewalks, bike racks – and trees, one of the Center’s most cherished features. 

To protect the long-term health of the trees planted, the Town installed a novel root irrigation system called silva cells, a type of grid that helps tree roots stay healthy even under the unnatural pressure of pavement and heavy foot traffic. The Town hopes this system will allow the newly planted trees to thrive for decades.

Those who live and work in Lexington Center have noticed the care put into refurbishing the Center Streetscape.

Tai Man, who works in Lexington Center, was especially impressed by the Town’s forethought installing a silva cell system and sidewalk curb extensions to improve pedestrian safety.

Man credited the construction workers with soldiering through “an unusually hot summer.”

The changes “make Lexington Center look better and function better,” he said.

Still, the two years of construction weighed on residents and businesses alike.

Linda Nelson lives near Lexington Center, but spent a lot less time there than usual while construction was ongoing. She and fellow residents “were affected by not being able to use the sidewalk, and not being able to cross the road,” she said. 

But now that construction is completed, “it looks really gorgeous.” Nelson especially enjoys the additional benches.

Cassidy Corbin was sitting on one of those benches after her shift at Peet’s Tuesday. She could appreciate both the toll the construction inevitably took on local businesses and meaningful improvements the project made.

“It’s probably better for people that [the brickwork] is more flat,” she said, making mobility easier and safer, especially for seniors and anyone with a physical disability.

But for most of this summer, “our whole front door entrance was, like, completely blocked off,” Corbin said. “So we lost a good bit of business, and getting to and from work was a pain in the butt.”

Cian Natario, a manager at CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice across the street, saw construction dampen day-to-day business too. Still, Natario credited the workers with doing everything they could to keep business flowing. And now that the work is done, Natario thinks the Town is “a lot more appealing to the eye.”

“The bricks are very nice to look at; it…just gives the Town a very tidy aspect,” he said. He’s noticed an increase in car and foot traffic throughout the Center.

The Town had multiple incentives to move forward with planned Center Streetscape construction even amidst the pandemic, Hai said. Delaying could have driven the project costs even higher, an outcome that has affected other Town capital projects. But with regard to local businesses, the Select Board considered the possibility that pandemic construction might actually disrupt business less at a time when fewer customers were shopping anyway. 

While construction was inevitably “an impediment at all times,” Hai said, “it was a little bit lower during that first year [of construction] when we were still in…the COVID repressed use of the businesses.”

The need to complete the project before the Town’s semiquincentennial celebration also factored into moving forward with construction as planned, Hai added.

While the Town did its best to communicate every phase of the project proactively, and to encourage community members to continue shopping downtown, Livsey said the Center Streetscape project was the municipal-scale equivalent of “renovating someone’s kitchen while they’re cooking dinner.”

“It would be a lot easier to build and we probably could have cut the time in half if we shut down the downtown [all at once]” instead of splitting construction into sections, he said. “But we’d have also had a lot of empty storefronts at the end.”

Nelson felt that the Town could have done more to update residents on which portions of the sidewalk and street would be closed when, especially when weather changed previously communicated plans.

Others, like Man, said the Town’s emails and other construction updates “made pretty clear that things are happening, and when and where.”

In Hai’s view, “[Livsey] and the project manager did an incredibly good job of staying in touch with the resident businesses in the center and handling concerns.”

Still, “I know it wasn’t easy [for businesses],” she said. The Economic Development Office and Select Board are prioritizing “[doing] everything we can to revitalize the Center…[and] recreate those habits of bringing people in and having it be a real destination for the community.”

“I think the revitalized Center [Streetscape] itself is a big piece of that,” she added.

Livsey is looking forward to taking his wife to see the renewed Lexington Center lit up by holiday lights.

 After hearing about the trials and tribulations of the project for years, Livsey said, “she will fully appreciate what goes into building something like that.” 

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