Though Town Meeting approved the $3.4 million funding for the Police Station Solar Canopy project in April, the design has been in a state of flux for months. The process continues to illustrate the challenges with making the transition to clean energy in a manner that meets the needs of stakeholders. 

Police Station Solar Canopy Moves Forward

As locals have surely noticed, construction of Lexington’s new police station is in full swing along Massachusetts Avenue. 

Town Staff and Tecton Architects, working with the Historic Districts Commission (HDC),  developed an original design. But a number of abutting residents became aware of the project late in the decision-making process. A second design process was undertaken as a collaborative effort between the Town, Tecton Architects and some of the neighbors abutting Fletcher Park. Both designs were presented at the June HDC meeting, but the general consensus was that the HDC reviews a single plan and does not choose between options or alternatives. The Select Board indicated that it would be appropriate for it to choose which design to move forward with. (See both designs here).

The process resulted in modifications to the original project to create a smaller footprint, reduce its height, and add a “Mass Ave leg” (i.e., a canopy that will sit perpendicular to Mass Ave along the driveway). Even with those changes to the original design, two designs still differ on a number of key dimensions: location, size, and structure; canopy height and clearances; solar energy production; and impact on the Fletcher Field green area.

The abutters were in favor of the collaboratively designed option, which they see as more “human scale.”

“We know there is fairly significant push back from the community because the (original design) is just out of scale,” HDC member Lee Noel Chase said. “Out of scale with the bike path, out of scale with the adjoining neighborhood, and out of scale pretty much with Fletcher Field.”

However, estimates indicate that the collaborative design would produce about 25% less solar power than the original, resulting in coming up short with the on-site clean energy targets for the Police Station building.    

A spirited discussion occurred at the June 12 Select Board meeting. In the end, the Board voted 3 to 2 to move forward with the original design. The discussion and split vote reflect the challenges of advancing a clean energy agenda while meeting the wishes of multiple community stakeholders. The original design maximized solar power generation. Its engineering was well underway, supported by a cost estimate. Changing course and choosing the collaborative design could have delayed the overall police station construction schedule and impacted the cost. In the end, more solar output plus cost and schedule concerns narrowly won out over collaboration. 

Of course, we are not done yet! Town Staff presented the solar canopy option approved by the Select Board to the HDC at its June 14 meeting. After lengthy discussion, the HDC unanimously voted to allow the Town to move forward with more detailed design work for the Select Board-approved option. The architect can now work on structural analysis and the locations and sizes of underground footings. The detailed above-ground design — the “look and feel” of what we will see and experience — is another story. The final design of arches, angles, landscaping, and other features is yet to come. The Town is working to have a more complete package to deliver to the HDC at its August meeting to move closer to receiving a Certificate of Appropriateness, allowing construction to begin. 

Energy Transition Lessons Learned

The ongoing saga of the Police Station Solar Canopy provides a number of lessons learned and considerations for Lexington for the future: 

  1. Trying your best to do it right the first time:  In hindsight, Lexington would have a very different looking police station today given current sustainability goals.  Mike Cronin, Lexington’s Director of Public Facilities summed it up: “In 2016, when this project started, it was just the police station,” he said. But in 2019, the Town introduced the Integrated Building Design policy, which calls for all Town buildings to meet LEED standards, including maximizing onsite renewable energy production. “There was no option to integrate solar into the design,” Cronin explained. The solar canopy had to be added on to the existing plan. HDC Chair Paul O’Shaughnessy pleaded to “let us get this all figured out ahead of time” on future projects. The new high school project presents similar challenges and the Town is trying to incorporate past lessons learned. “From a lessons learned standpoint for the new high school project, it is all in there,” Cronin said. “The geothermal wells, the solar systems, infrastructure, and everything else are all part of the base, singular package.”
  2. Collaborating through community engagement: Best practices suggest that it is essential to engage stakeholders early and often on large projects. Over engagement is best, but painful.  The Police Station Solar Canopy project fell short with engagement. Board Member Suzie Barry stated that “I believe in the process, I believe in community outreach, I believe in connecting with all the relevant stakeholders that need to be in the room. And I just want to apologize one more time to the neighborhood that we did not get that right from the get go.” The Town employed multiple working sessions among stakeholders, often called charettes, to develop the collaborative design option. This type of working session may represent a useful tool for the Town going forward. Lexington also appears to be looking to improve engagement more broadly. The Select Board held a working session at its May 15 meeting to discuss community engagement policy.
  3. Agreeing on what is good enough for now: A harder question to come to grips with is being OK (and celebrating) forward progress in meeting our goals, but knowing when to pause and say this is good enough for now. Some public comments singularly advocated for a canopy design that maximized solar energy production. However, cobbling on a large solar canopy that has aesthetic and scale issues and causes neighborhood concerns to a 2016 vintage project probably does not make the most sense. Why not apply the 80/20 rule? Instead of advocating for “maximums,” why not build a “pretty good” canopy project that everyone agrees moves us forward together? Let us try to balance renewable energy production, cost and schedule, and siting and neighborhood issues. Ultimately, the goal for all of us is to build a bigger and more aligned coalition to get to net zero.   

Join the Conversation


  1. I honestly don’t understand the neighbors’ objections. I think the solar canopy looks beautiful but the police station is a monstrosity. Why did the abutters have no problems with a building that big? The child who spoke at Town Meeting had it right: when people see our solar canopy, they will find it beautiful and the thought of all the fossil fuel energy we are saving will give them a warm feeling.

  2. I find this explanation by Mike Cronin puzzling- when the design process began back in 2016 it was ‘just a police station’. Watertown designed their police station, which opened more than a decade ago, with geothermal heating and cooling and a solar array. How did Lexington miss the boat so completely?
    It was certainly in the public knowledge, way back in 2016, that we should be adopting energy efficient standards. The problems associated with fossil fuel usage are not new ones, and they certainly were very well known in 2016.

  3. Not surprised that the canopy is so contentious. It is too large for the location.

    The police station itself is huge, even without the canopy. It overshadows Cary Hall and the town offices building.

    Sidewalks can be redone – and have been redone in the center, in wake of earlier choices achieved through a lengthy and contentious public process.

    But building, unlike sidewalks, can’t be redone. We’ll have to live with the consequences.

  4. I agree with Gail O’Keefe’s comment of Lexington completely missing the boat on planning. And I agree the Police Station is a monstrosity. I am astonished that the people who conceived of this plan thought this was an appropriate, attractive entrance to the historic Town of Lexington and I am very disappointed there was so little community engagement.

  5. The town’s goals for fighting climate change have been confirmed over and over again by town meeting — including making the new police station as close to net zero as possible. In my opinion, making the new police station net zero is the priority for this project. If we renege on our stated goals every time a group of abutters feels inconvenienced, we will never meet any of our goals for fighting climate change and we will lose all claim to leadership on this issue. We will become just one more town in Massachusetts doing its bit.

    The town’s next big project is rebuilding the East Lexington Fire Station. My (cynical) prediction is that even if the town sends abutter letters every week for a year, people won’t engage until they see a new construction project in their neighborhood.

    On a side note, I don’t see the new police station as a “monstrosity”. It’s the proper scale for a modern police station that fits the model of policing practiced in Lexington.

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