With its running brooks, picturesque evergreens, and broad meadows, Chelmsford’s historic Center Village has been a gathering place since the arrival of the town’s earliest settlers in 1653. The 27-acre village remains a hub of commerce and civic life, with a center for the arts, boutique shops, and the Bruce Freeman Trail running through it. Chelmsford town leaders hope to capitalize on its many assets and make the area a destination for both residents and visitors by creating a meandering pedestrian walkway along Beaver Brook that would link to businesses and the popular trail.
Those plans, approved by the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, and Conservation Commission, recently got a boost from state lawmakers. Legislators included $5 million for improvements to Chelmsford’s town center in both the House and Senate versions of a bond bill designed to fund improvements to the Commonwealth’s transportation system over the next five years.
“If we get the funding through the state bond bill, I think it will be the catalyst we need to secure other commitments for this project,” said Selectman James M. Lane Jr., who was chairman of the committee that developed the town’s Center Village master plan.
The plan calls for preserving and expanding the village character of Chelmsford’s traditional business district while securing additional parking in and around Central Square, at the intersection of routes 4, 110, 129, and 27.
Key to the success of the plan is a proposal to transform Beaver Brook into an attractive and accessible landmark for the center.
If the transportation bond bill is signed by the governor, the money earmarked for Chelmsford would go a long way toward making that vision a reality, said state Senator Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who represents Chelmsford.
Town leaders would like to use the state funding to create Beaver Brook Walk, a pedestrian path from the Bruce Freeman Trail to Summer Street; new signs to direct visitors to local landmarks and parking lots; and infrastructure changes that would make the Center Village more pedestrian-friendly, including better sidewalks and more strategically located crosswalks. Additional bicycle racks also would be installed to encourage cyclists to stop in the village rather than just pedal through it.
Rediscovering Beaver Brook has been in the town’s plans since 1998, Lane said. Turning that vision into reality will require private and public partnerships, including agreements with abutting property owners, he noted.
“This will be a substantial project, making this happen,” added Jack Handley, owner of Chelmsford Gift & Card Shop, a fixture in Central Square since the 1960s.
A member of the Chelmsford Historic District Commission, Handley served with Lane on the Center Village Master Plan Committee because he believes the project would revitalize the town center while “retaining the character of our old Central Square.”
The Brook Walk, estimated to cost between $1.6 million and $2.4 million, is the most expensive element of the master plan.
Overall, implementation of the master plan could cost between $5 million and $7 million, depending on when the project is put out to bid.
“It’s uncertain at this point how much town funding would be required,” said Town Manager Paul Cohen, noting that the town is looking to develop plans as the project moves forward.
“The key challenge will be getting the future governor, whoever that may be, to release the funding,” Cohen said, adding that every project is “subject to appropriation.”
Plans for the center would build on recent and ongoing improvements, including the opening in 2009 of the Bruce Freeman Trail; the renovation in 2012 of the former Town Hall, home to the Chelmsford Center for the Arts; the recent elimination of overhead utility lines in parts of the town center; and the ongoing renovation of the former Stop & Shop plaza off Boston Road.
The aging plaza is being transformed into an upscale shopping center with a new look and a new name: Chelmsford Town Center. Concord-based Winstanley Enterprises LLC is adding a clock tower, a brick-and-glass facade, and new landscaping.
The developer also is clearing land around Beaver Brook at the northern edge of the site and is committed to providing the town whatever easement is needed to install a footbridge to the property, Lane said.
The new shopping center is expected to open by July. Choice Fitness and Nobo Modern Japanese Restaurant & Bar already have signed leases in the 59,874-square-foot development. CVS, Bank of America, and Friendly’s stayed open during construction, and space remains available.
Members of the Master Plan Committee said the vision outlined in the document has been well received by local business owners.
“We’ve got a lot of folks who are very excited about this,” said Lane, whose family has lived in Chelmsford for four generations.
“People love the fact that we’re starting to revitalize some areas and get projects accomplished that were at first visions, and are now becoming reality.”
The next step for Center Village would be the design phase, Cohen said, noting that detailed design drawings could cost as much as $300,000.
He is hopeful the state will release a portion of the transportation funds designated for the project to cover that expense.
Brenda J. Buote can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.