A few years ago, Ali Koushan owned a struggling movie rental business. Today he has a well-established café that is about to be a shooting location for a movie.
Koushan said the turnaround has been helped by the Dedham Square Improvement Project, a construction and beautification project that began in the spring of 2012 and now is all but complete.
“The video business was dying; now I have a solid coffee shop with sandwiches and entertainment and it has been fantastic,” Koushan said. “I did struggle through the project; I had to wait for it, but I knew in the end it was going to pay off and be good for everybody.”
Construction disrupted Koushan’s business — along with others in the square, which include a movie theater and an assortment of restaurants and small shops. But the changes were aimed at improving business in the long run, and making the area safer for pedestrians, easier to navigate for motorists, and more inviting to outsiders.
Business owners are still waiting to see their business increase, and some were less than thrilled with some aspects of the project, most notably the parking. But most agree that safety and aesthetics have improved. And not only residents have noticed.
Jim Ohm is making an independent film and originally planned to shoot just inside Koushan’s Paradise Café.
“Once we got there, we saw the sort of nice downtown feel [Dedham Square] has,” Ohm said. “It has a nice combination of old and new, the sidewalks are nice and wide, and the storefronts have the same old charm to them.”
Now, Ohm also plans to shoot a street scene in Dedham.
Ohm’s is just the latest in a string of film projects in Dedham Square. Over the summer, Robert Downey Jr. came to town to shoot scenes for “The Judge.” Just last weekend, more than 100 extras came to Dedham Square to film a Chrysler commercial.
Jeremy Fiske, who was involved with both shoots, said the small storefronts, brick-lined sidewalks, and dome-topped courthouse make Dedham attractive to Hollywood.
“It has a small town New England-y feel, but at the same time has these larger beautiful structures in it,” Fiske said. “It looks like a Hollywood set.”
For Amy Haelsen, executive director of the Dedham Square Circle, the organization that supports downtown businesses, that is just what she was hoping for.
Before the project, Dedham’s downtown had pothole-filled parking lots and crumbling curbs, she said, making it an unlikely destination for filmmakers.
“You only have one chance to make a first impression, and we weren’t making a very good first impression at all,” Haelsen said.
Now the sidewalks have been redone, the streets repaved, brick crosswalks installed, and landscaping improved.
But aesthetics were a secondary goal of the project, Haelsen said. Safety was primary.
“Pedestrian safety was a huge concern for a really long time,” Haelsen said. “I’d like to think there are improvements in the square you will never be able to quantify because they are things that won’t happen — lives that were saved because of improvements. I’ve witnessed several close calls.”
One of the town’s largest intersections used to sport a traffic light affectionately called the “dummy light” by residents, according to Haelsen. One of the last remaining lights of its kind, it sat atop a short pole in the center of the intersection, meaning cars had to drive around it.
For pedestrians, crossing was permitted while both the light’s yellow and red lights were engaged, an outdated signal that was confusing for pedestrians and drivers, Haelsen said.
The other major intersection of the square had no traffic light or walk signals.
Now, the sidewalks are wider at the crossing areas, meaning that pedestrians have shorter distances to walk across the roads, said Dedham’s director of engineering, Jason Mammone. In some cases, that distance has been cut in half.
“In both intersections, pedestrian safety has improved dramatically,” he said.
The town’s consultant, the BETA Group, is still assessing traffic flow, Mammone said, and a report will be ready early next year.
Not all the changes have been welcomed, however.
Ann DiVirgilio, owner of the Dedham Flower Shoppe in the square, said traffic has been backed up in the square since the traffic light at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and High Street was installed.
“The vehicles stop in front and exhaust comes in the store,” DiVirgilio said. “It’s so loud you can’t even concentrate on what you’re doing.”
DiVirgilio said the project has improved the look of the square, but she worries that the new electronic crosswalks, electronic parking meters, and traffic pattern make it difficult for people to navigate the area.
One aspect that was scorned almost universally was parking.
The Keystone Parking Lot added 24 spaces, but the lot, which used to be free, became mostly metered parking. Business owners, employees, and regular square visitors overwhelmed selectmen with complaints, and at their meeting last week, paid parking at the lot was rescinded.
“I don’t think we need to charge for them,” selectmen chairman Michael Butler said at the meeting. “We’re not going to get the outcome we want, because people won’t be parking there.”
Paul Reynolds, a selectman and owner of The Blue Bunny Bookstore, said he and others saw a sharp drop in their business when the parking meters went online at the beginning of this month.
Now that Keystone parking is free again, the metering infrastructure, which cost $180,000, will wind up being a loss for the town and take much longer to pay off, since only street parking spots will be paid, said Town Administrator William Keegan.
Reynolds, who joined his brother Peter Reynolds and other residents and businesses in pushing to get the square project started, said making the Keystone lot free was worth it to attract people back to the square.
Making the decision especially important is the fact that Legacy Place, a mall about a mile from Dedham Square, was a viable alternative for customers.
At the Keystone Lot during a weekday afternoon earlier this month, motorists who parked in the lot found the machines difficult to use. Police did not ticket, but left orange fliers under people’s windshield wipers explaining how the parking machines worked.
Philip Iantosca, Norfolk County’s manager of administration and budgets, parks in the square every day because his office is located there. Overall, he said, the project is a positive, though he did not like the parking situation.
“It’s easier on the eyes, that’s for sure,” Iantosca said. “It’s safer to a degree, but motorists still don’t stop at the crosswalks. It is an improvement from before — you took your life in your hands crossing the street.”
He also questioned how snow removal would work in the winter.
Pat Schultz, an employee at Ron’s Gourmet Ice Cream, said his business had a good summer, but that the project overall was excessive.
“I didn’t see the need,” she said.
On the other hand, Laurie Hodges said she comes to the square often and was thrilled with the new look. Recently, she sent her 11-year-old daughter to the square for the first time by herself and did not worry as much about her safety with the new crosswalks in place.
Heather Sullivan, who was visiting her hometown of Dedham from California, said the square was much cleaner than she remembered it, and having the new crosswalks made the area safer for pedestrians.
Overall, Reynolds said he is extremely happy with the project, and pointed to the grass-roots support from the businesses in the square.
“Civic energy actually works, and we managed to do it in six or seven years,” he said, including the planning and fund-raising.
Koushan at the Paradise Café is getting ready for a busy season and has high hopes that customers will return after the lengthy construction.
“It’s back alive,” he said. “There are so many things going on in the square.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.