On a nice day, Karen Dane and her family can be found wandering around Lexington Center. Whether it’s getting a haircut, having dinner, strolling along the brick, tree-lined sidewalks, or just enjoying the green space, the center is their go-to spot, Dane said.
But when she learned that the town wants to redesign the sidewalks along Massachusetts Avenue from the edge of the Lexington Battle Green at Meriam Street to Woburn Street, Dane started worrying that it will soon look like every other town in Massachusetts.
“It’s a lovely area and it would really change if they started ripping up sidewalks and trees,’’ Dane said. “The thing I see relative to other towns is there is a place to gather. It’s not an asphalt jungle.’’
Intense opposition has mounted from a group of residents who say the town plans to remove the signature brick sidewalks in favor of concrete, and take out all the trees as part of the roadway project.
But town officials and other supporters of the Lexington Center Streetscape Project say the opponents have grossly misrepresented the details, many of which are not set in stone.
“The opposition has been widely publicizing that the entire center will be destroyed, that every tree and every bench will be thrown away, and that’s not true because that hasn’t been decided yet,’’ said Vicki Blier, a Town Meeting member who helped organize the Friends of the Lexington Center Streetscape to dispel myths circulating about the project.
They said the driving force is a desire to improve safety and accessibility along the roadway and sidewalks. They said they are frustrated because the need for the project has been discussed for years, but some residents are just now getting involved.
“I’m not surprised that people find a dear relationship to the center — it’s the community’s living room. But I’m surprised they didn’t participate earlier,’’ said Joseph Pato, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “For all municipal projects, communication is hard. Until it’s about to happen, many people don’t notice. That’s what we saw here.’’
The Board of Selectmen sought $2.7 million in funding for the first phase of Center Streetscape Project last fall, but it failed to get the needed two-thirds vote to move forward. Another vote set for this spring was put off in the face of mounting opposition, and to give the town more time to address the potential for increased cut-through traffic on side streets.
“Taking the extra time makes it easier to work through getting people on the same page,’’ Pato said.
Pato said the overall plan is to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and help extend the historic influence of Battle Green into the center. Ideas include integrating historic interpretive opportunities throughout, such as using sidewalk graphics to help tell the story of the American Revolution.
The first phase of the project would go from Woburn Street to the town office building along Mass. Ave., and calls for a new road and redesign of the Woburn Street/Mass. Ave. intersection, which has a chaotic configuration and many accidents, Pato said.
“The motivation is the roadway is failing,’’ he said. “It’s not the surface layer that’s failing, it’s the drainage and underlying support. We only expect it to last a few more years.’’
Since the road — the most expensive component — needs to be rebuilt, Pato said it only makes sense to redesign the entire area at the same time.
The design includes a traffic signal, new crosswalks, intersection reconfiguration, a new traffic pattern, road reconstruction, and sidewalk replacement.
Pato said town officials redesigned the intersection because there is a clash between cars, buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The intersection is heavily used, carrying 23,000 vehicles on a typical day. According to the project’s advocacy group, it is one of the town’s most dangerous intersections, topping the list for crashes that injure pedestrians or cyclists, and is fifth in overall crashes. Between 2002 and 2013, 80 crashes occurred at this intersection
Pato said the first phase of the project does not include any of the areas where brick sidewalks exist.
“The concern for the trees and sidewalks have been misunderstood,’’ he said. “Most of the controversy out there is not relevant to this [phase of the] project.’’
Artist renderings of the project closer to the Battle Green show concrete sidewalks with brick on the side — a recommendation made by the town’s Disability Commission to ensure a smooth surface, Blier said.
Mark Connor, an architect whose office is in Lexington Center, started speaking out about the plans earlier this year, with the hope that the Town Meeting vote would be delayed.
If residents hadn’t spoken up, Connor thinks the town would have moved forward with concrete.
“What they propose is an exact replica of what’s been done in other towns,’’ Connor said. “You can still solve the problems of accessibility and safety without following the path that everyone else follows.’’
Connor said there aren’t many unique businesses in Lexington Center, so it’s the look and feel of the area that draws people in and makes a connection to the nearby Green. Connor said the design was put in place about 50 years ago after the Burlington Mall was built as a way to make the area feel more welcoming. And he thinks it has worked well.
“For 50 years it has been a remarkably successful destination,’’ he said. “People in town love it. There are not a lot of great places to shop, but people spend time downtown sitting in benches, watching life go by, having an ice cream. It’s not a place they’ve abandoned. It would be shame to lose our uniqueness and look like everyone else.’’
Deran Muckjian, owner of the toy store Catch a Falling Star in Lexington Center, said safety must be addressed, but he worries that the town would lose some of its charm if concrete sidewalks, for example, were put in.
“We have a lot of tourists and I hear such positive things about the center,’’ Muckjian said. “They always say what a beautiful downtown it is, and I want that maintained. People come with such high expectations.’’
But just because the concrete sidewalk was on the rendering doesn’t mean it was the final decision, Pato said. In fact, he said the Board of Selectmen established an ad-hoc committee that will try to get broad consensus and recommendations on the various design elements.
“The intent was to evolve the design based on the feedback,’’ he said. “The proposal was to blend wide-cut brick with concrete passages but the actual design hadn’t been finalized. That’s part of getting feedback. This is a concept now and the next stage of design was to nail down how this actually flows.’’
Pato said it’s possible the plan could come up for a vote in the fall but he said spring 2017 is more likely. He hopes the town can come together to support the project, which is desperately needed as the road continues to break down.
“The challenge with every delay is that the underlying area in the roadway continues to decay,’’ he said. “We can’t put this off much longer, and it would be a shame and unnecessary expense to build the roadway without making those safety changes throughout the corridor.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.