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Walpole’s downtown “Big Dig” underway

February 2, 2015

Walpole Selectmen are proposing to spend a staggering $1.2 million in the next fiscal year on the second phase of a significant reconstruction of downtown Walpole, which will include the installation of new traffic lights, new sidewalks, and repaved roads. About $600,000 of this expense will come from state Chapter 90 funds, while about $500,000 will come from the town’s “free cash” reserves. A smaller portion of the funds will come from borrowing money.

The town spent about $420,000 during the current fiscal year on phase one of the project. If phase two is approved by Town Meeting in May, the total expense over two years will be an astronomical $1.6 million.

When it was first proposed by then Town Administrator Michael Boynton in 2013, the project was estimated to cost only about $850,000 over two years.

Phase one included removing most of the Bradford Pear trees downtown, and replacing them with honey locus trees, and also replacing some of the sidewalks.

The ultimate intent is for Main Street and its sidewalks to be redone from Front Street, in the west, all the way to the intersection of East and Main Street in the east.

Although some downtown business owners have publicly told Selectmen that they think the reconstruction will boost economic development, and in turn commercial tax revenue, in the central business district, other business owners are privately expressing reservations about the true benefits.

Between 2010 and 2012, former Economic Development Officer Stephanie Mercandetti and other town officials surveyed local business owners and residents regarding their priorities for downtown revitalization particularly with streetscapes.

Town officials and business owners have said that the downtown project will make the storefronts and facades potentially more inviting, and allow more space for outdoor seating and other amenities to attract customers.

Neither the town nor any business group has ever conducted a cost/benefit analysis or study to determine whether the $1.6 million in expense will result in tangible economic development. When prompted by citizens, town staff have been unable to point to any specific reference material that shows that Walpole would see measurable economic growth as a direct result of the Walpole “Big Dig” that would at least equal or be greater than the $1.6 million expense.

About $584,000 of the total $1.2 million in FY 2016 will be spent on redoing sidewalks, which includes upgrades to make them handicapped-accessible. About $384,000 will be spent repaving the road, while another $200,000 will go toward upgrading the traffic signals.

The town is currently spending $10,000, along with a $15,000 state grant, on an extensive study to examine ways to revitalize the central business district, which will include surveys of business owners and ideas for potential housing uses downtown.

The roads downtown were last repaved in 1992. The state will soon fund a major $12 million overhaul of Route 1A from Walpole center to the Norwood town line, which will include the installation of new traffic lights at several intersections, repaving of Main Street, some bridge repairs, and new sidewalks.

Business owners both in and outside of downtown have frequently said that Walpole’s biggest impediment to economic growth is burdensome red tape at Town Hall. Walpole is known in the business community as one of the worst towns to do business in, because of its reputation for needlessly holding up noncontroversial projects and for town boards’ frequent inability to communicate with each other and streamline permitting. Since 2005, the town has spent about $75,000 per year on a full-time Economic Development and Grants Officer that was supposed to help shepherd business owners through the permitting process, but it is not clear that position had much benefit.

Precinct 1 RTM Eric Hurwitz, who operates the popular travel blog VisitingNewEngland.com, and has unique insight into New England business districts and downtown areas from his work on that website, told 180 in 2013 that he thinks downtown is not as bad as town officials might be making it out to be, though he suggested minor improvements should be made.

“I regard Walpole as having one of the better downtown districts for a mid-sized town in the Boston area,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Other than Melrose, North Attleboro, Natick, Needham and Norwood, I’d personally place Walpole right near the top for mid-sized town downtown districts in non-vacation towns,” he said.

Meanwhile, some RTMs, including Hitching Post Drive resident Donna Donnellan, have been pushing Selectmen to focus on badly-needed residential street repairs rather than on downtown. Mrs. Donnellan, in particular, has been fighting for more than seven years to have her street and Bucket Mill Lane resurfaced.

Hitching Post and Bucket Mill were both made more than 25 years ago of “experimental concrete,” in a failed attempt to see if concrete would hold up better than regular road asphalt. They are the only two streets in town that are made of that material, and both are currently in significant disrepair.

Mrs. Donnellan received a letter in 2005 from Mr. Boynton promising her that her street would be put on the town’s “five-year Capital Budget plan for funding.” Yet neither Hitching Post nor Bucket Mill have been repaved yet.

What do you think about the Walpole “Big Dig”?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Art permalink
    March 30, 2015 1:04 AM

    I recall the last time downtown underwent a reconstruction, back around 1991-92 or so. Now, that project was CERTAINLY a significant improvement over how it was beforehand. It really gave the downtown Walpole a “facelift” and not only modernized the traffic signals, intersections, etc. it also made it much more appealing when they added new trees, new sidewalks, new street lights, etc.
    However, here we are twenty-three years later and while the roadways themselves certainly need a re-paving, some of the sidewalks could stand some attention, over all the work done back in the early nineties is still in good shape and appealing.
    I really see no good reason, at all, to rip up all of that and rebuild it for what seems to be more ascetics than functionality. Sure, repave the roads (which are needed anyway), fix and improve sidewalks as needed (again, not much needed, only here and there)….and replacing the street lights downtown with more decorative ones would also be pretty nice…..and that is about it. Anything beyond that is just a BIG waste of money.
    Walpole has an appealing downtown as it is…though I do think there are still a few ugly buildings, though that is a private matter for their owners. The newer Walpole bank, built in 2005 is of course a great addition to downtown, as well as a few more built in the last 15 years. Save money and just spruce up the streets a bit!

    • January 9, 2017 9:05 PM

      before the 1991-92 project, remember the midget traffic light that stood at the intersection of Main, Stone and West streets? I agree, that project did *wonders* for the center of town and even now it has held up well after 25 years. I think some street paving, a few sidewalk repairs and re-timing of traffic lights would be a better idea than ripping up a perfectly good, functional design.

  2. January 9, 2017 9:02 PM

    It would be a waste of money. As the previous comment from Art stated, the center of town was substantially reconstructed and improved back in the early 90s and despite the physicla roadway condition, the project has held up nicely. Sure, some sidewalks may need attention, some traffic lights might need some work or to be timed differently due to traffic changes over some 25 years—but overall it is a very attractive area. There are indeed a few ugly buildings still lingering downtown and yes, a couple to detract a bit but that is a private matter. Walpole unfortunately lost some of its more elaborate buildings to fire and ‘progress’ long ago, but its still a very nice downtown for a town its size.

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