by Daniel Wang, Staff Writer, March 2021

Image courtesy of Trip Advisor.

For more information regarding Dedham Town Council Meetings in the future, please visit the comments from Ms. Porter, all quotes used in this piece were sourced from Reimagining our Downtown on February 9, 2021.

From the 2020 presidential election to the Georgia Senate run-offs, the past several months have been defined by consequential events in federal politics. National media coverage of issues such as trade policy and tax reform has both divided the public and painted a picture of American polity as exclusively Washingtonian. During such times, it is easy to forget the importance of local government. In the spirit of recuperating myself from the drama of national politics and searching for an escape from polarization within communal affairs, I decided to participate in that distinctly New England form of government known simply as a “town meeting.” With an empty mind and a full can of Diet Coke, I approached my first virtual community discussion: Reimagining our Downtown

In 2016, the Town of Dedham allocated $50,000 to establish a design guideline for town square developments and create an economic strategy for the downtown region. Midway through this process, the established Planning Board expanded its work to include devising a feasible development plan for the soon-to-be-vacated Dedham Police Station. “When we got to the economic strategic plan, what we realized was that the police station was about to be available, and so we rolled that into our plan, into the scope of what we were doing,” Jessica Porter, a member of the Dedham Planning Board, said. The process of allocating and designing the lot is in its early stages; during the town meeting, Selectman Dr. Dennis Teehan emphasized: “I think that it’s very important for people to understand that no decision has been made.” 

Nonetheless, the Planning Board has narrowed the potential courses of development for the parcel into three categories: (1) selling the publicly owned land to a private developer (2) retaining the land and repurposing the police station for some other public use (3) keeping ownership of the land but demolishing the current building and strongly recommends the third course of action. Peter Smith, another member of the Planning Board, clarified that selling the land to a private developer would be impractical and highlighted the importance of creating a new public gathering place. Smith said, “The program is wide open. It’s a palette of possibilities. But it is important that we narrow in on civic and open spaces[…]. This is publicly owned land now. We cannot divide this lot, it’s too small.” Porter likewise expressed approval for the third option. She added, “Over the course of our research, what the committee feels is best for the community is to implement that last option of keeping the parcel but getting rid of the building and making that space a public plaza or park.”

During the meeting, the development advisor employed by the town, Barry Abramson of Abramson & Associates, and the appointed urban design consultant, David Gamble of Gamble Associates, both encouraged the town to retain ownership of the land and flatten the police building to construct some form of public green space. Gamble said, “We should think […] in terms of public and civil use in these parcels. In what ways can one imagine spaces that could act as social gathering spots […] in the downtown core itself, there isn’t much of an open space system.” Abramson further suggested that the second option, retaining the building, was economically unfeasible. He said, “The cost of re-using the building might well equal the cost of building a new building; it [would not be] particularly useful for the uses that would be most marketable – residential and ground-floor use.” 

Participants in the meeting expressed frustration about the seemingly determined course of development for the parcel. Though the discussion was framed as an open conversation, it seemed to many that the rough trajectory of the project had already been set. Others wholeheartedly supported the Planning Board’s judgment. A local businesswoman assented, “The two things that we are lacking as a business owner is parking and greenspace.” 

This diversity of viewpoints, Porter elaborated, lies at the heart of town politics. She specified, “[T]here are some people who want to see change in the sense of having more housing options […] Others want more accessibility for pedestrians and bikers – bike trails, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc.” Porter further noted that one common theme which connected the participants’ perspectives was the notion of managing change. She stressed, “Their vision for how to do that will differ depending on a lot of different factors, but the root concern is how to manage change.” Many citizens, however, fail to recognize that change is oftentimes inevitable. She clarified, “The hard thing that most people seem to not really understand, either with broad or specific sites, is that it’s never a question of change or no change. It’s always a question of what kind of change.” 

Despite the difficulties that are associated with making such decisions, Porter highlighted that town politics are an accessible platform for realizing meaningful reform. She explained, “I think town politics [are] a space in which you can expend relatively little energy to have a huge amount of influence in your community[…] It’s a lot easier to make sure your town does composting, for example, than to make sure the state implements those same policies, or for that matter, the nation.” 

Nowadays, actively engaging in town affairs is more convenient than ever: with a click of a button, any citizen can join a community meeting and contribute to the conversation. For anyone who is invested in the fate of our communities, look no further than your laptop screen.