Massachusetts moves to save municipal commons. 20 communities will divide $7 million restoration fund

THE cows no longer graze on broad Boston Common. The militia no longer drills on Lexington Green. Yet nestled under winter's early snows, New England's town commons are neither forgotten nor forsaken. In Massachusetts, there is a new program designed to restore and preserve town commons. One hundred and forty cities and towns are competing for grants from a $7 million fund established by the state legislature. Twenty will be selected by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Jim Gutensohn, DEM commissioner, says commons play a special role in this region: ``What gives New England its distinct identity is its town commons and squares.''

Mr. Gutensohn says the town commons program, which is being administered by his department, is part of a larger effort to restore the historical heritage of parks throughout the state. At the same time, he explains, the programs aim to boost local economies.

James Parrish, a historic preservation planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, says the tradition of setting aside a bit of land for the common good was brought from England by the colonists. They modeled their communities after the English farm system, with the houses in the center of the town, and fields on the outskirts, he says.

``But the livestock had common grazing lands'' in the center of town, Mr. Parrish says. The local militia often drilled on the common, and occasionally a portion of the land was set aside as a cemetery. In most cases, the town's prominent buildings -- the church, tavern, and meeting house -- were built around the edge of the common.

These early commons were not the picturesque squares of today, with neatly trimmed lawns and proud granite monuments. Not until the 1820s or '30s, Parrish says, did towns start grooming their commons.

Gordon Abbott Jr., a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, says the present-day commons in Massachusetts ``have a most extraordinary variety. Some have been preserved in a pristine way.''

He says it is almost miraculous that some commons have endured in the face of economic development. But, he adds, ``many have not.'' In some communities, ``economic pressures have nibbled away'' at the common, he says.

It is these nibbled-at commons that the state's restoration program seeks to rehabilitate.

Proposals came from cities and towns across the commonwealth, says Willa Small Kuh, the DEM's program director. They include plans to rehabilitate Boston Common, to acquire land next to the Town Hall in Leyden, and to develop a common for commonless Adams.

In Montague, town officials are hoping to uncover their common, which is buried beneath the foundations of a convenience store, a beauty salon, and other businesses.

The town of Adams has never had a common. There are several playgrounds, says Jim Leach, the town's community development director. But there is no park in this western Massachusetts community where people can just ``get together.''

Mr. Leach says, a ``perfect site'' for a common opened up downtown. An old paper mill was demolished several years ago at the end of the commercial district. The site is in ``close proximity of a dozen buildings on the historic register,'' Leach says, and would be ideal for a commonlike park. He hopes the state program will help the town buy the site.

The town of Barre, just east of the Quabbin Reservoir, has a beautiful, 15-acre common. Yet Robert Weldon, chairman of the town parks and recreation committee, says that over the years it has been allowed to become a bit run-down. A limited budget allows for mowing the common, he says, but not for regular maintenance.

Barre is applying for the state grant, he says, to ``bring [the common] back to its former grandeur and make it accessible to the handicapped.''

Mr. Weldon says that in the 1950s about an acre of the common was paved over to make a parking lot. The parking area is poorly designed, he says, and creates a traffic problem in the downtown area. He says the town hopes to reclaim this part of the common.

Weldon says some of the stores that face the common are run-down. The town is applying for a grant to spruce these up under the state's Small Cities program, he adds.

Two proposals came from Cambridge -- one for the common, the other for a small park near the Charles River.

According to Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge historical commission, Winthrop Square was the city's first marketplace from 1630 until 1812.

The commission's plan would restore granite post-and-rail fences to the park, add a substantial number of trees, and reclaim some of the land lost to a nearby road over the past centuries.

Gloucester officials submitted a proposal to renovate the promenade where the famed Gloucester fisherman gazes out to sea. While the park in Gloucester is not a common, says Ms. Kuh, it certainly is the ``center of civic pride.''

The competition is not strictly limited to commons, she adds. But, as with Gloucester, the proposals should be for ``the symbolic center of the community, not just any park. We would like to see each [restoration] have a substantial impact on the community,'' she says.

Ms. Kuh says the program seeks to balance historic preservation with the modern-day needs of a community. Sprucing up the common can be an economic boost for a community, she says, but it must not come at the expense of the historical features of a common.

Commissioner Gutensohn says, ``The feeling is that a handful of well-designed, quality restorations could have, not only local impact, but also statewide benefit.'' He says the program will help preserve historical sites, boost the local economies, and encourage tourism in the state.

The contest for the funds opened last summer, and the list of applicant communities has been narrowed to the 40 best proposals. Those cities and towns are now developing more comprehensive restoration plans. The final entries are due April first. Twenty towns will receive funds for restoration.

Although the state is footing the greater part of the bill for restoration work, towns will be required to pay a portion of the costs for some of the projects. Each project costing less than $100,000 will be fully funded by the state. For larger projects, the towns will have to contribute as much as a third of the restoration costs.

At least one town's project is in financial trouble already. Henry Kramer of New Salem says that although his town's proposal has reached the second stage of approval, it may have to be abandoned. Mr. Kramer, who is a volunteer on the town planning board, the conservation commission, and the fire department, says the professional design work required for the final stage of the competition involves too much financial risk for the community.

The state will reimburse a town half of its design costs, he says, but only if it is one of the final 20 winners. For a town with a population of 700, he says, $1,000 for a design plan ``is money down the drain,'' if it loses the competition.

Plans in New Salem call for planting new trees and grass on the common, burying utility wires, and moving a road that runs through the middle of the common.

Kramer says, ``There's a will to do this.'' Volunteers worked diligently to draw up the original design, he says, but there's no one in the town qualified to do the professional work the final entry will require. Town officials must still decide whether or not to commit themselves to staying in the contest.

Gordon Abbott says there are other towns that simply did not apply to the program. He says he knows of one town common that includes a Revolutionary munitions armory. The structure is in need of repair, yet the town did not apply this year. Mr. Abbott says he is concerned that the structure may not stand much longer. Gutensohn says he hopes the program will be so successful in restoring 20 commons this year that the governor and legislature will be inclined to continue the program for several more years.

Ms. Kuh says proposals came not just from planning commissions and mayors. In some towns, she says, proposals came from small community groups. In a couple of cases, they came from grandmothers, she adds.

She says the program staff was heartened by some of the letters that accompanied the proposals. Some came from groups, such as the Girl Scouts, which promised to take care of particular portions of the commons. -- 30 --

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