I answer this question regularly. When I tell customers how long I have lived in Acton, the responses range from, “That’s a long time,” to, “You haven’t lived here very long at all.” Last night I was asked that question and when I replied with “Twenty years,” my son, who started in kindergarten at Merriam and is now graduating from Northeastern University said, “Really?!?” He doubted it had been two decades, but quickly calculated his age then smiled and said, “Wow, you’re right.”
Twenty years is the longest I have lived anywhere. I lived nineteen years in Boston where I was born and also lived thirteen years in Stoneham before moving to Acton. It was, of course, the schools that brought us here, as well as the idyllic sense my husband and I had of the town. We drove through it regularly on our way to cross country ski or hike in southern NH and sometimes stopped at an orchard or farm. The town center, or lack thereof, was quiet and quintessentially New England.
We never imagined we could live here but twenty years ago it was the best and most affordable choice of communities with outstanding schools. We put all the money we gained from the sale of our first house into a small colonial and eagerly looked forward to starting our son in kindergarten in a year. The first morning I awoke in our new house, I went out to find coffee and was startled by the lack of cars – or options. I was used to the bustling Main street strip in Stoneham which had Dunkin’ Donuts, bakeries and small coffee shops. I was a little frightened that morning, wondering what hinterland we had entered, but went home (without coffee!) feeling comforted that we left the traffic and neighborhood congestion of Stoneham for a better life.
I thought to myself, “This town will never become Stoneham.” And I was relieved.
For better or worse, twenty years later, it has.
Like Stoneham, it has an abundance of good people. It has people who help their neighbors, care for their children as best they can and join together with other parents for sports, school events and playtime. It has a mixed age population ranging from children to seniors. There are many religious denominations that practice in a backdrop of tolerance and inclusion.
And also like Stoneham, development has been significant. In Stoneham, there was a burst of residential development in townhouse and condominium buildings as well as business development along Main Street of chain stores and restaurants. Stoneham was not hampered by town septic, so Main Street businesses grew as residential growth could support them. To balance this out, wonderfully, the town center which was also the only walking district, revitalized with an upgrade to the old movie theatre and shops. Historic lighting was installed and town events were planned there.
In Acton, the residential growth has been steady. For the first time in decades, the last census showed nearly a 10% increase in population overall. Population density in certain areas has greatly increased as open lots now have tight new housing structures. Traffic from one side of town to the other at peak times of day is a regular occurrence.
Last week I decided to read Acton’s town plan, as well as a survey that was given to town residents to get their thoughts about the town’s growth and development. This information is now several years old but the thoughts shared by residents could have been provided today. Residents cited their concerns about residential growth, traffic congestion and the lack of a desirable town center. There were concerns about rising taxes driving out our seniors, the lack of in town transportation and the desire to prohibit or limit large business development with a strong interest in the support and development of small businesses to offer desirable goods and services to residents.
I know there is a town planning process. I know that there is a core group of people who are charged with ensuring that Acton is a safe, desirable community today and in the future. I am sure they are well informed, care deeply about the town and want to do what is best.
I just wonder what Acton would look like today if any of them had moved here from Stoneham.
Last week on The Patch in response to the editor’s question, “What business do you want to see in Acton?” one person expressed a desire to have a Panera move into the Kmart building. While Kmart is not a premier destination, and it would not bill itself as one, replacing it with a large chain restaurant is another step toward ‘malling’ Acton, which our neighbor Westford has just done. ‘Malling’ is my personal transformation of the noun ‘mall’ into a verb. akin to Olympic sports announcer changing the word ‘medal’ into the verb use of “S/he medaled in the event.” The similarity to the real verb ‘maul’ is not lost on me.
It is my opinion that the last thing Acton needs is a business that would contribute to further ‘malling’. A case in point is the congestion around the mall on 111 that includes Roche Bros. et al as well as the big box box mall on Great Road with the bumper car like parking lot that includes Staples. A true Acton resident would argue that the parking lot at Roche Bros. is far worse but comparing truly awful and somewhat dangerous and full of blind spots is like comparing a rotten apple to a rotten pear.
We also do not need any more new houses. I own a house and have watched my home value decline in part due to too much new construction. While I own a nice house, in a wonderful location, it will never be ‘brand new’ and I would like to think that the character of the town is based on houses that are not ‘brand new’.
We do not need any more cars on the road without more traffic signals. As Stoneham developed, traffic lights were added in reasonably short order, particularly near new residential development. Near my home in North Acton there is a large development with dozens of new houses without any new traffic regulation or signage. Entering and leaving my neighborhood is now much more dangerous and time consuming.
Last, I own a small business in town, which I chose to do because I wanted to offer something of value within the community. The last thing I need, or any other independent business owner needs, is another chain business which can afford to operate more cheaply by buying in larger quantities and paying its workers lower wages. That is how America’s Main Street disappears.
While Acton does have a walking district in West Acton village, it is far from its potential, perhaps due to lack of funds to revitalize the district with lighting and municipal parking and incentives for businesses. It could be a vibrant village district, and maybe it will be, one day.
I know twenty years isn’t a long time when compared to those who have lived here all their lives and remember when the town consisted mostly of farms.
For me, twenty years is starting to feel like long enough.