Russ Allen: So How About We Try This…?

There is a lot of talk these days over what should happen to Harwich Center. Indeed, according to published reports, there are so many groups examining the question that one has decided to take a hiatus to await the results of the others. This is not new. Ever since the demolition of the Exchange Building in 1964, the nature of Main Street between Bank Street and the intersection of Routes 39 and 124 has been uncertain, especially as local businesses came and went.

Debates over the direction in which other sections of the town of Harwich should move are not new, either. Discussions focused on the Harwich Port, East, West and South Harwich areas have generated ideas regarding expanded commercialization, selective residential development, historic preservation, environmental protection and the nature of Harwich’s community. For the average citizen these processes for achieving consensus can be confusing, leading to misunderstandings, unsupported proposals, and delayed implementation. Having multiple study groups regarding the future of Harwich Center may be contributing to this confusion.

Though several aspects already define Harwich Center, conversations regarding its future often focus on commercial development. That Harwich already has three significant business centers may belie the need for a fourth. More to the point, Harwich Center is already a governmental, recreational and cultural hub that offers more significant and diverse facilities for indoor, open and maintained spaces for outdoor activities than the rest of Harwich. Furthermore, there are established geographical boundaries that define the village. Envisioning Harwich Center as an area bounded on the southwest by the Harwich Cultural Center, the northwest by the Brooks Academy and the First Congregational Church, the southeast by the Brooks Free Library, and the northeast by the Harwich Community Center, within which are most of the town’s cultural facilities, suggests a viable paradigm for any consideration of its future.

Imagine Harwich Center as a “Governmental, Recreational and Cultural District” with a landscaped pedestrian mall running from Bank Street to Route 124, perhaps with an optional single traffic lane for morning deliveries. Route 39 could be redirected down Bank Street to Route 28, and what is arguably the worse intersection in Harwich would be eliminated. That mall could anchor an area connected to the east by improved sidewalks allowing people to walk comfortably and safely to the recreational, band concert, and fair sites on Oak Street as well as to the Harwich Community Center. A second improved sidewalk could lead from the center west past the Brooks Academy and the Harwich Farmers Market before ending at the Harwich Cultural Center. In the summer, and when events of community interests warrant it, an easy on and off shuttle service could connect the existing parking lots to most facilities in the area.

The creation of this new mall, accompanied by needed upgrades to the existing buildings and the addition of a few new commercial enterprises, could attract residents and visitors to Harwich Center throughout the year, but especially in the spring, summer, and fall seasons. Its open spaces could be used by artists and other performers throughout the warmer months, and in the midst of its pathways, benches, floral arrangements and trees could be a stage where musical and dramatic presentations were offered on a summer’s evening. In addition, the mall would relieve the frequent overcrowding at arts and crafts fairs in Brooks Park while giving people new reasons to visit Harwich Center.

The Exchange Building was intended to be a gathering place, cultural and recreational center for the Harwich community, something the current Harwich Center is not. The Harwich Community Center, while compensating for some things that were lost when the original building was demolished, stands on the outer edge of Harwich Center, while new programs are being developed at the Harwich Cultural Center in a diagonally opposite location. Reimagining Main Street, repurposing much of its space, and introducing new elements could bring back the original purpose of the building that once dominated Harwich Center.

I am not a municipal planner; I have no idea what it would take, how much it would cost to transform Harwich Center into this kind of place. But I am a resident of Harwich who has come to love this town, wants to preserve its charm and history and strengthen its sense of community, and believes we could do better than we are. That is the reason I have asked and tried to answer this question: “So how about we try this…?”