The following article was printed in the Boston Globe on 10/24:
A few years ago, Ali Koushan owned a struggling movie rental business. Today he has a well-established café that is about to be a shooting location for a movie. Koushan said the turnaround has been helped by the Dedham Square Improvement Project, a construction and beautification project that began in the spring of 2012 and now is all but complete. “The video business was dying; now I have a solid coffee shop with sandwiches and entertainment and it has been fantastic,” Koushan said. “I did struggle through the project; I had to wait for it, but I knew in the end it was going to pay off and be good for everybody.”
Construction disrupted Koushan’s business — along with others in the square, which include a movie theater and an assortment of restaurants and small shops. But the changes were aimed at improving business in the long run, and making the area safer for pedestrians, easier to navigate for motorists, and more inviting to outsiders. Business owners are still waiting to see their business increase, and some were less than thrilled with some aspects of the project, most notably the parking. But most agree that safety and aesthetics have improved. And not only residents have noticed.
Jim Ohm is making an independent film and originally planned to shoot just inside Koushan’s Paradise Café. “Once we got there, we saw the sort of nice downtown feel [Dedham Square] has,” Ohm said. “It has a nice combination of old and new, the sidewalks are nice and wide, and the storefronts have the same old charm to them.” Now, Ohm also plans to shoot a street scene in Dedham. Ohm’s is just the latest in a string of film projects in Dedham Square. Over the summer, Robert Downey Jr. came to town to shoot scenes for “The Judge.” Just last weekend, more than 100 extras came to Dedham Square to film a Chrysler commercial. Jeremy Fiske, who was involved with both shoots, said the small storefronts, brick-lined sidewalks, and dome-topped courthouse make Dedham attractive to Hollywood.
“It has a small town New England-y feel, but at the same time has these larger beautiful structures in it,” Fiske said. “It looks like a Hollywood set.”
For Amy Haelsen, executive director of the Dedham Square Circle, the organization that supports downtown businesses, that is just what she was hoping for. Before the project, Dedham’s downtown had pothole-filled parking lots and crumbling curbs, she said, making it an unlikely destination for filmmakers. Renovations in Dedham Square include wider sidewalks — bordered with brick — two stoplights, brick crosswalks, upgraded landscaping and benches, and a larger parking lot. “You only have one chance to make a first impression, and we weren’t making a very good first impression at all,” Haelsen said. Now the sidewalks have been redone, the streets repaved, brick crosswalks installed, and landscaping improved.
But aesthetics were a secondary goal of the project, Haelsen said. Safety was primary. “Pedestrian safety was a huge concern for a really long time,” Haelsen said. “I’d like to think there are improvements in the square you will never be able to quantify because they are things that won’t happen — lives that were saved because of improvements. I’ve witnessed several close calls.”
One of the town’s largest intersections used to sport a traffic light affectionately called the “dummy light” by residents, according to Haelsen. One of the last remaining lights of its kind, it sat atop a short pole in the center of the intersection, meaning cars had to drive around it. For pedestrians, crossing was permitted while both the light’s yellow and red lights were engaged, an outdated signal that was confusing for pedestrians and drivers, Haelsen said. The other major intersection of the square had no traffic light or walk signals. Now, the sidewalks are wider at the crossing areas, meaning that pedestrians have shorter distances to walk across the roads, said Dedham’s director of engineering, Jason Mammone. In some cases, that distance has been cut in half.
Rick Roy with Mass Bay Electric in a bucket truck worked on the new signs on the new lights. “In both intersections, pedestrian safety has improved dramatically,” he said. The town’s consultant, BETA Group, is still assessing traffic flow, Mammone said, and a report will be ready early next year.
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