How a parking lot became Center Park

On September 26, the Board of Selectmen gave final approval to the Center Park project. The small park on Lowell Street next to Ferns' garage, usually considered just a parking lot, will soon be beautified for the benefit of all Carlisleans.

Sabrina Perry at the entrance to Center Park. (Photo by Ellen Huber)
The driving force behind the improvement project is former Carlisle resident Sabrina Perry, now living in Lincoln. Articulate, confident and soft-spoken, Perry could easily be mistaken for a teacher or a professor as she appeared before countless town boards, armed with charts and photographs mounted on an easel, to describe her plan for beautifying this small piece of town land. The town bought the land in 1974 after a proposal to build a shopping mall in the center failed, and it has remained vacant ever since.

The Mosquito spoke with Perry to learn how one individual navigated the morass of town government and state and town regulations on the journey to approval for the project. What town boards were involved? Who helped her along the way? What citizen input was heard? We started by asking where her idea for beautifying the land originated.

Perry told us that in 1963 she and her husband Russell rented an apartment at 46 Lowell Street next to the park where the Myers-Tierney family now lives. The next year they moved to Sunset Road, where their four children grew up. "On the carpool drive [to school] we passed the messy vacant lot," she said. "With each drive by, I imagined it to be a beautiful park."

Many years later that vision began to take shape. In February 2004, Russell Perry died, and the Perry family suggested that memorial gifts be designated to develop and enhance the park. This seemed especially appropriate, said Sabrina Perry, because her late husband had been a sensitive gardener and an enthusiastic tree farmer. She asked the Carlisle Garden Club to be the fiscal agent for the funds received. "The Garden Club invited us to participate in one of their current projects," she recalled, "but my heart, after all those years, was set on enhancing the beauty of the park."

The design phase begins

The design phase of the project began when Perry met at the park with Pliny Jewell III, the well-known local landscape architect, who had designed the graceful stone entrance to Ledgeways on Lowell Street, an area of private homes sited on land then owned by the Perrys. Jewell immediately donated his design services and those of his colleague, Lowell Robinson.

In order to proceed, the landscape architects needed an assessor's map showing the precise location of the property, which the Carlisle Assessor's Office provided. They also needed a surveyor's map showing the topography of the land; it was donated to the town by engineer Bill McNary of Stamski and McNary, who had worked on Ledgeways with the Perrys.

Since the land had been used primarily for parking, Perry went to David Galvin, then Carlisle's Chief of Police, to determine the department's need for parking space. Galvin replied that they use the park for overflow purposes once a month, and the current 12 spaces were sufficient. "I then met with Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie," said Perry, "to determine the town's need for overflow parking during Town Meetings and other special events. She too said that 12 would serve their needs" and no change in the size of the existing parking area was required. McKenzie told Perry that the next step should be a proposal and a design to present to the Selectmen.

On April 12, 2005, Perry presented Robinson's preliminary sketch of the park design to the Selectmen. "They were supportive," said Perry, "and told me that the next steps included meetings with the Historical Commission and the Pedestrian and Bike Safety Advisory Committee." Selectman Tim Hult was appointed liaison to the Center Park Project.

Starting in May 2006, there would be a total of three meetings with the Historical Commission, during which some aspects of the design plan were modified. Proposed memorial bricks around two of three granite benches were not approved, an alternative to paving the parking area was requested, and a plaque listing donors was changed to a simple dedication statement. At the August 29, 2006, meeting of the Historical Commission, a revised plan was accepted, that included paving with a pervious material called Roma-Pack instead of asphalt, revised signage for the park and memorial messages inscribed on part of the granite benches. At that meeting, Hult thanked the commissioners for their patience and time, adding, "The plan is better for your work."

Robinson and Perry also met twice with the Planning Board. "They too were patient and gracious with their comments, which also improved the plan," said Perry. In August, the Selectmen decided that a Site Plan Review of the Center Park Project was required, meaning that an application and plans would be reviewed by a number of town boards that would then submit their recommendations to the Board of Selectmen. Those boards included the Conservation Commission, Board of Health, Pedestrian and Bike Safety Advisory Committee, Historical Commission and Planning Board. In addition the fire chief, police chief, the superintendent of the DPW and the building inspector had to review the application and plans. "We didn't mind," says Perry, "because it meant that everyone within 300 feet of the park would receive a certified letter [about public hearings on the plan]. Every voice would be heard, considered and respected."

More voices heard from

Not all the voices were enthusiastic about the concept of Center Park. Some residents at various board meetings objected to any change in the park. Others voiced concerns that the park would be used as a teen hang-out, but Perry pointed out that the Police Department is just across the street. "This shouldn't look like an extension of Ferns," said an abutter at a Planning Board meeting, but according to Perry, plantings on the lot line with Ferns will help define the park boundaries. Increased use could result in more trash and litter, said some residents, but trash receptacles will be strategically placed and will be emptied regularly by DPW workers. In a Selectmen's meeting on August 22, Perry expressed the hope that the objectors might "in time see the proposed design as more attractive than the 'before' pictures [displayed] here."

Apart from meetings required in the Site Plan Review, Perry also met individually with several town officials "who were considerate and helpful," including Police Chief John Sullivan who later told the Selectmen, "I do not feel that problems will increase due to benches being put in." About some neighbors' concerns when Ferns begins selling alcohol, Chief Sullivan said, "We will monitor this issue and if it begins to be a problem, we will strictly enforce the laws."

Building Inspector Bob Koning, whose driveway has had a Roma-Pack surface for 18 years, recommended its use in the parking area; ConsCom Administrator Sylvia Willard walked the site with Perry and determined that the park project would not place plantings within the buffer zone of an abutter's property; Linda Fantasia, chair of the Board of Health, confirmed that there were no water or sewage disposal issues. Also, Perry met with Council on Aging Director Kathy Mull about seniors' interests; with Gary Davis, DPW superintendent, regarding responsibilities for the park; and John Troast, chair of the Bike/Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee whose input will be considered when the crosswalk on Lowell Street is changed.

Although Perry was the prime mover of the Central Park project, she singles out two individuals who were enormously helpful. "From the start, Tim Hult didn't want to be involved in operational matters, rather he was a resource and help when needed. One reason the project went forward was because he said, 'We need to trust the process,' to patiently follow the initial steps and then the Site Plan Review." Perry also credits landscape architect Lowell Robinson with helping to ensure the project's success. "He has had years of experience with community projects, so he was a huge help as we moved from board to board." It was Robinson who, at an early Historic Commission meeting, assured board members and abutters that the park is a "modest undertaking" and is not intended to be a destination.

Next steps

Now the work of improving the park begins — but first comes fundraising. For some months, said Perry, a small group has been working with a professional consultant to plan a community capital campaign. The group includes Susan Pepple of Nathan Lane, and Perry anticipates that others will join the effort. "We will be working out a timeline for the work to be done, identify contractors, and have an Oversight Committee, including Tim Hult, to ensure that all the plans will be professionally executed."

Ultimately, Center Park remains a town park, and through the patience and persistence of Sabrina Perry, it will become a beautiful town park.