Finding the center

In Norwell, plans are underway to make the downtown more inviting

Norwell’s town planner, Chris Di Iorio, is on a mission to remake the center of town into a more inviting and pedestrian-friendly space. Norwell’s town planner, Chris Di Iorio, is on a mission to remake the center of town into a more inviting and pedestrian-friendly space. (Photos By Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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Norwell - The town center holds all the elements of a quaint village: an expansive green with a dignified war memorial and stone bench, a general store with an ice-cream counter, even an old-fashioned outdoor clock inscribed with the date of Norwell’s establishment in 1888.

Yet it is not a space that lends itself to a quiet stroll. The beauty is interrupted almost incessantly by loud, often speeding, motor vehicles zipping through a downtown that for stubborn aesthetic and practical reasons is rarely recognized as more than an attractive thoroughfare to Scituate and other scenic spots, to the chagrin of many residents.

It is time for change. Or so says Chris Di Iorio, town planner in Norwell and an ambitious visionary, at least when his revitalization hopes are measured against what residents describe as an entrenched suburban attitude that favors driving over walking and pays scant attention to Norwell Center as a potential community oasis.

On a recent stroll, Di Iorio looks nervous as he crosses at the intersection of Main and River streets, making his way toward the Norwell Veterans’ Memorial Common. “Right now, I’m looking around like I’m going to get killed,’’ he says, hopping midway onto an island, the same one holding the town clock.

“I’d be worried about walking across the street with a child,’’ he adds, noting the lack of a crosswalk while turning to be certain that his office intern, Genevieve Iwanicki, 15, a Norwell resident, has made it intact.

“This is a nice little common, but I don’t think anybody really uses it,’’ says Di Iorio, raising his voice to compete with the roar of a passing semi truck. “You have a bench there. I don’t think anyone has ever sat on it.’’

“I sat on it once,’’ offers Iwanicki. “Just the once.’’

Making a plan Over the summer, Di Iorio is brainstorming with a working group of townspeople to craft a vision for the center, a half-mile stretch along Main Street. As Di Iorio defines it, the center begins at the town green, marked by a war memorial set across from a long row of historic buildings. It runs through downtown - which is lined, on and off, by sidewalks and shops - on a gradual descent to flat terrain just past a restaurant called The Tinker’s Son.

The aim, says Di Iorio, is to set down the logistical steps needed to create a more vibrant area and bring a tangible plan, in the form of proposed zoning changes, to a fall Town Meeting.

“A thriving center is good for the personality of the town. It creates a focal point,’’ he says, noting one option is the creation of a zoning overlay district that would maintain the historic quality of the downtown while stimulating a more thriving economic center.

“See how right now there is no pedestrian flow. People could get hit walking behind those cars,’’ says Di Iorio, gesturing toward a retail building with cars parked with their rear ends nearly in the street.

“We need to make changes,’’ he adds, shaking his head, but brightening as he notes this type of hazardous parking situation is being phased out by a recent zoning law, enacted at a May Town Meeting, that allows new businesses to build 15 feet back from the property line, rather than the previous 50 feet, and prohibits parking in the front yard.

Di Iorio would prefer to see parallel parking running along Main Street, a move that would calm traffic speeds, he says, since too many motorists currently treat the wide road, with its generous shoulders, as a busy highway rather than a slow-traffic district. Why not turn that extra road space into street parking?

This is the type of nitty-gritty zoning detail Di Iorio is passionate about, because it will add up, he says, to a Norwell Center with enhanced character. He says the summer working group will consider various draft zoning issues, determining the size, location, and design of buildings; parking requirements; and uses allowed in the district.

“I’d like to see a mix of retail shops and affordable housing, a handful of condominiums above the stores,’’ he says. “I’d like to see parking along Main Street. It will slow traffic and create more of a center feel.’’

He wistfully describes a Norwell Center filled with people strolling along the sidewalks, popping into an eclectic mix of shops, rather than, as it is now, a place where residents climb into cars simply to cross the street for an order to go at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“I’d love to connect the dots with sidewalks, walkways, maybe even see a meandering bike path connecting to Greenbush Station in Scituate so people can enjoy Scituate Harbor and catch easy transportation in and out of Boston,’’ says Di Iorio.

He is now walking downhill along Main Street on a narrow sidewalk by a stone wall that marks the rear entrance to First Parish Cemetery, the burial spot of noted author John Cheever. Many generations of local families rest here.

That the rear of the cemetery is its entry point on Main Street is typical of the disconnected quality of Norwell Center. The cemetery’s charming front entrance is hidden over on River Street, as is the parish’s white wood New England church with square steeple and clock that chimes on the hour.

Adjacent to the cemetery, located on Main Street between a Quik Pik convenience store and a real estate office, is an Irish pub without an apparent door, a mystery solved by a sign covered in shamrocks, reading: “McGreal’s Tavern parking & entrance in the rear.’’ There is no easy access from the front to the rear.

“I used to come to the town center when I was a little girl,’’ says Iwanicki, gazing around and suggesting that flower boxes might spruce things up.

“My friends and I don’t come here now.

“There’s nothing going on.’’

Fighting the car culture This is not the first time people in Norwell have attempted to alter the atmosphere of the downtown. About four years ago, a committee called the Friends of Norwell Center, a group of concerned citizens and businesspeople, attempted to instill character and calm by setting in place the black-and-gold town clock, at a cost of more than $18,000, funded by the town’s Community Preservation Act.

The same committee also created a Main Street crosswalk that, in theory, creates an easier passage between the Scituate Federal Savings Bank and the Cushing Memorial Center.

“It is a real challenge to get traffic to slow down,’’ says Mel Robinson, 42, manager at Shields General Store and a member of the committee at the time of the crosswalk’s creation.

He is standing at the front of the general store, where outside there is a wide bench for people to sit and take in the view, although the traffic makes that option less quaint.

“We intended to slow things down, but after the crosswalk was done it was almost too smooth,’’ he says, noting the speed limit is 25 miles per hour but some people zoom by twice as fast, despite the speeding tickets issued by local police. “People blast though the center.’’

The general store’s owner, Bill Shields, a Scituate resident, sipping coffee in shorts and a T-shirt as he organizes merchandise, describes the culture in Norwell Center as one focused on vehicles.

He says the former on-site restaurant became a drain, in part, because diners preferred to park in one of the eight to 10 spots out front, even when intending to sit and read a newspaper for hours.

“I was losing customers for the store,’’ he says.

“Nobody wanted to park a few hundred yards across the street in the municipal lot. They didn’t want to walk that far. They wanted their car as close as possible.’’

The mood inside the general store is one of guarded optimism about the possibility of a dynamic, strolling culture in the town center. Robinson, a proponent for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown in the past, says he is hopeful the town is ready for a change.

“We’ve tried before,’’ he says. “We might not have had the right audience.

“It might happen this time.’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at

Norwell: what, when, where, and a fair number of whos

Norwell was founded in 1636 as part of Scituate, incorporated in 1849 as South Scituate, and renamed Norwell in 1888. It was named after Henry Norwell, a dry goods merchant who provided funds for the maintenance of town roads.

The Plymouth County town is 21.2 square miles, situated along the North River. In the 1700s, and into the next century, shipbuilding was a major industry, producing frigates, schooners, and merchant vessels.

About 2 miles from the town center is the Jacobs Homestead, built in 1726, now occupied by the Norwell Historical Society and serving as a home, library, and exhibit area for the society. It is open for tours during the annual Strawberry Festival and Christmas at the Farmhouse.

Today, Norwell is an affluent suburban community with more than 10,000 residents and boasting good schools, shopping, churches, libraries, health facilities, a wildlife preserve, as well as three large industrial parks.

Recreational areas in Norwell include Valley Swamp Conservation Land, Stetson Meadows Conservation Land, Albert F. Norris Reservation, Black Pond Natural Preserve, North River Salt Marsh, Cuffey Hill Reservation, Miller Woods, and the Donovan property.

John Cheever, author of “Falconer’’ and “The Wapshot Chronicle,’’ who was called the “Chekhov of the suburbs,’’ set some stories in New England villages based on towns in the area, including Norwell. The writer, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1979, is buried in a family plot in Norwell’s First Parish Cemetery.

Other Norwell natives include actress Jennifer Coolidge of “American Pie’’ and “Legally Blonde’’ film fame; naturalist Jeff Corwin, a host on “Animal Planet’’; American blues artist Susan Tedeschi; and children’s book author Jan Brett.

Sources: Norwell Historical Society; Town of Norwell website; US Census Bureau; Literary Map of Massachusetts, “John Cheever, a Biography,’’ by Scott Donaldson

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