Birch Meadow

Local recreation options in Reading may get a substantial upgrade in the coming decade. The town is considering better connecting several existing recreation sites and investing in adding several new options for residents.

MIDDLESEX - It could become a recreational village in the heart of Reading.

Capping off a months-long visioning and study process, principals from Needham consulting firm Activitas recently unveiled an ambitious multi-million dollar plan to upgrade and tie together a sprawling network of conservation areas, playgrounds, and athletic spaces that comprise what is known as Birch Meadow Park.

Not stopping there, the master plan, which the study team estimates will take nearly a decade to fund and implement, also proposes the addition of at least two new synthetic fields, athletic amenities like batting cages, nighttime lights, new seating areas, and the addition of new walking trails, restrooms, and passive park and picnic areas.

The three-phased undertaking would reportedly range between $10 to $17 million, based upon rough forecast presentations from Activitas representative Mark Novak.

“We moved forward with a design that was reasonable because it works within the existing structure of Birch Meadow. It doesn’t go and and rip everything out to recreate the wheel, so to speak,” Novak told the Select Board last month.

“This is fantastic. It’s well thought-out and complete,” agreed Select Board Chair Mark Dockser, whose sentiments were echoed by several of his colleagues.

Birch Meadow Park

Sitting just northwest of Reading Center, the recreational area, sandwiched between Main Street and Route 129, already includes the high-use synthetic tuft athletic areas and tennis courts by Reading Memorial High School.

However, according Novak, who has also pitched the master plan to Reading’s Recreation Committee, the area could become a true community gem if only better connected to nearby but disjointed conservation spaces and public parking lots.

Those park and conservation hot spots border other town landmarks like the Burbank YMCA, sections of the Aberjona River and Higgins Conservation area, and the Birch Meadow Elementary School and Coolidge Middle School.

One of the new turf fields, a multi-purpose space where lacrosse/soccer or two softball games could be played, is proposed for an area behind the middle school.

To facilitate access to that new field, Reading’s former Imagination Station, which sits across the street from the middle school and adjacent to the main RMHS stadium, would be retrofitted to include improved parking and pedestrian access along one of two “spines”.

The two spines would be two, eight-to-ten foot wide, walking trails that bisect the middle of Birch Meadow Park to facilitate access from distant parking areas to all of the site’s field and passive recreational amenities.

Besides the spine that runs from the middle school to the main turf field and stadium area at RMHS, a second main walkway would run from the high school’s Rise Preschool parking lot to the vicinity of Castine Field, the Higgins Conservation area, and Morton Field.

A brand new restroom facility and pavilion building for picnicking would be situated off that major artery.

Meanwhile, an upgraded children’s playground, eight new pickleball courts, and two new outdoor basketball courts would also be created between the youth baseball fields at Morton Field by Bancroft Avenue and the Rise parking area.

“[The central spine] connects almost every element in the park from Birch Meadow all the way down to the parking lot at RMHS. And along that spine, we’d have secondary pathways running along the fields,” Novak explained.

“Our ideas is to expand access to the park from parking areas. We know parking is an issue, especially along Bancroft Avenue,” continued the landscape architect, saying the idea is users will consider secondary lots if they can more easily walk to all of Birch Meadow Park’s fields.

Next steps

According to Town Manager Robert LeLacheur, though the Birch Meadow master planning process has already included at least two public forums, he believes the town’s citizenry may need a few more opportunities to consider the overall proposal.

LeLacheur last month also advised the Select Board that before moving into a formal design and vetting process, the phased improvement plan needs to be incorporated into the community’s capital budget.

“I’m pretty sure nothing that is being described is in the capital plan. So that would be the next step, to work that into a capital plan this summer,” said the town manager.

Already, Reading’s Recreation Committee is ready to begin that process, as it has endorsed a proposal to construct the spine heading towards the Birch Meadow School parking area. The first-phase would also include the construction of the restroom building and the outdoor pavilion seating.

According to Novak, whose Needham firm was commissioned after town officials weighed various Birch Meadow Park improvement options over the past decade, that initial project would hit all of the public’s most coveted improvements.

In particular, during no fewer than five previous surveys conducted by town officials between 2004 and 2019, the general public listed new restrooms, expanded turf playing areas, and pedestrian amenities as their top wish-list items.

“One of the interesting things we found is that each one of these surveys generally revealed the same results,” said Novak. “Not only will this project include a building and a walkway, but it hits on all the major elements the community would like to see.”

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