‘A Sea of Asphalt’: Swansea Mall Drive Is Unsafe, and Residents Share Ideas to Fix It

It’s not the 1970s anymore, and residents can have a say in designing a modernized version of Swansea Mall Drive that suits the town’s current needs.

That was the theme of a meeting held at the Swansea Council on Aging on Tuesday, where representatives from the engineering and design firm Fuss & O’Neill spent two hours soliciting input from residents about how they would improve the one-mile stretch of Route 118 from Route 6 to Wood Street.

The road is what lead designer Katherine Patch called “a sea of asphalt,” a four-lane route known for speeding drivers and unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. The intersection with Wood Street has been listed in the state’s top 5% unsafe spots for vehicle crashes, and the area near the northern end of the former mall is in the town’s top 5% spots for pedestrian crashes.

Katherine Patch, a senior transportation engineer with Fuss & O’Neill and a lead project designer, talks about MassDOT’s Complete Streets program and how it relates to Swansea, during a public meeting about the future of Swansea Mall Drive held on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at the Swansea Council on Aging.
“Swansea Mall Drive as it’s designed and constructed today would not be buildable by today’s MassDOT standards,” said senior project manager Matthew Skelly. “As this road gets reconstructed, there’s going to be changes.”

That’s where the public feedback comes in, said town administrator Mallory Aronstein.

“Tonight is about you sharing your feedback with us, so that we can learn … what you want to see in your town and how we can better serve you.”

Matthew Skelly, a senior project manager with Fuss & O’Neill, and Swansea resident Sue Couitt look at a map of Swansea Mall Drive to talk about bicycle improvements to the area, during a public meeting held Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at the Swansea Council on Aging.

Why Swansea Mall Drive needs to change

Swansea Mall Drive once served as the main feeder for the mall, which opened in 1975. The mall was once a major retail hotspot — residents described the road being choked with traffic in its heyday — but closed in March 2019 after years of decline.

“Vehicles have been the primary user of this, for the mall, for the developments, and that is just not as much of the case anymore,” Patch said. “We want to bring more of a small-town feel back to this roadway.”

The former mall is undergoing redevelopment as The Shoppes at Swansea, a mixed-use project with commercial, retail and residential space. It currently is home to a self-storage facility, Crunch Fitness, Unified2 Global Packaging, and His Providence Church, though much of the space remains vacant. At the north end of the site, 144 housing units are planned for construction.

The road is also the main access to businesses along its east side grouped in small clusters including BikeWorks, Ray Mullen Music, and a Subway sandwich shop, and to Swansea Crossing, a plaza home to Tractor Supply Co., Big Lots, Yankee Spirits and others.

A redesign is being planned for Swansea Mall Drive, and town officials are seeking public input.
Swansea is part of MassDOT’s Complete Streets funding program, which strives to make roadways safer for vehicles and friendlier to different types of transportation, including bicycles and walkers.

Swansea Mall Drive has only three crosswalks — about 2,000 feet and 3,100 feet apart. Project engineer Ajeet Sandhu noted that’s just one aspect making the area hostile to pedestrians, along with wide car lanes, narrow sidewalks and no shade cover. To get from a business on one side of the road to the other involves either a long walk, “or I risk my neck playing Frogger.”

The road that runs past BikeWorks has a bike lane, but it’s also Swansea Mall Drive’s breakdown lane and is separated from high-speed traffic by a line of white paint. Skelly said cyclists avoid using roads where they feel unsafe riding.

“So you might say, ‘I don’t see anybody riding a bike out there,’ but if it doesn’t feel safe, you’re not going to get anybody,” said Skelly.

What Swansea Mall Drive could look like, and what people think

Swansea will cover up to $500,000 for the first two design phases of this project, and MassDOT has projected the full build to cost about $9 million, paid for with state and federal funds.

There is currently no set plan for the road. But a Complete Streets overhaul could feature fewer travel lanes for cars, forcing slower and safer driving, but more shared-use paths for walkers and cyclists.

In breakout groups, some residents questioned the wisdom of reducing car lanes when the former mall is being redeveloped, its owner hoping to lure more commercial tenants — and customers in cars.

Swansea residents left comments on sticky notes, with ideas for the future of Swansea Mall Drive, during a public meeting held Tuesday, June 6, at the Swansea Council on Aging.

Patch said the engineers and MassDOT make projections for decades out based on current and potential future developments, land use, zoning and other factors, and can only predict so far into the future. She added that it was uncertain if the new development would generate the same traffic as the mall once did.

“We are 100 percent not, I repeat not, going to narrow this road if there’s going to be four times the traffic on it,” Patch said. “I’m not trying to cause more problems than I’m solving.”

In sticky notes pasted to presentation boards and map, 30 or so residents left dozens of suggestions, from improving plaza exits, to adding a separated bike lane, to changing that dangerous intersection at Wood Street to a rotary.

Sandhu said residents reminded him that Swansea Mall Drive isn’t only a retail road. Oakwood Senior Estates sits at its northern end, and residents there would benefit from walking access to shops; offices also employ hundreds of workers, many of whom want to walk to nearby shops for lunch or for exercise.

“With the new residential apartments that are coming in, people are also saying how if there’s pedestrian access there, they’ll want to walk,” Sandhu said.

Swansea residents left comments on sticky notes, with ideas for the future of Swansea Mall Drive, during a public meeting held Tuesday, June 6, at the Swansea Council on Aging.

How to leave your own public input on Swansea Mall Drive

Patch stressed that this is the first phase of a lengthy process — construction would take place in 2027 or 2028 at the earliest — and that more public input is key. On the project’s website, a comment form is live for anyone interested.

“This project is in its absolute infancy,” Patch said. “This is not something that we’re doing in the next 18 months. We’re not going to start digging up the street next summer. This is something that is going to take a while to develop, to evolve, and that is something that we want to have all of you be engaged with.”

The Herald News

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