Opinion

A cactus stands tall in Saugus

Here’s to AvalonBay for unveiling plans to keep the giant neon cactus towering over Route 1. The mega-developer wants to spend $100 million building an apartment and retail complex on the former Hilltop Steak House site and an artist’s rendering for the project features a slightly-redesigned cactus glowing in all of its glory.

AvalonBay, Essex Landing and other Route 1 development proposals on the drawing board are poised to redefine one of the North Shore’s major commercial thoroughfares. The region’s oldest generation barely remembers the days when Route 1 was a turnpike with jazz clubs and a quick stop at Perley-Burrill for a quick fill up

Younger residents grew up with Route 1 Mini-Golf, Kowloon, Hilltop and other iconic eateries and entertainment venues. Their children may have played a round of golf in the shadow of the orange dinosaur or visited Dodge City for a steak. But they mostly know Route 1 as a commercial strip featuring Square One Mall.

AvalonBay and Essex Landing are leading the way to redefine the road as a place to live and place to shop on a somewhat smaller scale. Thankfully, the developers behind both projects are committed to preserve icons of a bygone age on Route 1.

The dinosaur will continue to stand its ground and serve as a reminder of the time when entertainment meant leaving the house for a drive to buy ice cream and have fun outdoors. Video games and social media weren’t even the stuff of fiction when an enterprising entrepreneur decided an eye-catching monster might attract business.

The cactus sign and the sprawling restaurant that once stood next to it are testaments to the immigrant ambition and drive that created Hilltop and Kowloon. The Hilltop wasn’t just a place to eat, it was a destination with a guarantee of good food.

Route 1’s revitalization may ultimately be transitory with the online retail boom eventually shifting swaths of businesses to a virtual dimension where customers buy goods by tapping a keyboard.

AvalonBay and Essex Landing and Saugus town officials may see Route 1’s future centered around residential development. AvalonBay’s housing plan is scaled to renters who want conveniences and amenities near their homes but don’t want to pay Boston rents and parking rates.

Progress and change along Route 1 will always outstrip state commitments to improve the road’s infrastructure. Major developments take four years to build, beginning with the planning stage, compared to road reconstruction projects stretching from one decade into another.

As change reshapes Route 1, it’s good to know the cactus and the dinosaur will continue to stand tall.

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