SWAMPSCOTT, MA — Frustration with the Hawthorne redevelopment process and town government transparency on decisions that led to a surprise public library proposal last month, and widely disparate views on what should ultimately happen at the site, were on display during Thursday night’s presentation on the preliminary concept for the town-owned property.

Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald took heat from residents who said they felt blindsided by the library proposal during an April 3 public forum as well as criticisms that a series of surveys and public brainstorming sessions came back with only one concept proposal for the property the town paid $7 million to purchase in 2022.

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“We don’t always get things right,” Fitzgerald said. “We need feedback. So we scheduled this meeting knowing that people would show up and would help us understand what you expect. This is not my property. It’s not a town employee’s property. It’s your property. It’s the town’s property.

“So take this moment and try to help us figure this out.”

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Fitzgerald conceded that there needed to be more regular updates on the process and more options presented about the potential uses for the property amid calls to “start over” with the entire development.

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“I am responsible for addressing some of these challenges,” he said. “The process needs to get better. We’re here tonight. We could have canceled this meeting. We talked about it a lot. Nobody, frankly, on my team wanted to be here tonight but we said, ‘Nope, we’ve got to show up and we’ve got to listen.’

“We needed to have more meetings. We knew that. I do think we need a committee. I think we need help.”

Fitzgerald revealed that the original push to purchase the property as a town came amid a proposal to turn it into a private condominium complex, and framed the library proposal as one idea that would make the building on the property a public space capable of hosting events, meetings, artistic performances as well as, presumably, books.

It was also noted that when the proposal to buy the property was presented to town meeting members it was billed as being primarily for open space.

But it was clear on Thursday — as it has been at other points of the visioning process and during some Select Board meeting conversations about the property — that is not necessarily a widely shared vision with several residents on Thursday calling for a “village-type” business development on the property, while others pushed for essentially one large public park.

“We have to be better,” Fitzgerald said. “I do think transparency, and process, and more options — 10 of them, maybe 12 — all of that can happen. … It would be helpful not to take this (library) idea off the table when we look at 12 others. There are 20 other ideas, maybe 30, that we’ve heard over the last two years.

“We can do pros and cons of all of them and then work back to where we think consensus can be found because working toward consensus is what we’re doing tonight. It’s actually part of a process. Yes, you’re not happy about some things and I’m taking all those notes down. But this is ultimately going to get to a point where we’re going to say: ‘You know what? This is what we think we can do with this property.’

“And it’s not going to make everybody happy. But it’s going to make enough of us feel like this is how we activate this site.”

(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Scott.Souza@Patch.com. X/Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)

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