If you want to get a quick read on a place, there’s no better bet than the local barbershop. On this afternoon in downtown Needham, the chairs at Anthony’s are packed. A young mother watches as her young son gets a fresh cut. And a couple of long-time residents are chatting about the hottest topic in town: housing. 

"I came here because, yeah, it was a good place to start," said Will Payne, a resident of this Metro West commuter town for 50 years. "It had a good reputation, a good school system but now it just seems like it's-- the younger kids have been forced out of town."

With its old New England feel, good schools, and proximity to Boston, Needham has long been a desirable place to live. And demand only keeps rising. Home prices are up 12 percent in recent years and lifelong residents like Bob Bailey fear the town they once knew is losing its way.

"What they’re doing is they’re putting up these huge homes on small lots. Diagonally across from us the house was sold for like $750,000. [They] knocked it down, put up a house for $1.5 million," said Bailey. "It’s a whirlwind right now. If you drive around Needham it’s all over the town, the knockdowns. It’s kind of sad. It’s not good."

Not good, say many residents, because million-plus-dollar homes are pricing young families out. And because “McMansions” squeezed in among older, more-modest single family homes are disrupting the look and feel of this 300-year-family old town.

It seems that the only thing easier to find in Needham than someone willing to talk about "tear-downs" is a home under construction. On Warren Street, where a small crew is in the process of completely gutting and reimagining a two-family home, I met Michael Tedoldi, who has been building and renovating homes in Needham for more than a quarter century.

"People just don’t like change, and it’s understandable," he said. "It’s where you live. You bought a house in a neighborhood, and you hope that’s the neighborhood it’s gonna be in ten years, and that just isn’t the case anymore."

Tedoldi gets the angst that it is causing, but he also understands why it’s happening. Some homes simply need to come down, he said. They’re poorly made or in disrepair. And it can be far easier for builders - and buyers - to rebuild from scratch than undertake an often messy and expensive renovation of an older home.

"The builders owe it to the town to do their best job at creating designs, and not going all the way to the lot lines all the time," said Tedoldi. Still, he says, when there’s money to be made, restraint can sometimes take a back seat to profit margin.

"There’s some builders who just don’t care," he said.

Too many for Needham contractor Barbara Jones’ taste. I walked with her along Linden Street where she pointed out the modest old Capes and small Victorians with ample tree-lined yards. For every one of these homes that comes crashing down, Jones sees a way of life slipping away.  

"This house, there’s an older couple living there and they are very passionate about their home not being knocked down because they raised their children there," she said. "This guy, Lionel, he lived there for gosh--probably 50 years before he passed away. There’s a lot of history and I feel like that you can’t put a number on that."

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Jones’ company, Little Pink Houses, aims to preserve these smaller, older homes in town. It’s a small operation, but one she hopes will inspire a movement.

"I think if I save 10 houses in my lifetime, that’s what I can do, said Jones. "We live in a 300-year old town and I think it should have some character."

We live in a 300-year old town and I think it should have some character.

Jones is far from alone in her concerns, and two years ago, city officials formed “The Large House Review Study Committee,” to examine this hot-button issue. 

"We’re not gonna stop the tear downs. That’s impossible, and unrealistic, and un-American," said Elizabeth Grimes, a Real Estate lawyer who chairs the Needham planning board and leads the committee.

We're not gonna stop the tear downs. That's impossible, and unrealistic, and un-American.

Grimes pointed out that while many residents have been vocal about their desire to stop the tear-downs, plenty of others are the ones doing the tearing down.

"There's about 40-50 percent of new homes that are being built in Needham are owned by the people who are building these homes," she said. "So they had a smaller house, they decided, 'You know what, I don’t want to leave Needham, I love Needham, let me build a bigger house on my own lot.'"

And they aren't the only ones benefitting from the trend. Rising property values are good for sellers, and Grimes said that many residents find it easier to close a deal with a contractor who plans to rebuild.

"They make an offer without contingencies, so there’s no mortgage," said Grimes. "They don’t do inspections, they’re paying cash."

Plus, property taxes from evermore expensive homes have led to a surplus in the town coffers.

"[This] then gives us the money to build a new elementary school or expand the high school cafeteria or build a new senior center...but it gives us that opportunity." 

Still, she says, the committee does hear residents' concerns. They’re reevaluating zoning requirements with an aim to ensure new construction that "will complement existing buildings, settings and neighborhood character." They're looking at everything from how far a house needs to be set back from the curb and the lot lines, to where and when you can bump out with – say – bay windows.

Their new plan won’t be ready for approval until this time next year. In the meantime, more homes will come down, new ones will go up. And Will Payne and Bob Baily’s hometown will continue to transform.

"Been here, seen the changes. Some are good, but not all of ‘em," said Payne. 

"Yeah I think the town’s changing for sure," said Bailey. "But I think the world’s changing, so that’s probably just the way it is, right?"

For the rest of the WGBH News Block By Block Housing Project, go to wgbhnews.org/blockbyblock.