Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Changing of the Guard at Framingham Downtown Renaissance

It's not as if we didn't have sufficient notice.

Holli Andrews, former executive director of the Framingham Downtown Renaissance (FDR), who guided the non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown for the past five years, did announce a full year in advance of when she would be leaving her position.

But as the months ticked by I was still saddened that we were going to lose such a dynamic and effective spokesperson for downtown. In my heart, though, I was glad we were able to keep her for five years, a time span that has seen a dramatic improvement in the vitality of downtown. What has changed during that time?


Jack's Abby Craft Lagers, with its cavernous beer hall adjoining its large production brewery, and its next-door barrel-aged ale subsidiary, Springdale Barrel Room, invested millions of dollars in a former Dennison Manufacturing Company building, bringing dozens of jobs and hundreds of visitors downtown from not just the Boston area but around the country and beyond. And another craft brewer, Exhibit 'A' Brewing, opened in the former Jack's Abby space on Morton Street. There's even a weekly visit to downtown's breweries from Boston beer tourists on the Mass Brew Bus.

The historic train station was refurbished and turned into the Deluxe Depot Diner, a popular restaurant and night spot. Millions of dollars were also invested in improving downtown's streetscape, and transit-oriented development zoning changes have opened up the area to new residential projects, with two major apartment complexes being planned. Other restaurants and small businesses have opened, bringing an even more diverse array of products and services.

Andrews' tenure at FDR ended this month, and she is being ably succeeded as executive director by Courtney Thraen, who joined the organization last fall as Program Coordinator. Thraen brings a wide variety of experience and education to the position, including graduate degrees in both public policy and city planning, and stints in academia, government, digital media consulting, and as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

Thraen's coming out party of sorts was last Friday night, as she led FDR's Shamrock Stroll, a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl that visited six downtown establishments, beginning at Exhibit A Brewing, then Springdale Barrel Room, Taqueria Mexico, Deluxe Depot Diner, Tropical Cafe, and ending the evening at Danny Sullivan's (formerly The Tavern). This type of event started last December with a similar holiday stroll, with dozens of people gathering at each stop for drinks, noshing on food, greeting old friends and making new ones. As a veteran of both strolls I have to say it's the most fun I've had downtown in my eighteen years of living in Framingham.

A huge thank you to Holli Andrews for everything she did for downtown Framingham, and a hearty welcome to Courtney Thraen!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Framingham Author Releases New Novel

Erica Ferencik, a Nobscot resident, has a long-established reputation as a writer, having authored both a biography and a screenplay, and previously self-published two successful novels, Cracks in the Foundation, and Repeaters (which has been optioned to become a feature film by a Hollywood production company).

But with her latest novel, The River At Night, which was released this month by Gallery/Scout Press, a literary imprint of New York's Simon and Schuster publishing empire, she has hit the big time. The River At Night has been described as a female version of Deliverance - four middle-aged women go on a white-water rafting trip in the wilds of Maine, and it soon becomes a battle for survival when the vacation goes terribly wrong.

It is both a page-turner of a thriller and a work of poetic beauty, as she describes both the primal allure and the harrowing dangers of being on a remote river deep in the Maine woods, where both nature and some off the grid locals are conspiring to bring the trip to a tragic ending.

Last night at Barnes & Noble at Shoppers World on Route 9, Ferencik gave a talk about the book to a large and appreciative crowd, a literary homecoming of sorts to the town where she has lived for two decades. She described her own experiences white water rafting in Maine, and the week-long road trip she took there alone to meet and interview people who choose to live off the grid and off the land, deep in the woods and far from any neighbors.

The River At Night is receiving wide praise, from Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Entertainment Weekly, to The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. You can buy it online at Amazon, or better yet, head down down to Barnes & Noble and pick up one of the copies Ferencik signed last night, while they last.

But despite this latest triumph, Ferencik is not resting on her laurels for very long. She is under contract to write another novel for her publisher, and will be traveling to the Amazon rain forest in Peru later this year to research that book, which she described as another tale of survival in a forbidding environment.

But for now, you can satisfy your desire for armchair suspense and adventure with The River At Night.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Exhibit 'A' Brewing, Springdale Barrel Room Solidify Downtown Framingham as a Craft Beer Destination

When I wrote a blog post in April that Framingham overall was becoming a craft beer destination, little did I know that six months later I'd be writing another post that downtown Framingham specifically was becoming a craft beer destination of its own.

 Sour and barrel-aged beers are two of the hottest segments of the growing craft beer market, niches that Jack's Abby has been in, but will now put much more emphasis on. That downtown Framingham will be home to such a cutting-edge venture is astounding.
But here we are, and after I was enchanted over the summer with the debut of Exhibit 'A' BrewingJack's Abby Craft Lagers launched an October surprise of its own this week, announcing that they will be opening a subsidiary at their Clinton Street property by winter that will focus on barrel-aged ales.

The new venture, Springdale Barrel Room, will be adjacent to the current brewery and beer hall, and will have a tap room with seating for a hundred people, and offer games like ping pong and corn hole, and retail space on the ground floor, and over 30,000 square feet of warehouse space on the second floor, housing thousands of wooden beer barrels, aging brews ranging from sour ales to IPAs and saisons.

But back to Exhibit 'A' Brewing. In several visits I've been mightily impressed by both the quality and diversity of the beers, and the enthusiasm and hospitality of owner Matt Steinberg as he works the room, effusively chatting up his customers. The energy and positive vibe in the tap room as locals and visitors gather to try the latest brews and buy some to take home is infectious.

The brewery is making good on its promise to become a supportive member of the community, already having hosted a fund raiser for pediatric cancer and a fund raising exercise class. And to bring another fun urban touch, they had a Jamaican food truck parked out front one day as a dining option for their customers.

With the opening of Springdale Barrel Room within a few months, downtown Framingham, with three craft beer outlets, will reach critical mass as a destination for folks who relish these brews. People are already talking about organizing pub crawls. With all three establishments within easy walking distance, it's a sure-fire way to increase the foot traffic in downtown. 

And with several new, large apartment complexes being proposed for downtown to target young professionals also attracted by the proximity to the commuter rail to Boston, the area is poised to become even more of a vibrant scene for Framingham and indeed all of MetroWest.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some Welcome New Eateries in Framingham Centre

Since the closing of Red Pepper, the Chinese restaurant at the foot of the east side of Edgell Road, the area abutting it, with two buildings containing retail and office space, had been decidedly less vibrant at night.

That's changing now, with the recent opening of Dulce D Leche Gelato Cafe at 5 Edgell Road, which specializes in Argentinian-style gelato, as well as as fruit sorbet, handmade chocolates, coffee drinks, and other baked goods. Open from early morning until 9 p.m. most days - 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, the shop has decidedly increased the number of people in the area at night.

The business is owned by a Framingham husband and wife team, Samanta Stavar and Jules Remenar, who are seeking to recreate the treats she missed from her native Argentina.  In Buenos Aires, the famous Italian ice cream was adapted by Italian immigrants to Latin American tastes by often blending dulce de leche, a confection made of heated sweetened milk, into some gelato flavors. After working my way through some of its more than twenty flavors (they gladly offer samples to help you decide) on multiple visits since they opened earlier this month, it's quickly become my favorite local ice cream shop.

And opening in August or September about one hundred feet away in the same plaza, at 1 Edgell Road, is a second location of Volturno, a 120-seat artisanal Neapolitan-style pizzeria (they also serve other Italian fare such as pasta), which will have a full liquor license and outdoor patio seating. A highly-acclaimed eatery since it opened three years ago on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, Volturno is also locally owned and hoping to expand its success eastward, attracting more diners from the Boston area. Having dined at the Worcester location, and eaten pizza in its birthplace in the Italian city of Naples, I can definitively say Volturno is the real deal.

Now, if we can only get a new restaurant in the old Red Pepper space (I'd love to see a farm-to-table style gastro pub with a creative selection of craft beer, wine and cocktails) we'll have a veritable triangle of food and drink options in close proximity in Framingham Centre.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Framingham As a Craft Beer Destination

It's said that success begets success, and in Framingham's growing craft beer scene, that's becoming increasingly apparent.

First we had the meteoric success of Jack's Abby Craft Lagers put downtown on the map for craft beer fans all over eastern Massachusetts and beyond. Now, by summer, a second craft brewer, Exhibit 'A' Brewing, will be producing beer from the old Jack's Abby facility on Morton Street. Owner Matthew Steinberg, a veteran brewer, was quoted in Boston Magazine as saying that he plans to make Framingham a beer destination.

Add to that the two brewpubs in the Route 9 corridor, John Harvard's Brewhouse and Framingham Beer Works, plus, also on Route 9, a location of the regional beer bar chain British Beer Company, and you've got the biggest concentration of craft beer establishments between Boston and Worcester.

Travel & Leisure magazine lists Boston as number 16 on its list of the top 20 beer cities in the United States, and typically, nearby locations with good craft beer offerings get a fair amount of visitors as well. The state's Mass Grown web site, targeted at visitors seeking made in the Bay State agricultural products and culinary tours, includes Framingham's brewers on its craft brewers map.

There's also a Route 9 location for the Craft Beer Cellar, a retail store chain that offers about 650 craft brews for those who want to stock up for later consumption. Pubs and restaurants that are making downtown a culinary and entertainment destination, including the Deluxe Depot Diner, The Tavern, and Pho Dakao are also increasingly offering more (and particularly local) craft brews as well.

In total, we've got quite the critical mass of craft beer destinations within our town borders.

Truth be told, I knew we had turned a corner when I started meeting people in the Jack's Abby tap room a few years ago who had traveled from all over the Boston area as well as other states, to try and buy Jack's Abby beers. Like the guy from Weymouth standing in line with six empty growlers, who told me he and two friends took turns making a run to Framingham to get their growlers refilled. And then last fall, while eating dinner at the new Jack's Abby beer hall on Morton Street, a group of twenty-something hipsters from uber-cool Somerville told me they wished there was a Jack's Abby location in their city.

With the amount of business travelers the Framingham area gets during the week, I suspect there's a decent percentage of them who end up at one of our craft beer destinations after the work day ends, for an evening out for a few pints and dinner. And with the summer vacation season approaching, I'm betting there will be more than a few beer tourists adding Framingham to their itineraries as well.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Downtown Revitalization Gains Momentum During 2015

Like  the proverbial train picking up speed and gaining momentum as it moves down the track, downtown Framingham's revitalization saw several key milestones achieved that point towards an even brighter future in 2016.

The opening of the new Jack's Abby brewery and beer hall/restaurant on Clinton Street in October (see photo at left) was the signature event of the year. Downtown Framingham became a sought-after destination for craft beer fans and foodies alike as the 175-seat beer hall was standing room only not just for the grand opening but for weeks afterward, even on week nights that are typically slow in the restaurant business. Both locals and out of towners, some venturing from Boston and beyond, have been filling the seats at the long, communal tables to sample some of the 24 beers on draft and enjoy the pizzas and other food offerings, many produced from the kitchen's custom-made, wood-fired brick oven.

Town meeting passed a set of critical zoning changes in the fall, centered around transit oriented development (TOD), which seeks to capitalize on the public transit assets of downtown by introducing new mixed use and multi-family development. Some of the key provisions include expanding the central business district zoning to areas within a ten minute walk to the commuter rail stop, and simplifying permitting requirements for new development.

Another related, and very important development downtown has been a series of street infrastructure improvements being done by the state Department of Transportation on Concord Street and Hollis Street. While improving traffic flow, safety, and walkability are some of the primary objectives, aesthetic upgrades like brick accent pavers in the sidewalk, nearly a hundred new ornamental streetlights, and sixty new street trees are also part of the project and will give downtown a nice face lift.

2014 saw several new key businesses open downtown, including the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Dakao and the Deluxe Depot Diner in the old train station building, which kicked off a restaurant boom and defied the idea that downtown dining was mostly limited to Brazilian or other Latin American fare. And don't get me wrong, that food segment is one of downtown's greatest strengths, and increasingly draws patrons from far beyond Framingham because it is the most unique collection of ethnic restaurants between Worcester and Waltham. Indeed, Tacqueria Mexico, which was formerly on Route 9 and has another location in Waltham, this year relocated to Concord Street downtown, a ringing endorsement of the perception that downtown is becoming the place to be. When's the last time you heard of a business leaving Route 9 for downtown, since the flow for decades has been in the other direction?

So what lies ahead for 2016? The former Chicken Bone Saloon on Waverly Street, a legendary restaurant and nightspot for many years before it closed in 2014, is poised to be reborn as Louie's Restaurant, operated by the same team that ran The Aztec, the long-time Mexican restaurant just down the street. And today's MetroWest Daily News reported that automotive dealer Herb Chambers plans to build a sales and service center for high-end auto brands like Mercedes, BMW, and Land Rover on the site of a former Dennison building on Bishop Street, bringing with it 45 new jobs.

So it's clear that the downtown revitalization train is throttling up even more - all aboard!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nobscot Shopping Center Redevelopment Concept Gets Mixed Reception

On November 12, more than a hundred Framingham residents, primarily from Nobscot, gathered in a meeting room at Heritage at Framingham on Water Street to hear about the long-awaited economic development action plan for Nobscot village.

At first the presentation, given primarily by Economic and Community Development director Art Robert, was standard issue revitalization action steps: a design vision, marketing and reinvestment, public realm improvements, and a regulatory strategy. A holistic plan, not just for the problem aspects of the village, but also to capitalize on its assets, such as the large amount of open space for recreational opportunities.

Then the big news came out: that the owner of the nearly-empty and decrepit Nobscot shopping center on Water Street, which has been spiraling downward ever since the supermarket closed a decade ago, has, after years of inaction and lack of engagement with the town, stepped forward with a proposal to redevelop the property.

While Framingham officials, including both Art Robert and town manager Bob Halpin, preferred to call it a "concept" rather than a firm proposal, the essence is that the property owner has expressed an interest in tearing down the existing building and replacing it with a 150 unit apartment complex, a freestanding CVS pharmacy with a drive-through, as well as an additional ten thousand square feet of retail space to be available in two other buildings. It's a bold idea, which would involve not just removing the existing shopping center building, but also the former Texaco station on Edgell Road that has been shuttered for at least fifteen years, as well as the office building at 880 Edgell Road, home to Nobscot Dental and other businesses, and the town-owned Nobscot Chapel at the corner of Edgell and Water Street.

Audience reaction ran the gamut, from begrudging acceptance that almost anything would be better than the present situation, to firm opposition. Robert and Halpin answered a multitude of questions and patiently listened to more than one passionate outburst, and then residents were given an opportunity to review and provide feedback on a variety of design plans for the proposed project.

By the next day, particularly after what some saw as a misleading story about the meeting ran in the Metro West Daily News, the public conversation really took off on the Nobscot Neighbors Facebook group and e-mail list, as well as on the FramGov e-mail list. Some of the most-cited concerns about the apartment complex component were that it would increase the density of the village to an unacceptable level, with a four-story building more urban than village in appearance, increased traffic, and possibly inject a significant number of new students into the school system.

Some people felt that allowing such a project was only rewarding the property owner for its failure to maintain and keep the property fully occupied, or that we should hold out for what many have insisted for years - that a full-service supermarket should be the anchor store again for the shopping center. A few even insisted that the current situation, in which the only stores occupying the main building are a CVS and a Chinese takeout restaurant, while the rest of the building continues to deteriorate and the chapel and the shuttered gas station sit vacant, is preferable to the proposed mixed-use proposal of apartments and retail stores. There were others that argued that while not ideal, the proposal, with some negotiated changes, could be acceptable, and that regardless of what residents want, the property owner and principal lessee are only going to do what's economically feasible and in their best business interest.

The proposed redevelopment project would require a zoning change, which would likely take about a year before it could be drafted and sent to town meeting for approval. If passed, it would likely be another year or two as the project made its way through the Planning Board and if approved, was actually carried out. So best case scenario, it would probably be two to three years before this long standoff between the town, the property owner, and other various entities, including the lessor, a bank, and the master lessee, the parent company of Shaw's supermarket, could end. Without the necessary zoning change and project approval, the situation could potentially remain largely unchanged for several decades, due to the length of the current property lease.

What Framingham residents and elected officials will have to decide in the coming months is while neither option may be fully acceptable to all parties, which one is the lesser evil and will be best for the future of Nobscot village.

Full disclosure: I am a Nobscot resident and one of the founding members of Nobscot Neighbors, the group of residents that has been advocating for a revitalization of the village for the past seven years. I am, however, presenting this as my personal observation, not one endorsed by or representing Nobscot Neighbors.