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.



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.

 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 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.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Main Street in Hudson: A Model for Downtown Framingham?

Main Street in downtown Hudson has, in a short time, become a very happening place. First came Rail Trail Flatbread, a gourmet pizza and craft beer gastropub, which opened about two and a half years ago at the top of Main Street, just off the Route 85 rotary.

Since then, all within a five minute walk on Main Street, three other key food and drink establishments have opened that have breathed new life into the town's downtown area. The latest, from the same owners as Rail Trail Flatbread, is New City Microcreamery, an upscale ice cream and coffee shop right across the street, which features savory flavored ice cream like olive oil, beet, and popcorn as well as new takes on classics like vanilla and chocolate.

A few blocks down is Medusa Brewing Company, which opened about a year ago, and goes with the West Coast taproom model of offering lots of its own draft beers but only light bar snacks, but encourages patrons to bring their own food or have it delivered from another local restaurant. Anchoring the far end of Main Street is Amaia Martini Bar, which opened early this year and offers a list of signature cocktails as well as an array of inventive tapas to wash down with your drink.

Last Friday night all four establishments were packed and many people were out strolling, in a scene, though much smaller, more reminiscent of Worcester's restaurant row on Shrewsbury Street, Moody Street in Waltham, or Boston's South End rather than a small town like Hudson. There are other older, more established restaurants in downtown Hudson, the Horseshoe Pub on South Street in particular, that have long been popular, but with these new, urban-styled upstarts on Main Street, the town now has a bona-fide dining district and is attracting both locals and people from afar and garnering rave reviews from both professional restaurant critics and social media like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

So what does this have to do with downtown Framingham's emerging dining district? Everything. It shows that you don't need a huge amount of establishments, just a few of the type that will bring people in to try something unique and high quality that are within walking proximity. That success begets success, competition is good, and tends to attract both more businesses and more patrons.

I've posted before about the new bright spots in downtown Framingham, including Jack's Abby Brewing, Pho Dakao, and the Deluxe Depot Diner, as well as the plethora of Latino and Brazilian establishments, including Pueblito Paisa, Mi Cochina, and Tropical Cafe. And did you know that downtown also has an Indian restaurant, Delhi Hut, and that Taqueria Mexico closed their Route 9 location to relocate to Concord Street downtown? When's the last time you heard of that happening?

But what I think is going to be the real game changer is when Jack's Abby Brewing opens its new,  much larger location downtown, with a pub and full service restaurant. If you've visited the tap room at their current location on Morton Street, where they pour beers but don't serve food, you know that they have a loyal and diverse clientele that packs the room, particularly on weekends. I predict that when the new location opens on Clinton Street towards the end of this year, it will coalesce with the existing establishments (and hopefully more new ones) to bring a vitality to downtown that hasn't been seen in many years.

Now all we need downtown is a gourmet ice cream shop.





Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hope Springs Eternal for the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail in Framingham

It was welcome news last week that a meeting and site walk has been scheduled for April 29, between Sudbury and Framingham town officials and CSX Corporation. CSX is the international transportation giant that still owns the New Haven Railroad Framingham & Lowell line right of way from Route 20 in Sudbury to Route 9 in Framingham.

First proposed nearly thirty years ago by its namesake, who was a state representative from Chelmsford,  progress on the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail has been surging in recent years. Beginning at the Lowell-Chelmsford line, the first phase of the 25-mile route is complete and opened in 2009, ending in the town of Westford (pictured at left), and encompasses 6.8 miles. All of the other sections of the trail, with the exception of the final one on the southern edge of Sudbury to Framingham Centre, have been obtained from CSX and are either in the design or construction phase. 

Full disclosure: I am an abutter of the railroad right of way, and when I purchased my home in Nobscot in 2007, the future prospect of a rail trail running behind my property was a strong incentive to move to the neighborhood. I have been an enthusiastic user of rail trails throughout the region and believe they bring many benefits to the communities in which they exist.

The fact that progress on the Framingham section of the trail has been stalled for years was discouraging, since it could be an important piece of the puzzle to revitalizing Nobscot village. The rail bed runs right next to Hemenway School, the site of the new McAuliffe branch library, presently under construction, and the moribund Nobscot shopping center. Imagine a day when students, library users, and shoppers could walk or bike to all of these locations and more on a paved trail through the woods, away from motorized traffic.

Rail trails, as studies have shown, are linked to higher local property values, lower crime rates, and often are a strong economic development driver for communities, as businesses spring up to serve trail users, such as bike shops, restaurants, coffee and ice cream shops, even bed and breakfasts and other types of lodgings, particularly on long distance trails. One need only pay a visit to the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which is slightly shorter than the BFRT, and gets about 400,000 users a year, to see the transformative effect a rail trail can have on an area. 

Kudos to Framingham town manager Bob Halpin for getting this project back on the town's radar. If, like me, you're a believer in the benefits the BFRT will bring to our town, let Bob, the Board of Selectmen, and town meeting members know the project has your support.