Saturday, October 6, 2012
A Big Week For Downtown Development
First, Mass Bay Community College announced its plan to create a new campus downtown. With $22 million in state funding, the project is expected to accommodate 4,000 students and consist of a 160,000 square foot campus. An exact location has not been determined yet, and the project is three to four years away from becoming reality, but the possibilities are exciting. All of those students, faculty, and staff mean more people coming downtown every day, a boon for local businesses. And with an MBTA commuter rail stop right in the middle of downtown, students and college employees will have a convenient mass transit option to get there.
And as anyone who visits towns with downtown college campuses knows, it brings a vitality unlike most other institutions, because there's a new wave of young people arriving every year. Framingham State University is just a bit too far from downtown for most of its students, many without cars, to easily walk to, so over the years Framingham Centre and the businesses both immediately to the east and west on Route 9 have benefited most from the university's presence. Its shuttle bus system does not currently go downtown, but that could change if the demand was there.
The second piece of good news was the announcement yesterday by Lt. Gov. Tim Murray that Framingham will be the recipient of $8 million in state and federal funding to fix the traffic problems that plague downtown. Many long-time town observers have said the downtown will not realize its full potential until the traffic problems are solved. The project will include synchronizing traffic lights with train crossings, reconfiguring the rotary in front of the Memorial Building into an intersection with traffic lights, streetscape improvements, and begin the process of having multiple levels of traffic at rail grade crossings, a long-sought-after goal. Murray had also announced, the day before, the purchase of the train tracks between Framingham and Worcester from CSX, which is expected to nearly cut in half the time that the train gates block downtown traffic, and allow for more frequent train trips to be added to the schedule.
Will these changes make a significant difference for downtown, with the siren song of the Route 9/Route 30/Speen Street Golden Triangle of retail and restaurants, with its plentiful free parking and hundreds of stores, only a few miles away? Naysayers assert that downtown Framingham will never return to its heyday before the age of malls crippled many traditional downtowns across the country. They're probably right to some extent, but many similar towns and small cities have seen their downtown areas come back to life because of their strengths; a diverse mix of people and small businesses, more affordable rents, access to mass transit, and a walkable streetscape. Just look twenty minutes to the east at Waltham for a prime example, or at Lowell and Salem to the north.
Here's hoping that in the coming years Framingham's downtown joins the list.