Sunday, March 1, 2020

Final Project Approval Signals the Beginning of the New Nobscot Village

On Thursday, February 27, the Framingham Planning Board voted to approve the long-debated mixed-use development of apartments and retail stores at the Nobscot Shopping Center site on Water Street in Nobscot village. With that vote, the village truly entered a new era of redevelopment, and hopefully, vitality as a neighborhood center.

For well over a decade, residents and visitors have shaken their heads while passing by the dilapidated and increasingly vacant strip mall. Why did such a property exist in one of the most affluent sections of Framingham, and for so long? The reasons are complex and have been discussed ad nauseum, with blame cast in various directions, ranging from the property owner to town, and then city, government.

The good news from my perspective is that the plans for the project, called The Village at Nobscot, have been revised dozens of times, using feedback from residents, city officials, and third-party experts in architecture and planning, who participated in a mandated peer review. The result has been a significantly improved project from a design and functionality point of view. While no one among the major stakeholders --  the property owner, city government, or residents, got all of what they wanted, the end result is something that all of them can ostensibly live with.

And I'm willing to bet the project received much more oversight and scrutiny than the original Nobscot Shopping Center did before it was constructed in the 1950s. Back in the post-WWII suburban building boom, as open green space outside major cities was rapidly developed, drab, single-story, flat-roofed shopping centers fronted by large asphalt parking lots became ubiquitous in many towns, and there probably wasn't much resistance, since all of those new residents needed places to shop. Most of the other buildings constructed in the village in that era seem to reflect a similar lack of inspiration to build a coherent landscape with any unifying look, or the desire to value pedestrians as anywhere equal to the almighty automobile.

But we're in a very different era now. One where retail brick and mortar shopping areas have declined, and compete more and more with online shopping. Where there is a shortage of housing, and because of high prices, new developments are required to have a proportion of units designated as affordable, and increasingly, some also designated as "workforce" affordable -- a price point somewhere between affordable and market rate. Where the walkability of a community is considered as important as the ability to pack a lot of cars into parking spaces.

And aesthetics are increasingly important as well. One of the hardest-fought battles over the redevelopment of the Nobscot Shopping Center was the strong desire on the part of many residents to limit the height to three stories, rather than the four stories originally proposed by the owner. And the design guidelines that were developed for the village district as a whole focused strongly on making the buildings and adjoining areas well-designed and well-landscaped, with much consideration given for pedestrians rather than just vehicles.

Will the reality of this redevelopment fulfill its expectations? Time will be the only true measure. Residents will probably begin to see progress within a matter of weeks, with all project approvals now in place and the spring construction season nearly here. Passerby have no doubt noticed that the Nobscot Office Building has been gutted and will be torn down soon to make way for a new CVS store on that side of the property, and the historic Nobscot Chapel has had some of its clapboards removed so the building sills could be inspected before it is moved to its new home at the vacant lot that was once the site of a Texaco gas station on Edgell Road. Also coming up will be the demolition of the supermarket segment of the shopping center building. It will probably be a year and a half to two years before the project is completed.

2020 will also see the beginning of the crucial and long-overdue reconstruction of the intersection of Edgell Road, Water Street, and Edmands Road, using funds from a state grant. And the very likely, though not yet approved, razing and rebuilding of the Gulf gas station and convenience store on the west side of Edgell Road, which will also be subject to the village district design guidelines.

Change is difficult for any community. But I'm willing to bet that once the proverbial and literal dust settles a few years from now, most people walking or driving through Nobscot village will be glad that the long-argued about changes finally came to fruition.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

City Council Ushers In a New Era in Nobscot Village With Approval of Zoning Change

Just after 9 p.m. last night, Framingham's City Council voted unanimously, 11-0, to approve the new B-4 Village Zoning District bylaw for Nobscot.

For the people that filled the Blumer Room in the Memorial Building for the City Council meeting, it was the culmination of years of effort by city officials, residents, and property owners, often filled with rancor, disagreement, debate, and ultimately, compromise. For a zoning change that was thought to have little chance of receiving the necessary two-thirds majority vote just a few short months ago, it was an overwhelming victory for its supporters.

In full disclosure, I was a strong supporter of the zoning change. As one of the founders of Nobscot Neighbors, the neighborhood group formed in 2008 with the goal of revitalizing Nobscot village, I have been a passionate advocate, working with residents, city officials, property and business owners, and other stakeholders in the community on this issue for over ten years.

I have chaired over 60 public meetings that involved the topic of Nobscot village and its challenges, help moderate two online forums where this issue has been discussed, debated, and dissected on a regular basis, and I created and maintain the web site at my own expense, because I am committed to seeing Nobscot village revitalized. I attended nearly every Planning Board and City Council meeting where the issue was discussed, and spoke at many of them. I wrote letters to the board and council, and talked to their members every chance I got.

Few would likely say that the new zoning, which allow for mixed use development and also contains extensive design standards and guidelines, or the proposed redevelopment plan that Andy Rose of Centercorp Retail Properties, the owner of the deteriorating and mostly vacant shopping center on Water Street that has been the focal point of so much community ire, is perfect. Rose's plan to demolish the shopping center and build a large, two-building, three-story mixed use complex of approximately 150 apartments as well as ground floor retail space has provoked opinions that range from it being either the salvation or utter destruction of Nobscot village. Concerns about traffic, lack of parking, overcrowding and density, more children being enrolled in the city's schools, and the need or wisdom of building more apartments were some of the many issues that stoked the debate.

But over a period of several months this spring, the factional divisions within the community began to lessen. The Planning Board and its administrator, Amanda Loomis, held public hearings and tirelessly incorporated numerous changes to the zoning based on community input, including limiting the building height to three stories, down from four. Both the full City Council and the planning and zoning subcommittee also held public hearings, deliberated, and made further revisions to the zoning. Property owner Andy Rose held public outreach meetings with both the residents of Whiting Road, which abuts the shopping center, as well as the Nobscot community at large, and affirmed his position that he could redesign his project within the three-story limit the community advocated for. Several city councilors who had voiced opposition to the zoning began to modify their positions as the zoning was refined and public sentiment shifted. Compromise, the bedrock of much societal progress in every setting from small towns to global politics, was paving the way forward.

While most of the focus has been on the dilapidated shopping center, the new zoning will apply the new standards and design guidelines to other village properties as well. In addition to the mixed use complex, Rose's firm also plans to relocate the Nobscot Chapel, which it purchased from the city, to the vacant lot on Edgell Road next to Gianni's Pizza, where the old Texaco station once stood,  and renovate it for use as a restaurant, and build a new, larger, free-standing CVS store on the corner of the shopping center property. Across Edgell Road, the owners of the Gulf gas station and convenience store had already announced plans earlier in the year to tear down the existing building and replace it with a new one with a larger retail presence.

And finally, the Rousseau family, which owns several properties on the north side of Water Street across from the shopping center, including CJ's Northside Grill and the Middlesex Bank building, publicly stated their support for the new zoning at the City Council meeting, with the hope that it will create more opportunities for their holdings as well. The city also has plans to improve the intersection of Edgell, Water, and Edmands Roads, which will hopefully improve some of the traffic woes that have long plagued the area.

In the next two to five years Nobscot village will undergo dramatic changes, and likely have a more unified architectural look than it has ever had, and more vibrancy than it has had in decades. There will no doubt be challenges to overcome, and more compromises ahead, but I am feeling more optimistic about its future than ever.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Saxonville Mills Embraces the Community and the Future While Still Preserving the Past

The Saxonville Mills, one of Framingham's strongest remaining ties to its industrial past, has been an integral part of the north side community for nearly two hundred years. Some recent changes have greatly strengthened its relationship to the city's residents.

This past weekend, I attended the open studios event at the mills. Unlike the open studios of past years, when I first moved to Framingham nearly twenty years ago, the last couple have provided access to not only the long-time artist studios, Saxonville Studios, but some other endeavors as well. A second group of artists, some of them formerly at the Fountain Street building downtown, are now working at the mill, as well other creative tenants like Damianos Photography, Fireseed Arts, and the Framingham Makerspace.  Local historian, and editor of the book The Saxonville Mills, Jim Parr, gave a historical tour of mill complex.

Over the summer the mill sponsored an outdoor movie night in one of the courtyards, complemented by food and beer vendors and live music. The recently-opened Saxonville Mills CafĂ©` and coffee roastery,  at the corner of the mill at Concord and Central Street is also gaining a lot of fans as a welcoming community gathering space.

In total, there are now over seventy businesses that call the mill home, using the space for a wide variety of purposes, including offices, manufacturing, R&D, storage, wholesale, and retail. And keeping in touch with its past as an energy producer, the waterfall being the original energy source for the mill, the complex now has solar panels that provide one third of the electricity used, as well as two electric car charging stations.

 A recent upgrade to the mill complex that is highly visible to passerby is the new, detailed signage, which provides improved wayfinding to business customers and visitors alike. The mill owner, Saxonville Realty Trust, led by John Finley, is to be commended for its outstanding work bringing this important part of Framingham's history into the 21st century, and welcoming the community to be part of the latest phase of its evolution.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Two Open Space Victories for Northwest Framingham

In the past several weeks, our city, specifically the semi-rural northwest quadrant, has seen two important events regarding both the protection and use of open space.

First, on June 27, Sudbury Valley Trustees (SVT), a local land trust, announced that they had raised enough money to close on the purchase of Wayside Forest, two parcels totaling 52 acres on Wayside Inn Road.

Then, on July 1, the Metro West Daily News reported that Baiting Brook Meadow Farm on Nixon Road received planning board approval for the development of a horse barn and riding ring by Iron Horse Dressage, a locally-owned business that will board horses and offer riding lessons.

One thing both properties have in common is that they are/were owned by George and DD Harrington, well-known in Framingham for their Christmas tree business that they have run at Baiting Brook Meadow Farm. George is also a past director and past president of Sudbury Valley Trustees.

Less well-known is the tremendous positive impact the Harringtons have had on preserving open space in Framingham. Between 1983 and 2000, they donated three parcels of land they owned on Edmands Road to SVT. In 2007, they made a gift to SVT of a conservation restriction on all 80 acres of Baiting Brook Meadow Farm. And then, in 2011, they made another gift of a conservation restriction on the 18 acres along Edmands Road where their house is located.

With Wayside Forest, the Harringtons once again demonstrated both their generosity and commitment to land preservation by donating one of the two parcels that make up the property, which are almost the same size, to SVT, effectively allowing SVT to purchase the land for half price. So rather than another subdivision of homes, Framingham has another green space for recreation that is forever protected.

At Baiting Brook Meadow Farm, the horse barn and riding ring, plus a house for the farm's employees, will only take up four acres. The remainder of the property, which abuts Callahan State Park, will remain open for public use.

Both Wayside Forest and Baiting Brook Meadow Farm are excellent examples of caring and enlightened owners partnering with a local land trust to ensure open space is protected, and in the case of Baiting Brook, also partially developed for a purpose suitable for open space, which also reinforces and expands the rural and agricultural traditions of this part of the city.

The Harringtons, in partnering with SVT, deserve the eternal thanks of Framingham residents who will benefit from their generosity and foresight for generations to come. Hopefully they will inspire more property owners in our city to follow in their footsteps.

Full disclosure: I am both a member of and a volunteer for Sudbury Valley Trustees.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Tribute to One of Framingham's Best

Last Saturday, our city said goodbye to one of its most beloved citizens, state representative Chris Walsh, who lost his battle with cancer last month. After a stirring but somber procession outside on Concord Street by the Massachusetts National Lancers, a ceremonial cavalry group, Nevins Hall downtown was filled with hundreds of people, from the governor to Framingham city officials, down to ordinary citizens, and everyone in between, from both public and private life.

The tributes that were made, from fellow politicians, friends, and family members, painted a portrait of not just a man of great talent and accomplishments, and an abiding love for Framingham, but deep humanity. And humor. Amidst the sadness, there were occasional outbursts of laughter. Former state rep and friend Tom Sannicandro recounted Chris introducing him over the years to a variety of exclusive whiskeys in the watering holes near the State House after the work day had ended, while friend and neighbor Steve Greeley told a tale of how he once helped Chris, who never met a problem he didn't want to solve, hoist a refrigerator up to the third floor window of his house when it wouldn't fit up the stairs, as the neighborhood looked on in fear and wonder.

I don't remember when I first met Chris, but it was at least a decade ago. It might have been at a Nobscot Neighbors meeting, Town Meeting, the Planning Board, or a Friends of Saxonville, Framingham Public Library, or Framingham History Center event. It could easily have been any one of those, since Chris was at seemingly every significant public meeting or event that took place in the city, even long before he was elected to represent us at the State House eight years ago.

When Chris first announced his intention to run for state office, he reached out and asked to meet with me. We sat down with a cup of coffee at Annie's Book Stop/Espresso Paulo in the Nobscot Shopping Center, and he talked about what he hoped to accomplish if elected, and asked for my support. I didn't need much convincing. I'd spoken to him one on one quite a bit and heard his thoughtful, measured opinions at many public meetings, and thought he'd be a very effective state representative for Framingham. And I never had second thoughts about my decision.

After he was elected, he still continued to attend many Nobscot Neighbors meetings, which I chaired, and whether the topic was the revitalization of Nobscot village, preservation of open space, development of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, or opening the MWRA aqueduct as a recreational trail, his voice was always one of the most informed and insightful in the room. I remember him telling me excitedly about how the aqueduct could serve as a green corridor connecting not only Nobscot and Saxonville, but Wayland as well. He didn't come to that conclusion solely from looking at a map or reading a report; he'd walked the path himself all the way into Wayland from Nobscot as part of his research.

The first time I saw him after his cancer diagnosis, I took him aside and asked how he was doing, and how he was dealing with what is for anyone a life-altering experience. "I'm not driving this bus," he replied, with his characteristic smile, and a mixture of fatalism and optimism. "We'll see how it goes." And then he was back to talking about whatever community issue or problem we were discussing that night. And that was Chris - his unending focus was on how he could improve the community he lived in, where he made his home, raised his family, and dedicated decades to making it the best place he could. A legacy we can all learn from.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

One Framingham Group Unites Residents

In the run-up to last November's election, our first as a city, and with highly competitive races for mayor and city council,  emotions were high and tempers occasionally flared. Social media sites like Facebook and the FramGov e-mail list had hundreds of postings of both support and criticism of candidates, particularly in the mayoral race.

When the election was over, many agreed that we needed to do a lot of healing as a community. But one Framingham resident, Samir Parikh, turned that sentiment into action. He created a Facebook group called One Framingham and scheduled an informal get-together at Jack's Abby beer hall on a Friday night in December.

More than fifty people from across the city's political spectrum showed up to chat and have a beer together and One Framingham took off. Parikh has turned it into a monthly event at various drinking and eating establishments around the city, and has attracted everyone from hardcore political junkies to new residents who want to get to know their neighbors better, to Mayor Yvonne Spicer, and many city councilors and school committee members.

The next One Framingham event will be Friday, May 4, at El Mariachi (the former Chicken Bone Saloon), 358 Waverly Street, at 7 p.m.

Kudos to Samir Parikh for taking this one small but important step toward building a more united, friendlier Framingham.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Apartment Development Projects Signal New Era for Downtown

For years, perhaps decades, naysayers have said downtown Framingham would never be restored to its former glory as a shopping, dining, and entertainment destination. The reasons ranged from the traffic caused by having an at-grade railroad crossing, to the presence of homeless people due to the social service facilities located there, to the difficulties of getting development projects approved by the town, and the resulting reticence of businesses to invest there.

Regardless of what issues persist, downtown has clearly turned a corner, with several new luxury apartment buildings with hundreds of units approved, and construction slated to begin this spring. Town Meeting gave these efforts a major boost by voting to expand the central business district zone in 2015 to encourage transit-oriented development, since the commuter rail stop is right in the middle of the area. Developers evidently see an opportunity and a reason to finally invest in downtown in a big way. And our new city government is ready and eager to work with them.

While critics still point out potential problems, such as traffic, limited parking, and more children in already crowded schools, the impact of having hundreds of new residents, many of whom will likely be choosing the location because of the ease of taking the train to well-paying jobs in Boston, cannot be underestimated. There is already a critical mass of popular craft brewing destinations downtown, including Jack's Abby Beer Hall, Springdale Barrel Room, and Exhibit 'A' Brewing, that attract a younger, well-heeled crowd from near and far.

Add to that a hip new coffee house, Sofa Cafe`, popular ethnic restaurants like Pho Dakao, Pueblito Paisa, and Taqueria Mexico, and you've got a good base to build on. More residents downtown likely will mean more customers for these growing businesses, and opportunities for more businesses to open to serve these residents. It's also important to note that the 196-unit apartment building at 75 Concord Street, at the site of the former Sewfisticated Discount Fabrics store (rendering pictured above), will also include ground floor space for at least two new retail businesses. And the streetscape improvements that have been done downtown over the past couple of years already make the area more attractive and pedestrian-friendly.

One of the local blueprints for how these types of projects can invigorate a downtown area is Cronin's Landing on Moody Street in Waltham, which has a thriving downtown after decades of decline. While the Waltham revival is now twenty years old, a newer, similar pattern can be seen just to Framingham's east, in Natick Center. Both condos and new apartment complexes, and a new mixed use development under construction, have brought both new residents and businesses to what not long ago was a much less vibrant downtown.

Sometimes slow, incremental change can be hard to see. When I moved to Framingham in 1999, I began frequenting downtown, visiting a few ethnic food stores and restaurants, and on weekend nights I would go to The Happy Swallow and The Chicken Bone to hear local blues bands. Now I can also listen to jazz at Pho Dakao, rock at Exhibit 'A' Brewing or Danny Sullivan's, and a wide variety of world-class music and other entertainment options from theater to comedy at Amazing Things Arts Center. The number of restaurants and cuisines has increased dramatically, and the old train station has been beautifully renovated to house a great diner and pub, Depot 417.

A fund raising challenge in February by residents Adam Blumer and Sarah Guernsey, for Downtown Framingham Inc., the downtown's advocacy non-profit, brought nearly three hundred different people from all over Framingham into downtown establishments over twelve days, for over six hundred total visits, supporting nearly ninety different businesses. It was an amazing show of support for downtown, and likely converted some infrequent visitors into enthusiastic regulars. Just think of the potential positive impact on downtown businesses when hundreds of new residents live within walking distance.

My prediction is that downtown Framingham will undergo dramatic, positive changes in the next three to five years, thanks in part to the new development underway. Revitalization of town and small city downtowns is forming a huge wave across the country, particularly as major cities become increasingly gentrified and expensive, and Framingham is well-positioned to ride that wave.