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.