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!