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.