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.