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.


NC said...

Kudos, Brett, this is spot on. And of course your blog post and my applause may come as a surprise to those who know you and me personally and associate us with our commitment to and participation in matters of wildlife and open space conservation.

The two things are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, the preservation of open space and protection of wildlife depends heavily on the intelligent development of the city space. It's just that one doesn't understand that concept until you have a deep and long education in conservation. Let us hope that occurs and the excellent plans for the downtown area go forward with the support they deserve.

George King said...

This is a well stated post. I believe that the housing options being added to downtown are critical to the type of reformation that you describe. I think it is the last major piece of the foundations.

I hope the City will be able to address some of the issues we heard the other night at the Mayor's community meeting quickly. Some easy parking fixes need to be implemented. Also, the Danforth Building has to be addressed. We can't be like others and leave our municipal buildings empty. We have two big ones right now between Danforth and the library in Saxonville. A good reuse of Danforth will add one more piece to downtown reformation.

The Hamster said...

Thanks, Nicola, and George.

I'm totally with you on open space; the smart growth/new urbanism movement believes in compact, dense development in already-developed spaces, like our downtown urban core, and preservation of open space, farmland, and conservation areas in outlying parcels, vs. continual suburban sprawl.

When I was traveling by train through central Europe a few years ago (Germany, Austria, Czech Republic) it was interesting to see that once you left large cities like Munich, Prague, and Vienna, you'd see fields of crops and livestock grazing within 10 miles or less. In many places in the US, particularly the eastern seaboard, all you would typically see within that distance is more suburban development.

George, I'm with you too on reuse of municipal buildings. Whether the Danforth is rehabbed or torn down, it's a critical downtown parcel that needs to be put into some active use. Maybe for a parking lot/garage that the mayor mentioned as a possibility. I believe her quote of $20K per parking space was for a multi-level garage, not a paved, flat lot. While a paved lot holds fewer cars, construction and maintenance is much cheaper.

I don't know all of the specifics about the old parking garage at the library, which abuts the Danforth parcel, but due to I believe faulty construction or materials it apparently didn't last as long as it should have. The new lot is nicely designed and seems to meet a lot of the library's parking needs.

I hope, too, that the new city government gets some organization to lease the old library building in Saxonville, whether it's a business or non-profit. It will bring more vitality to the village and more potential customers to the nearby businesses.