Sunday, March 1, 2020

Final Project Approval Signals the Beginning of the New Nobscot Village

On Thursday, February 27, the Framingham Planning Board voted to approve the long-debated mixed-use development of apartments and retail stores at the Nobscot Shopping Center site on Water Street in Nobscot village. With that vote, the village truly entered a new era of redevelopment, and hopefully, vitality as a neighborhood center.

For well over a decade, residents and visitors have shaken their heads while passing by the dilapidated and increasingly vacant strip mall. Why did such a property exist in one of the most affluent sections of Framingham, and for so long? The reasons are complex and have been discussed ad nauseum, with blame cast in various directions, ranging from the property owner to town, and then city, government.

The good news from my perspective is that the plans for the project, called The Village at Nobscot, have been revised dozens of times, using feedback from residents, city officials, and third-party experts in architecture and planning, who participated in a mandated peer review. The result has been a significantly improved project from a design and functionality point of view. While no one among the major stakeholders --  the property owner, city government, or residents, got all of what they wanted, the end result is something that all of them can ostensibly live with.

And I'm willing to bet the project received much more oversight and scrutiny than the original Nobscot Shopping Center did before it was constructed in the 1950s. Back in the post-WWII suburban building boom, as open green space outside major cities was rapidly developed, drab, single-story, flat-roofed shopping centers fronted by large asphalt parking lots became ubiquitous in many towns, and there probably wasn't much resistance, since all of those new residents needed places to shop. Most of the other buildings constructed in the village in that era seem to reflect a similar lack of inspiration to build a coherent landscape with any unifying look, or the desire to value pedestrians as anywhere equal to the almighty automobile.

But we're in a very different era now. One where retail brick and mortar shopping areas have declined, and compete more and more with online shopping. Where there is a shortage of housing, and because of high prices, new developments are required to have a proportion of units designated as affordable, and increasingly, some also designated as "workforce" affordable -- a price point somewhere between affordable and market rate. Where the walkability of a community is considered as important as the ability to pack a lot of cars into parking spaces.

And aesthetics are increasingly important as well. One of the hardest-fought battles over the redevelopment of the Nobscot Shopping Center was the strong desire on the part of many residents to limit the height to three stories, rather than the four stories originally proposed by the owner. And the design guidelines that were developed for the village district as a whole focused strongly on making the buildings and adjoining areas well-designed and well-landscaped, with much consideration given for pedestrians rather than just vehicles.

Will the reality of this redevelopment fulfill its expectations? Time will be the only true measure. Residents will probably begin to see progress within a matter of weeks, with all project approvals now in place and the spring construction season nearly here. Passerby have no doubt noticed that the Nobscot Office Building has been gutted and will be torn down soon to make way for a new CVS store on that side of the property, and the historic Nobscot Chapel has had some of its clapboards removed so the building sills could be inspected before it is moved to its new home at the vacant lot that was once the site of a Texaco gas station on Edgell Road. Also coming up will be the demolition of the supermarket segment of the shopping center building. It will probably be a year and a half to two years before the project is completed.

2020 will also see the beginning of the crucial and long-overdue reconstruction of the intersection of Edgell Road, Water Street, and Edmands Road, using funds from a state grant. And the very likely, though not yet approved, razing and rebuilding of the Gulf gas station and convenience store on the west side of Edgell Road, which will also be subject to the village district design guidelines.

Change is difficult for any community. But I'm willing to bet that once the proverbial and literal dust settles a few years from now, most people walking or driving through Nobscot village will be glad that the long-argued about changes finally came to fruition.