March 17, 2005

Will 1st-Floor Apartments Harm Framingham’s Downtown Business District?

That's the debate right now as the developer for a proposed mixed-used retail/commercial/residential project seeks to change some details.

Originally, the 400,000-square-foot project was supposed to have commercial, retail and an extended-stay hotel on the first floor, with apartments on upper floors. Town Meeting approved new mixed-use residential zoning for the project on that basis.

Now, though, the developer of the so-called Arcade project says he needs to have some apartments on the first floor after all, because he can't get financing based on a long-term hotel plan.

Incredibly, planning officials are balking because this might go against the will of Town Meeting -- even though the Zoning Board of Appeals has every legal right to issue variances, and even though they'd be replacing what in essence could be a boarding house with residents who will have stronger ties to the community.

Now it's a legitimate question whether residences on the first floor in a downtown business district are appropriate. I'd much prefer to see retail, followed by commercial/office. But I truly fail to see how apartments are worse than a long-term residence.

The questions that should be asked: What will the public-facing windows look like? What will the entrance look like? Was there public atrium space before that's being taken away now?

Instead, you see messages such as one posted to a local e-mail list by a Town Meeting member whing that "it's quite disturbing to think that the ZBA would even consider overturning the decision of town meeting." How dare the ZBA exercise its rightful and legal authority in light of changed circumstances, if it doesn't follow to the letter what we have decreed! We have spoken!

Sorry, but this one isn't about who has rightful claim as voice of the people. It's about what's best for the downtown business district. If you're going to argue, please argue on the merits.

A MetroWest Daily News editorial today says that "The developer still plans retail storefronts on Concord Street -- the proposed apartments would be on the back side of the building." That's promising, but is there public parking around the back? Is there a way to incorporate public access space with any first-floor residences? What would it take to get office space back there instead?

4 comments:

  1. Apartments are worse than long term residences because apartment dwellers are transient,
    therefore they usually do not take as much concern in the value and upkeep of thier place.
    Owners have more stake in the place, and tend to make better residents.
    About windows facing the street, there are 2 possibilities that come to mind for me.
    One is that only the door could be at the street level, with a long walkway to the
    residence in the back (the door would be flanked on either side with street facing retial
    or offices. The other thing is that if windows are on the street, it will help protect
    the street at night- "Eyes on the Street" (Jane Jacobs, Life and Death of Great American
    Cities) help prevent crime at the businesses and offices which are vacant in the evening.
    But, obviously privacy is a concern. In front of the window could be a planter bed which
    would keep people walking outside at a greater distance from the windows to make it more
    difficult to peek inside. One way tinted glass is another option, aside from curtains and
    blinds.
    The buisness district would indeed lose square footage for buinesses when residential moves
    in, but on the bright side, taxes are still being paid and there is more activity on the
    street for longer hours. At 5pm, offices close and usually a few hours later the shops
    will close. The residents come home and occupy the area, keeping an eye out for thieves
    at the businesses. The other possibility is that having residents in the area would offer
    the chance for the businesses to stay open later, earning more money and keeping the
    area lively and attractive to more businesses. Cities like Denver, CO have a very active
    downtown and there are a lot of residents who keep the businesses thriving well into the
    evening hours. Normally the residences are not on the first floor, but it can work.

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  2. Sharon GartenbergMarch 20, 2005 at 8:52 AM

    Apartment-dwellers may be more transient than condominium owners (assuming there's a provision that prevents the condo owners from buying as an investment and then renting their units anyway), but the choice in Framingham right now is between apartments on the first floor rear of the building or "extended-stay" hotel rooms at the first floor rear of the building. I do not possibly see how those in long-term hotel rooms are any less transient than someone in an apartment.

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  3. It's hard for me to believe the town would jeopardize the entire Arcade project over a detail like this. This project is potentially one of the turning points for revitalizing downtown. If it doesn't happen, how does THAT help the town? I'm hoping the posturing will be over soon and the town and the developer will work it out.

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  4. Ah, ok well I see your choices now. Heres my take on it- apartment renters have to sign a lease and are therefore usually living there for at least
    1 year. That would make them less transient than a hotel guest. However, in this sense, I think I would vote for the hotel. If its in a business district, the guests would primarily by clients and folks who are doing business within walking distance, may who flew in and do not have a car. Therefore it would mean less vehicles on the street or taking up nearby parking. Plus, hotels are open 24 hrs, so as I alluded to in the 1st comment, it is safer because more people are around watching out for things.

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