April 20, 2005

Arts in Framingham: Critical Mass Approaching?

I've certainly done enough complaining about what's wrong with Framingham -- pedestrian-hostile streetscapes, uninspired architecture, car-centric planning, poor zoning, missed opportunities (ah, if only the Target/Panera/Home Goods shopping center had been built up at the sidewalk, how cool it would have been to have Panera's outdoor cafe seating as part of a pedestrian streetscape), and of course the just-plain-stupid Town Meeting vote to turn down a $1.6 million state grant to build what would have been a fabulous new library to anchor and rejuvenate Saxonville (no, I'm still not over that, and doubt I ever will be).


There's some surprisingly exciting news on the local arts scene. Along with the Amazing Things Arts Center poised to open in Saxonville -- and already scheduling live events around town -- there's also the month-long Spring Into Arts celebration that kicked off on Patriots Day with the multicultural festival.

This Friday, there's a jazz concert downtown that features Laszlo Gardony, who has toured in 23 countries and won numerous awards. On Saturday, a well-known Cambridge folk artist plays at Cameron Middle School in Saxonville. Upcoming, there's everything from opera at Framingham State to Tom Rush playing the Civic League.

There's just nothing like live entertainment to draw people to a community. Add planned new housing downtown, and there's some real potential. What's still missing is 1) a pedestrian-appealing streetscape downtown, and 2) a couple of Zagat-worthy restaurants and cafes that would encourage regional suburbanites to make a full evening downtown -- drinks/snacks, dinner and a concert.

But the potential is there.

For years now, I've bee envious of Waltham's downtown revitalization, which took a fairly tired, rundown Moody Street and turned it into a thriving entertainment destination. Moody Street is now filled with interesting restaurants as well as sporting a movie theater that shows both commercial and arts films.

Most importantly, Moody Street is now a park-once, walk-to-many destination, where it's worth leaving the car, meeting friends, strolling along the street to browse before picking one of many appealing restaurants, and then walking over to the movie theater -- which is very cleverly built up at the sidewalk with parking in the rear.

(It is, of course, impossible to walk to the cinema in Framingham from anywhere, even though both the Natick Mall and Shoppers World are theoretically within walking distance. The pedestrian hostile traffic patterns and streetscape assure no one would actually go by foot there. DUMB DUMB DUMB PLANNING. In contrast, once you've parked for dinner along Moody Street, it makes no sense at all to move your car to go to the cinema. )

New upscale housing above ground-floor retail in the old Grover Cronin building, appealingly sited right along the Charles River, provide residents to patronize the local establishments -- and there's a streetscape that encourages them to walk out of their building and take advantage of eateries and entertainment at their doorstep. Once they get into their cars, they might as well drive 5, 10 or 20 minutes as stick around downtown. But they don't need to get into their cars.

However, while downtown Framingham has yet to offer anything like the restaurants, daily movies, or streetscape of Waltham's revitalized Moody Street, right now it is offering a pretty appealing slate of live performances.

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