August 20, 2005

Eateries, Pubs Transform A Downtown

Interesting article in the Kane County Chronicle about changes in downtown Geneva, Ill. as a load of restaurants and bars come to the area. Some like the transformation of the town's Main Street, saying there's energy and activities that draw people to the area. Others, though, mourn the loss of conventional retail, complaining that the concentration of eateries is leaving little else in district.

It's an interesting issue, especially as I look at how Waltham transformed Moody Street into "Restaurant Row."

The owner of a specialty retail shop that's closing on Main Street, Geneva, Ill. makes an important point: It's not the high number of restaurants that's forcing her out; it's the presence of nearby chain retailers hurting her business. So, it's quite possible that for some communities, an eatery/entertainment theme is a more viable option for downtown business districts near major strip malls and shopping malls than trying to compete with the big-box stores and other national chains.

There's another issue in Geneva, Ill., though:

Mayor Don DeWitte attributed the growth of the pubs and restaurants along Main Street, in part, to the removal of on-street parking. That stemmed from the widening of the Main Street bridge and the rest of the street in 1997. The move eliminated on-street parking and narrowed sidewalks.

"I felt the removal of parking along Main Street would reduce the pedestrian-friendly environment," DeWitte said.

Aha, another important point. As I've said before, few downtowns can compete with malls for plentiful, convenient parking; their advantage is in streetscape and appealing sense of place. Waltham isn't trying to be a smaller version of Rte. 9 or the Burlington Mall. By offering something completely different, including an appealing park-once, walk-to-multiple-destinations streetscape - with a movie theater as anchor that offers some art cinema and foreign-film titles as well as commercial films - Waltham has created a downtown that draws people from nearby apartments/condos as well as residents of other communities.

What is Framingham creating in its downtown that will encourage anyone to come who doesn't have to, or anyone to stay and go to a second destination once they've gone to one?

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