I'm in the midst of a discussion on the local "frambors" e-mail list about downtown revitalization efforts. I'm concerned that in decades of talking about trying to improve the downtown Framingham business district; not only has there been very little progress compared to many other surrounding communities, but I've yet to hear of a coherent vision for what officials and residents would like the downtown to become.
A few pictures are worth well over a thousand words. I urge anyone interested in downtown improvement efforts to take a minute to click through this five-slide presentation from Urban advantage.
It shows the benefits of creating a pedestrian-welcome environment, and what that can do to help a neighborhood business district. Of course, there's a lot more to it than the sidewalk look and feel, but that IS a critical component. If there's money to be had for downtown improvements, along with police presence, we definitely need a streetscape makeover.
Framingham has an urgent need to first decide what exactly we want downtown to be, before trying to go out and make something happen.
Let's try thinking like businesspeople for a moment. What is our niche? And who is our market? I've heard a ton about what people DON'T want to see happen downtown, but what DO you want to see?
It's time for "the vision thing." Do you want to see a safe, middle-class neighborhood with local business aimed at nearby residents? Do you want to see a mixed-income community (including higher-end, middle-income and lower income) with commercial activity that draws people from surrounding, more upscale communities as well as nearby residents?
If we'd like to include some businesses that serve the needs of nearby precincts as well as other businesses to attract people from across town, Natick, Ashland and beyond, do we have a coherent plan to concentrate the regional draws in a walker-friendly stretch of downtown, the way Waltham has done with the cinema and "Restaurant Row" on Moody Street?
If you're hoping the luxury condos succeed downtown, who do you envision buying those properties? And what do you think such purchasers want in a downtown? What are our natural advantages, and how do we exploit them? If you want the residents of those condos to help bring more life to the business district, what needs to happen? I'll tell you one thing that does: They need to have someplace appealing to walk to when they leave their condos. If those residents have to get in their cars because there's no walker-enticing streetscape between home and shops, they'll get in their cars and keep driving elsewhere.
Do we want to actively capitalize on our Brazilian eateries the way, say, Boston's North End has done with its Italian restaurants and groceries? Might this be an appealing neighborhood feature to people looking for (relatively) affordable "luxury" housing in a suburban downtown core?
Is it important to have something for people to do downtown in the early evenings besides attend meetings in town hall or go to the library? If so, what would we like that to be?
How do we get commuters who drive to the train station to energize downtown? Once again, there needs to be an attractive streetscape around the station and parking areas, instead of the unattractive walking environment there now.
I realize there are some serious, pressing issues downtown at the moment. But without drawing up a positive action plan for what we'd like our downtown to become, I think the chances of a successful revitalization are drastically reduced.