April 19, 2006

Quality of Life Doesn’t Just Happen

"Quality of life doesn't happen as a byproduct of a free market," said Harriet Tregoning, executive director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington, according to an article in the Charlotte Observer. "You have to be deliberate. You can't just fix it afterward. I don't know of too many communities that have been able to turn a big-box space into a park."

While of course some people still want huge homes on enormous lots in car-mandatory exurban-sprawl communities, demographics are pointing to less, not more, demand for such housing. "In 30 years, proportionately fewer households will have kids, she said," the article notes. "More homeowners will want townhomes or homes on smaller lots located near downtown or other urban amenities. Young professionals and retirees alike will want access to mass transit." Thirty-five years from now, an estimated 30% of U.S. residential demand will be for large suburban houses.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal notes that mega-mall developer Mills Corp. is struggling. "While a typical large mall draws customers from a 10- to 20-mile radius, many Mills malls are so big they need to draw from a larger area to attract enough customers. As a result, Mills became more vulnerable to new competitors, including outlet centers, discount stores and the hot new model -- open-air 'lifestyle centers,' which adhere to a 'Main Street' approach, with stores opening onto a street, says Steven H. Gartner, president of Metro Commercial Real Estate Inc., a Conshohocken, Penn., retail consultant. And high gas prices made shoppers less willing to drive long distances for a deal on a pair of blue jeans," the Journal reports.

"In other words, downtown main streets are 'in' again," says CoolTown Studios. "Still, like anything, it's wise for main streets to understand what made these malls successful for so long, and that's largely attributable to combining retail with entertainment. What were food courts in malls can become dining piazzas in downtowns. Multiplex mall theaters can move to main street. Even indoor recreation like climbing walls and simulated-experience arcade games can find a welcome home in cities rather than in the megamalls."

It's something Framingham needs to remember as it looks to revitalize downtown. Quality of life doesn't just happen, and neither does a vibrant business district. You need planning, an appealing mix of retail and residences, and a pedestrian-attractive streetscape to tie it all together.

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