July 22, 2006

Wanted: Not Just Any Business

In Framingham, there's been a lot of concern about properties coming off the tax rolls. Beside the often-acrimonious debate over social services (and how much is too much), is worry any time a building, land or use changes over from tax-paying to tax-exempt. But I've heard much less discussion about the type of businesses the town wants to attract in various business districts -- and I don't just mean characteristics like respectable, not too noisy and not too much traffic.

The NY Times reported recently that Morristown, N.J. is starting to worry about all the bank branches cropping up in its downtown center. "What's wrong with banks?" you ask.

If you want a thriving downtown with lots of foot traffic through the evening, you can't have a lot of things like ground-floor banks or insurance companies on key shopping streets, because they close early. If you're building mixed-use in a commercial center, you need the mixture to include enough activity to encourage residents to come out both day and night, as well as an appealing streetscape. Walk through Boston's Downtown Crossing sometime after 8 pm, even in summer, and you'll see what I mean. What's a bustling retail center by day becomes a ghost town by night -- not the pleasant quiet of a tranquil residential street like Back Bay's Commonwealth Avenue, but the creepy silence of being surrounded by empty, dark buildings.

"It's a relatively new issue, but we think that as demand for retail space in downtown areas increases, it will become an increasingly important topic, especially in areas where there is a limited amount of on-street retail space," David M. Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association,told the Times.

Locally, I hope we're not so eager to bring new investment downtown that nobody's paying attention to retail and commercial mix.

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