September 4, 2006

Are There Lessons in Allston for Downtown Framingham?

A woman I work with recently moved from the Allston section of Boston to downtown Framingham. Cutting her commute wasn't the only reason; she thinks what happened in the student/immigrant neighborhood of Allston - turning into a desirable mixture of ecclectic retail & housing, could happen in Framingham as well, although she expects it might take a decade, and isn't put off by that at all. Ah, to have patience....

I happened to be in Allston today, and looked carefully at what they've got now, with an eye toward what lessons there might be for Framingham's downtown revitalization efforts.

Allston has very large student and immigrant populations. The ethnic restaurants and other businesses are all over the global map - Korean, Colombian, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Brazilian and lots more. Framingham doesn't have nearly the student population that Allston does, but if downtown Framingham had the same sort of appealing streetscape for the 18 to 30 crowd as Allston had, you'd get more Framingham State students down there. And with the proper vision, incentives, planning and investment, Framingham's key downtown streets could attract an ethnic mix like Allston's (or Waltham's) that attracts and encourages foot traffic.

Allston Village has matching grants for businesses that want to do facade/sign, lighting and awning improvements. Remembering what the area looked like a few decades ago when my husband was a student living in Brighton, I'd say there's been a decided improvement in aesthetics - while not going overboard on gentrification. You wouldn't mistake Allston for Brookline, but downtown Framingham could do a lot worse.

One thing I noticed: Allston doesn't have a ton of non-walk-in businesses in the midst of the key retail district on Harvard Avenue around Commonwealth Avenue. There aren't many ground-floor offices, for example -- there's a critical mass of consumer-oriented storefronts, so there are businesses to continually engage a casual shoppers' interest while walking.

This is important. You don't want endless amounts of insurance offices, medical offices, mortgage brokers and other such businesses on your prime retail street; it makes for a less compelling experience. Framingham really needs to think about a small stretch of key business district zoning that would encourage an uninterrupted stretch of restaurants and shops that entice someone to stroll around, not simply run an errand an dleave.

Downtown Framingham doesn't have the public transit that Allston does, but the two areas do share some serious traffic problems. Allston is fortunate that its train tracks are depressed and don't cross the main roads; but trying to drive down Harvard Avenue during business hours is, um, chancey. It wasn't bad today, except for the usual slow traffic, multiple lights, tons of pedestrians crossing in front of cars against the light and occasional double parked trucks on the narrow road. But I've been there during rush hour, and the delays, backups and traffic tie-ups would feel familiar to anyone driving through downtown Framingham. But that doesn't seem to have killed off Allston's business district, in part because a lot of people seem to be living, working and/or walking around anyway.

As you drive toward the end of Harvard Avenue and make a right onto Cambridge Street, heading toward the Mass Pike entrance, Allston's pedestrian activity comes to an abrupt halt. The streetscape changes, including a business with parking in front, instead of at the street, as well as sidewalks with no landscaping, no buffer between sidewalk and street. Once you get to the stark chain-link fences looking out at an overpass over train tracks, it's not a shock that lots of people don't feel like walking around there anymore.

1 comment:

  1. When I see a vacancy in downtown I think "Pleeease don't be another insurance agency!"
    Of course the old Woolworth's has been totally watsted as it's prime retail space is going
    to be occupied by Seagate Financial. It's moves like that and the loss of Friendly's
    that makes me wonder how downtown will be an interesting place for people to walk around
    in again. When you think of great pedestrian areas like Harvard Sq. you don't think of all
    the great insurance/finacial agencies and religious congregations.
    I think offices should be upsatirs and retail/restaurants should be at ground level.
    I'm glad someone else sees potential for downtown though. Maybe someone with alot of money
    will too.