November 15, 2007

Downtown options

"The steering committee of the Downtown Rail Crossing Task Force crafted three approaches to the future of downtown they say will help them decide which solution is best to fix the traffic tie-ups in the area of routes 126 and 135. The options focus on making downtown a more desirable place to live, a more desirable place to eat and shop, or a more desirable place to enjoy cultural activities," the MetroWest Daily News reports. Ny vote?  a "cool mixed-use destination," as I saw it in the committee's Nov. 5 strategy session review.

What does that mean? The buzz words they used were "alive, funky, diverse, flavor," with a focus on retail and residential, along with growing cultural uses, and some sponsored festivals and events.

Downtown's attraction could be as a small, human-scale urban center offering a unique sense of place, walkable streetscape and things you can't find in a typical suburban neighborhood. There's no sense trying to compete as a pure residential-only center, with so many others in the area; or conventional retail, with Rte. 9 nearby. Instead, we need to look at something along the lines of downtown Waltham, a walkable urban neighborhood with compelling, non-suburban-cookie-cutter attractions.

"Among the possibilities bandied about in this month's meeting were building a movie theater that shows underground or art-house films and trying to better incorporate Framingham State College and MetroWest Medical Center into the life of downtown," the article said. The movie theater idea is a good one, although it would probably have to be some kind of non-profit. But the movie theater really helped revitalize Waltham, and creating an alternative to Rte. 9 Hollywood productions closer than Newton or Waltham could attract movie-lovers around MetroWest.

Add a few excellent restaurants, the Amazing Things Art Center and a walkable streetscape that encourages people to stroll between destinations, and you've definitely got potential -- enough that new residences would be more attractive.

Create such a downtown and I think it would naturally draw Framingham State students. More attention to the immediate streetscape around the college is a separate but important step in taking better advantage of the presence of Framingham State, which right now feels more like it's behind fortress walls than integrated into the surrounding community. What a pity walkable college-oriented retail was never allowed to thrive in the blocks adjacent to the campus.


  1. A walkable (within 2 miles) location for college-oriented retail would be the old Co-op Plaza on the corner of Franklin St. and Mt. Wayte Ave., which I hear has fallen on hard times of late. When I was a girl in that neighborhood, we could walk to everything--grocery stores, drugstores, dry cleaners, restaurants, churches, schools, doctors' offices, and the College. Yet the area was as green and leafy and the yards as generous as any suburb could hope for. I smile when I hear about "cutting-edge" plans for "mixed-use" and "walkable" communities, but it's a sad smile--the community had it all 50 years ago and threw it away.

  2. Many communities had mixed-use, walkable developments before World War II. It was the love affair with the car that killed off planning patters which had worked for generations. Hopefully we've finally learned that planners need to create communities for people on foot and not just drive-by strip malls.