Burlington, Vt. proper has a population that's smaller than Framingham -- just 40,000 people (plus several colleges) -- yet it boasts a thriving downtown and rejuvenated waterfront. We were there yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, and the 4-block pedestrian-only retail area was packed with people. There was a special street performer festival going on, but several locals said the crowds were typical.
What makes it work? What lessons could Framingham learn from Burlington's success?
[caption id="attachment_720" align="alignright" width="225" caption="Outdoor seating at numerous restaurants, along with an attractive pedestrian-only retail area with a good mix of businesses, brings crowds to downtown Burlington, Vt."][/caption]
* A huge amount of effort was put into making a walkable city. The waterfront is connected to the downtown shopping area, and both are connected to nearby college campuses. It's not merely theoretically possible to walk between destinations, but the streetscape makes you want to stroll. Cars don't whiz by within inches of walkers, there's separation and screening. And intersections are crossable on foot. There's also a free shuttle running between college, downtown shopping and waterfront. Contrast that with the highly unpleasant corridors between Framingham's train station and retail area, Framingham State, and nearby parks and ponds.
* The city's colleges aren't hidden away, physically separated from the rest of the city, but are well integrated and bring foot traffic and life to nearby retail. "Twenty-five years ago, the four-block stretch between Main and Pearl streets was open to automobile traffic, and lined with shops that met a small city's everyday demands -- it was easy, on a weekday afternoon or evening, to entirely forget that this is a college town. All that changed when the core blocks of Church Street went all-pedestrian," note Kay and Bill Scheller in "Best Vermont Drives." Funny how catering to foot traffic turns out to be good for local business.
* The heart of the city's retail district is, yes, devoted to retail -- shops and restaurants, not things like medical offices, insurance offices or financial businesses. Yes, Burlington also has a Salvation Army center and food kitchen downtown, conveniently located a couple of blocks off the main shopping area.
* The city's sense of place is palpable. Even with some chain stores in the Church Street pedestrian mall, there were so many locally owned shops that I didn't feel like I was walking around a slightly different, outdoor version of the Natick Mall.
"Burlington in the 1950s and '60s was a different place. Docks and waterside railyards had become privately owned wastelands, littered with high grass and rusting debris," Christina Tree & Diane E. Foulds write in Vermont: An Explorers Guide. "The few public beaches were closed due to pollution, and the solution was seen as 'urban renewal.' In the 70s some 300 homes and 40 small businesses were demolished, and large luxury condo/retail development was planned. Then in 1981, Burlington elected as mayor Bernie Sanders, who had campaigned on the slogan 'The Waterfront Is Not for Sale.'
Because of that city form of government, one leader with a vision of how to change the community's direction could win the support of voters and spark a transformation. I'm encouraged that Framingham is working on downtown revitalization plans (something we've been hearing about on and off for decades now), but real change isn't quite as easy in a representative town meeting form of government, where most elected "representatives" easily win re-election without opposition, and voters have no idea what their "reps" stand for or how they vote, since almost no votes are recorded.
You can view a half-minute snippet of downtown Burlington below.