November 18, 2014

How can we create a more active and vibrant downtown Framingham?

Framingham is having a drop-in meeting tonight to get ideas on how we can "create a more active and vibrant center in Downtown Framingham." Some of the questions they're asking:
  • What businesses would you like to see in Downtown?
  • Are there opportunities to encourage more people to live in Downtown?
  • What rules should guide new development, and how can our transportation systems support it? 
All good questions, but in order to make "an active, walkable, safe and vibrant Downtown," there's got to be a lot of emphasis on walkable. And that means creating an attractive, appealing, compelling streetscape that makes people want to stroll to multiple destinations instead of visiting one place, turning around and leaving

Without that, getting another new business won't help -- anyone who goes to that business won't go anywhere else; they'll just come and go. And even if you could attract more people to live downtown, they'll get in their cars and drive places if there's not an environment that entices them to walk.

The train station already draws people downtown, but there's simply no synergy that attracts them elsewhere. That's because the critical corridor between the train station and many downtown businesses is not one that encourages people to stroll -- and not only because it's unattractive.

"While many factors contribute to [pedestrian] comfort of a place, the most significant is probably its degree of architectural enclosure -- the amount that it makes its inhabitants feel held within a space," write Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck in Suburban Nation. While downtown Framingham was not designed in a post-WWII sprawl pattern, in fact much of downtown also suffers from a lack of attention to what will entice people to walk around.

"People are attracted to places with well-defined edges and limited openings, while they tend to flee places that lack clear definition or boundaries," Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck continue. "For this reason, the most effective technique for designing successful urban spaces is to think of them as outdoor living rooms. To feel like a room, a street must have relatively continuous walls, whose design calls attention to the space as a whole rather than to individual buildings. . . .

"If a street is to provide the sense of enclosure that the pedestrians desire -- if it is to feel like a room -- it cannot be too wide. To be precise, the relationship of width to height cannot exceed a certain ratio, generally recognized to be about 6:1. If the distance from the building front to building front is more than six times the height of those building fronts, the feeling of enclosure is lost, and with it the sense of place."

"Sense of enclosure" definitely doesn't define Rte. 135 around the train station! One low industrial building set far back from the street can ruin the entire area. Why not try at least to landscape the sidewalk-facing edges of such parking lots?

Other issues of note: The area immediately around the library does not signal to patrons that they should be strolling and enjoying nearby retail the way the library in downtown Natick is so obviously surrounded by retail. Panza Shoes is a regional destination store and it should be surrounded by several other destination retail sites on that same block instead of the hodge-podge of storefronts that are there now. Pho Dakao, the new Vietnamese restaurant downtown, is drawing patrons; a priority should be surrounding it with some other businesses that are open during the dinner hour and would appeal to people going to or leaving from dinner, instead of having people walk by a bunch of shuttered storefronts.

The potential of Framingham State to energize downtown Framingham is lost, too, because there's not an appealing pedestrian corridor between the campus and downtown, nor a great sense of place if students wanted to drive/take a shuttle bus and then walk around.

There are some useful examples here of how important aesthetics are in planning:

I realize that professional planners in Framingham and at MAPC know these things, but for whatever reason, we have not been able to implement them successfully in downtown Framingham to date. But until residents and Town Meeting Members as well as professional planners understand that these kinds of aesthetics are not frills, but are absolutely essential if we are ever to transform downtown into a compelling destination, revitalization can only go so far.