MANSFIELD - Local officials and merchants are working to breathe new life into Mansfield’s downtown, a narrow, 3/4-mile-long stretch dominated by tired-looking building façades housing limited retail offerings and a main thoroughfare suffering from traffic snarls and limited parking.
Committees are drafting new parking regulations and looking at changes to improve traffic flow. Regional planner John Mullin, considered somewhat of a guru in downtown revitalization, has been brought on board to help determine priorities and get some initiatives going.
“Dr. Mullin has suggested we have studied it to death, and the time to implement is now,’’ Mansfield planner Shaun Burke said recently.
The changes won’t be limited to traffic and parking. Finding and supporting an interesting mix of businesses that reflect Mansfield as a community is also on the priority list, as well as determining ways of turning commuters who use the rail station on the northern edge of the center into downtown customers.
Mullin, a professor in the landscape architecture and regional planning department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of its Center for Economic Development, has helped Mansfield with its master plan in the past. Last summer, Mullin, who calls a community’s downtown its “window to the world,’’ was hired by the town to prioritize initiatives in the master plan and get at least some underway.
“There’s no great town in New England without a great downtown,’’ he told a local Chamber of Commerce group recently. “To Mansfield’s credit, it has developed a number of revitalization studies over the last several years. Right now, we’re trying to find that magic button that will allow revitalization to occur.’’
Mullin counted among Mansfield’s assets its regional airport, Comcast Center, the professional football stadium in neighboring Foxborough, financially healthy municipal enterprise accounts to support infrastructure, and a heavily used commuter rail station. The town also enjoys a prime location at the crossroads of Interstates 95 and 495.
“People would give their eyeteeth for the location,’’ he said.
But he cited significant blight, declining retail business activity, lack of attention to aesthetics and character, and traffic and parking issues as shortcomings in Mansfield’s downtown.
“The downtown needs help,’’ he said. “To me, it doesn’t reflect the values of Mansfield, but it’s got tremendous potential.’’
Burke agrees with the assessment.
“Many buildings are old and may not be up to current code,’’ he said. “They also suffer from a lack of reinvestment.’’
The town secured government grants to spruce up building fronts some years ago, but few business owners took advantage of the program. “We were hoping it would kick-start some investment in downtown, but unfortunately it coincided with the recession,’’ Burke said.
Kristi Johnston, a former president of the Downtown Business Association, said merchants, in many cases, were powerless to get their storefronts refurbished. “Many buildings aren’t owned by the merchants, and the owners aren’t interested in changing the façades,’’ she said.
In addition to outdated façades, the mix of businesses in downtown has also been a problem. “I think we’re all set on nail salons,’’ Johnston said with a laugh.
The business association has frequently discussed ways of achieving diversity, she said, adding she hopes the town pitches in as part of the revitalization.
“The town works to recruit businesses in the industrial park, and we’d love to see them spend an equal amount of effort and fiscal support for downtown,’’ Johnston said. “We see businesses come in and last a year or two and fail because there isn’t enough support. That’s something the town could provide, not necessarily in tax breaks but maybe in small business resources.’’
Burke said government will be more active in supporting the downtown, noting that Mullin has suggested similar involvement.
“To some extent, municipal government has formed partnerships with the downtown merchants association, but we haven’t reached the point where we do collective outreach,’’ Burke said. “We have to work on how we go about creating that type of relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and business association. It’s been made pretty clear we need to do that.’’
Mullin, who is also working on a strategic plan for the town as a whole, has established working committees to focus on various aspects of master plan implementation over the next several weeks and build relationships between government, businesses, and the community at large.
Some downtown revitalization initiatives are already underway, Burke said. A subcommittee that includes several local merchants recently forwarded draft parking regulations to selectmen. The proposal would move residential and employee parking off Main Street to areas where they can park with purchased permits. The regulations would limit downtown parking to two hours, to deter commuters who monopolize downtown spaces all day but don’t patronize local businesses.
According to Steve Simonds, the Police Department’s parking enforcement officer, there about 900 spaces in public and privately owned lots at the rail station for commuters; those parking on downtown streets are simply trying to avoid paying the daily fee for rail lot parking.
There’s also ongoing debate over whether North Main Street should become two-way: The road is narrow, making two-way traffic difficult, so parking in some spots would have to be eliminated. Some merchants say it’s worth losing a few parking spaces to get more cars passing store windows; others say the area is too tight.
Burke said a study is set to begin in the next few weeks on potential economic development around the rail station, which is on the state’s favored route between Boston and the South Coast.
Mullin believes commuters are an essentially untapped market for the downtown. “A key element is to take advantage of the train station,’’ he said. “People who get off the train now aren’t spending a cent downtown.’’
Meanwhile, some downtown building owners like Marco Crugnale are working to spruce up their properties. Crugnale is investing in mixed-use developments, including one in the north end of downtown.
“I believe in downtown Mansfield,’’ he said. “With the commuter rail and location at 95 and 495, it’s the perfect spot. I think it will become alive and vibrant, or I wouldn’t be investing my money in it.’’