After Waltham’s Moody Street has spent decades swinging between being a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare to one plagued with vacant storefronts, city councilors are aiming to spur the revitalization of downtown Waltham by approving and encouraging a number of mixed-use developments and infrastructure improvements there this year.
Councilors last week approved a 30,000-square-foot, 16-unit condominium building with retail and restaurant space at 210 Moody St., and are also considering a development of 269 apartments spanning three five-story buildings at 1 Moody St.
“This is huge,” said Councilor Robert Logan, speaking of the development at 210 Moody. “We haven’t had any significant development on Moody Street since Cronin’s Landing, across the street. I think this will help us bring it to the next level.”
Cronin’s Landing, a major commercial and residential development along Moody Street and the Charles River, was built in the late 1990s.
The new developments are coupled with an effort to beautify the downtown. Councilors last week passed a $1.47 million initiative, pushed by Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, to build new sidewalks and replant 75 trees down the whole swath of Moody Street, in the hopes of attracting more foot traffic and business interest.
“All the sidewalks are in terrible condition,” Logan said, noting that trees block storefront signs and roots buckle walkways and create safety hazards. “This is just a really huge improvement to the downtown with a big investment in infrastructure down there.”
“This is a further downtown revitalization,” McCarthy said of the sidewalks.
Charnan Bray, economic development facilitator of the Downtown Waltham Partnership – a group of concerned citizens started about 5 years ago – said the organization is also providing incentives to owners of historic Moody Street properties to restore and renovate their spaces, and is leading an effort to help coordinate high-quality signs for Moody Street business owners.
“Our hope is that Moody Street a year from now will be beautiful,” Bray said. “This is just such a wonderful time for the downtown. It’s right on the cusp of many great changes.”
The push for a busier downtown is the second one in recent memory. Logan said in the 1990s, when many Moody Street shops were shuttered, councilors introduced a new zoning classification to allow for high-density residential projects with commercial space close to transportation, commonly known today as “smart growth,” Logan said.
“There is no way these properties could be developed the way they’re being proposed under prior zoning in the city,” Logan said.
A variety of catalysts nearly two decades ago gave the downtown a shot in the arm, but as the recession hit America in 2008, many restaurants and shops closed up again.
“We’ve kind of plateaued and backslid a little bit,” Logan said. “There’s not nearly as many vacant storefronts as there once was – not compared to the bad days of the early ’90s – but I still think it’s time for renewed effort.”
Logan said he also wants to further encourage development by introducing amendments to Moody Street zoning laws this fall that would relax restrictions on the types of restaurants allowed there. Logan said he wants the city to allow for certain eateries legally determined as fast food – such as upscale cafés and bakeries – to be able to set up shop downtown.
“People have expressed interest in these, and it would allow property owners to attract some of those kinds of businesses,” he said. “We could still keep out places like McDonald’s and KFC, but if someone came in with something more appropriate that falls under the definition of fast food, then we could do that.”
Meanwhile, local store and restaurant workers said they look forward to the proposed residential and commercials developments bringing more residents and customers to the area.
“I think all the local businesses just want to see more foot traffic,” said Jill Bobowick, general manager of Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, which is located at Cronin’s Landing. “So much is being done to help rebuild Waltham, specifically Moody Street, so we’re more than excited to have more people in the area.”
Joey DiGiacomo, owner of Biagio Ristorante and Bar – which is situated directly between the two proposed Moody Street developments – said adding nearly 300 new residential units to the city would not only be a boost to his own restaurant, but for all downtown business owners and current Waltham residents.
“Cronin’s Landing is what really put Moody Street on the map, and then more restaurants started coming,” DiGiacomo said, noting that he has been in the Moody Street restaurant business since 1999. “This creates jobs and brings more people into Waltham. It even helps taxes – we all live here and have property here. I think it’s good for everybody.”
The proposed development at 210 Moody St., owned by a partnership of Waltham businessmen including The Nelson Companies, comes after three years of back-and-forth between the mayor, city councilors, and the developers after officials found a city easement connected to the old Embassy Theater runs through the property.
“The mayor suggested the easement should be sent out in a request for proposals because it was an interest in real property the city had, and it had a theoretical value,” Logan said. “But when the RFP came back, the petitioner was the only bidder.”
McCarthy then did not reward the bid, asking the council to vote first on the special permit, which is not the usual process, Logan said.
“If we vote on the special permit first, we will all have to file ethics disclosure forms saying we can still vote on easement,” Logan said. “It makes it complicated, but we said fine, because we need to get this moving.”
Logan said minor zoning issues also held the proposal up.
McCarthy said she was waiting for the council to finish the permit approval before taking any action on the easement.
“Since the special permit issue was resolved, now we can proceed to the easement,” she said over the phone Tuesday, noting that she will now negotiate with developers on an undisclosed price for the easement.
McCarthy said she hoped negotiations would be finalized by the end of August at the latest.
“I don’t know how long it will take, but I don’t intend to delay it,” she said. “I think the project overall is good for the downtown. I think they’ll get going as soon as possible.”
The 210 Moody St. project will feature a four-story building with 9,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor, and 16 one- and two-bedroom condominium units featuring high-end appliances and finishes on the top three floors, said Doug Waybright, president of The Nelson Companies.
Waybright said he hopes to demolish the existing buildings this fall, start construction next spring, and have it completed by summer 2015.
The units will be sold at market value. “We think it would be really great to have ownership in the downtown,” he said.
Waybright said he hopes to put in a high-end restaurant on the first floor overlooking the river, but said other retail options are currently undetermined.
Meanwhile, Logan said councilors are still studying the 1 Moody St. development, which would span 340,000 square feet. The developer’s lawyer previously told the Globe they hope to be approved this year and complete construction by 2015.
“I think that’s going to be another significant boost to the downtown as well,” Logan said. “I think it will pass eventually. It’s a bigger project, so it takes more time to work through.”
The downtown partnership will hold a meeting for local business owners, residents, and city officials to talk about the developments and other projects on Sept. 26 at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. For more information, visit downtownwaltham.org.