When a national developer purchased the Woburn Mall in 2017, the shopping plaza had seen better days.
“It was tired and outdated,” recalled Brad Dumont, the Northeast regional director for EDENS.
The mall still had two busy anchor stores, but two-thirds of its overall retail space was empty and many of its remaining stores were fighting to survive. A sense of dreariness hung over the 23-acre Mishawum Road propertyoff Interstate 95.
Five years later, the once-sluggish mall is being transformed into Woburn Village through a mixed-use redevelopment focused on creating a vibrant, neighborhood-like environment. When completed this summer, the site will feature new and revamped retail and restaurant spaces with housing, extensive landscaping, and other amenities.
In a new report, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council cited Woburn Village as an example of how aging, depressed commercial properties can be reenergized by converting them to village-style mixed-use sites that include housing.
“The Woburn Village example shows that re-envisioning these old commercial sites for the next century can benefit communities,” said the report, “Rethinking the Retail Strip: Transforming Old Uses to Meet New Needs.”
Woburn Village “may not be perfect — for example, despite the improvements, surface parking is still a major feature of the landscape,” the report said. “But the positives far outweigh the negatives, and by replacing a shabby retail plaza, the new development is setting the stage for the creation of a new neighborhood in the city.”
If even a fraction of aging retail strips “were redeveloped as part of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods,” the MAPC said, “it could help to meet the region’s housing needs, bolster municipal tax revenues, provide improved conditions for businesses ... improve community character, expand access to otherwise exclusionary communities, and enhance sustainability.”
Those benefits would come, the study added, “without the environmental destruction and expense that goes along with development of natural areas.”
“We are hoping this could be a first step to help communities identify where they can grow in this way,” said Chris Kuschel, a principal planner for the MAPC, “because we think this is a sustainable way to grow.”
Amanda Loomis, Natick’s director of community and economic development, said while some communities — including Natick — already are working to revamp old retail sites, the MAPC report helps “advance the dialogue” about the issue. “This brings everyone to the table.”
Kuschel said strip malls and similar commercial properties originally grew out of efforts to separate businesses from neighborhoods. They still offer some advantages, including providing affordable space for small and local businesses.
“But many of them are struggling. Many have high vacancy rates and are underutilized,” he said, citing the rise of online shopping and the fact that many people “are looking for more walkable experiences” as factors in that decline.
But Kuschel said the report is meant to be forward-looking, highlighting the many sites that could be reimagined. In addition to other benefits, he said redevelopments that include affordable housing can help meet community goals of promoting inclusion and racial equity.
The report estimated Greater Boston has 13.7 square miles of strip malls and similar commercial properties. It catalogs those sites and their redevelopment potential, and urges communities to adopt zoning to facilitate the desired growth.
“If the top 10 percent of sites in each municipality were retrofitted to new mixed-use development ... it could create 125,000 housing units while adding or maintaining thousands of square feet of commercial or flex space, generating an estimated $481 million increase in net tax revenue for the host municipalities,” the MAPC said.
EDENS purchased the Woburn Mall with the intention of creating a mixed-use redevelopment, according to Dumont.
“We loved the location,” he said, noting the site’s proximity to major highways and public transit. The firm also believed a revamped site could draw Woburn residents, many of whom were traveling to neighboring communities to shop.
EDENS decided Woburn Village needed housing to be financially viable, and enlisted AvalonBay Communities to build it. The two developers worked closely with Woburn officials and the MAPC on plans for the site, which all agreed would follow a village-style concept.
“The goal was to create a sense of place, a place people would want to come and spend time,” Dumont said.
The planning effort was formalized in 2018 with the city’s adoption of smart growth zoning for the property, which allows relatively dense housing on sites deemed suitable for it.
A key task for EDENS was getting the two anchor stores — Market Basket and T.J. Maxx — on board, Dumont said, noting that both chains had long-term leases that gave them effective control of the site. Ultimately both were supportive.
The plan has involved keeping the two anchors, but constructing a new building for T.J. Maxx and renovating the Market Basket exterior. The former interior mall building was demolished, and has been replaced by smaller buildings with a mix of restaurants and stores. The 350-unit apartment building — where 25 percent of units are affordable — is in the rear.
By significantly scaling back overall retail space, the developers were able to shrink the size of the parking lot and add substantial green space.
David Gillespie, AvalonBay’s vice president of development, said in addition to the location, the village-style concept spurred his firm to want to partner in the project. The apartment building is nearly complete, with full occupancy expected by this summer.
“Residents like to be able to walk to amenities and retail and not get in their car to do absolutely everything in their lives,” he said.
Woburn has seen a large amount of new housing in recent years and so is not actively seeking more, according to the city’s planning director, Tina Cassidy. But she said because the Woburn Village apartments are at the rear of the lot, they will have minimal visual impact. The overall project is bringing the city other benefits, she added.
Those include about $1 million in permitting fees, $1.3 million in state incentive payments for adopting the smart growth zoning, and up to $1 million in added annual real estate taxes. Because more than 20 percent of the housing units are affordable, Woburn also can count 350 units towards its state requirement of having 10 percent affordable housing.
Cassidy said the MAPC report is helpful in highlighting the “incredible advantage to communities” of having pedestrian-friendly projects built on already-developed properties, though cautioning not every community has suitable sites for it.
Dumont agreed many retail centers in New England could be redeveloped following the Woburn Mall model, but noted that redeveloping existing sites “is not an easy process.”
John Sisson, Dedham’s community development director, said the town has a number of commercial properties dating as far back as the 1950s that would lend themselves to the type of redevelopment MAPC advocates.
“We are very close to Boston so it’s no surprise that land is very valuable,” he said. “And when you have a strip retail property that contains a one-story building and a sea of asphalt parking, that does not seem the best use of that land.”
Dedham adopted a zoning change in 2019 encouraging mixed-use projects on those retail sites. The town already permitted housing atop stores, but since many buildings are unsuited for that, Sisson said the new “horizontal zoning” allows it alongside commercial buildings.
“It’s kind of going back to what we love about New England,” Dedham’s planning director Jeremy Rosenberger said of a village-oriented mix of housing and retail.
Natick has been developing plans to revitalize retail areas for a number of years, notably partnering with Framingham to focus on sites within the Golden Triangle area spanning the two communities.
“The idea is to provide a mix of uses,” Town Administrator James Errickson said. “We work with property owners and market dynamics to figure out what makes sense for the neighborhood.” The town is now looking to craft zoning to realize those planning goals.
“What we’d really like to do is produce a long-term sustainable model that can allow these properties to continue to evolve as the market evolves and further integrate them in the neighborhoods that surround them,” Errickson said.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.