For the first time in nearly six decades, Bridgewater may soon provide developers a green light to offer housing in the heart of its downtown.
As one way to bring new vitality to the area, the town is poised to approve zoning amendments that would allow housing in the central business district by special permit as long as it is confined to the upper stories of commercial buildings.
The Town Council is set to hold a public hearing on the plan on Tuesday, and could vote to approve it as early as that night.
“This is part of an attempt to provide incentives for reinvestment in the downtown,” town planner Greg Guimond said of the proposed changes, which have been endorsed by the Planning Board.
The plan would allow up to five housing units per acre, or six to eight units if 25 percent of them were affordable. Property owners would also be allowed to convert the rear or upstairs of commercial buildings to up to two units if they preserve the building’s exterior.
The changes would apply only to the central business district, the core area of the downtown that includes Central Square, where routes 18, 24, and 104 converge.
The downtown historically had a mix of homes and businesses, but when Bridgewater adopted its zoning in 1957, it excluded residential uses from the core area, according to Guimond. Since then, housing was allowed only in buildings where it existed prior to the adoption of zoning.
Guimond said restoring the option of mixed use “gives property owners additional rental or income opportunities for their buildings.” He said it is hoped that will spur property owners to upgrade their buildings, helping them attract business tenants.
Providing more housing in the central business district would also promote more pedestrian activity, Guimond said, adding, “You will be able to walk from your unit to offices, shops, and restaurants. . . which is good for the environment and the economy.”
Also, having people residing on the upper stories of a building ensures that even if the ground-floor commercial space is vacant for a time, there will still be activity in the building, Guimond said.
“It provides a place for housing for people who may not need or want to own a car, who could live in the downtown in walking distance to all our commercial entities and the train station,’’ said Carlton Hunt, chairman of the master plan implementation/energy committee, which has also endorsed the plan. “It’s really good from a smart-growth perspective.”
The zoning plan would fulfill one of the recommendations of a downtown improvement study that the Old Colony Planning Council completed last year for Bridgewater.
“We think mixed-use development for the central business district makes a lot of sense in Bridgewater,” said Pat Ciaramella, executive director of the regional planning agency, “particularly where you have [Bridgewater State University] nearby and a lot of pedestrian movement through the downtown area.”
He said bringing more residents into the area could expand that foot traffic, spurring economic activity that could also help better connect the northern and southern sections of the downtown.
Ciaramella said cities and towns have increasingly been embracing the mixture of housing and business uses as one strategy to reenergize their downtowns, citing two major mixed-use redevelopments in Brockton’s downtown, one planned and one underway.
James R. Watson, comprehensive planning supervisor for Old Colony, said that for a long time planners have tried to separate uses, for example residential and industrial. But in recent years, “there have been a lot of second thoughts about that. They are saying that in certain areas, mixed uses are compatible, like housing over stores.”
Shaun Burke, Mansfield’s director of planning and development, said the town has seen a good deal of recent development in its downtown “and I think that’s been a function of our mixed-use zoning.”
Mansfield adopted the zoning in 1989 “but it really came into its own over the past 10 years,” Burke said, noting that developers’ interest in bringing housing into the downtown mix was also spurred by the construction of a new train station about eight years ago.
“People like to live in the downtown. They can walk to the train station in the morning, and there is a certain ambience to living in the downtown,” he said.
Despite such advantages as the train station and proximity to the university, Bridgewater’s downtown has not lived up to its potential, Guimond said, noting that some buildings are vacant and others are in need of upgrades such as new roofs, windows, and siding.
He said that in addition to the zoning change, Bridgewater hopes to initiate a program to help downtown business owners improve their facades, and is looking for ways to ease the downtown parking crunch. Further ideas could come from a downtown master plan the town will be initiating with $50,000 in federal funds recently awarded by the state.
Guimond said that a key objective is to increase nighttime activity in the town center, including by broadening the restaurant base. The town has also discussed using the upstairs auditorium of Town Hall as a performance center in the evenings.
Peter Colombotos, chairman of the Town Council’s community and economic development committee, said he is excited by the plan and expects the council to follow his panel’s recommendation to approve it.
“For those who feel strongly about private property rights, this just really expands them,” he said. “It offers ways property owners can get a return on their investments in a way that benefits the town at large.
“People are realizing the sprawl-based model of development really doesn’t make sense any more,” he said. “People want to be downtown and have a sense of place, a place that is not just another strip mall.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.