Four-story brick buildings. Coffee shops. Booksellers. Restaurants. Apartments. Walking streets. Performance and theater space. A farmers market. A boutique hotel.
Those and other urban amenities were hot topics among 100 Marlborough residents who met last week to discuss the future of the city’s proud but dog-eared downtown.
“I’d love to see a college’s satellite campus here,” said Deborah Fairbanks, owner of the Renaissance Lofts, a mill converted into condos on the edge of downtown. “UMass, Massachusetts College of Art, Berklee — something to bring youth and vitality, to excite businesses to open.”
Hosted by the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation, the two-hour meeting in the city’s Masonic Hall was the first of a series scheduled through May to give the public a chance to voice their opinions about enlivening downtown.
The City Council is considering zoning changes to the area based on an Urban Land Institute Boston report released in February that said downtown Marlborough has more parking than necessary, too many restrictions on new development, and too little foot traffic and street life.
Speaking at the meeting, the development agency’s executive director, Tim Cummings, said the Urban Land Institute report shows that Marlborough’s downtown has untapped economic potential that could complement the vitality of the high-tech companies in the sprawling industrial parks on the city’s edges. “We should do something for downtown and take a look at land issues,” he said.
Bill Brewin, 58, grew up in downtown Marlborough and now practices law from his offices on Main Street. He said he’s seen the city change many times over the years as the local economy has evolved.
In the 1970s, the city built Granger Boulevard to reroute traffic away from downtown. The road cleared up traffic on Main Street but also made it easier for people to shop elsewhere. Strip malls later opened on the outskirts of town, and in the 1990s developers put up the Solomon Pond Mall.
Brewin’s grandfather owned a women’s clothing shop on Main Street, he said. Retail stores like that aren’t coming back, he said, but he believed others — like a café or a bicycle shop near the entrance to the Assabet River Rail Trail on Lincoln Street — could flourish if given the opportunity.
“It needs to adapt to a changing retail environment,” said Brewin. “Now we have a mall.”
In their comments as well as polls that used paper ballots and electronic voting, Brewin and other people at the meeting indicated what kinds of businesses and building designs they wanted to promote. The vast majority wanted the area to have more night life, from restaurants to cultural attractions.
Cynthia Wall, a planner with the quasi-public Metropolitan Area Planning Council, told the gathering that Marlborough has the right ingredients — like space for apartments, offices, and short walks to storefronts — to attract the 20- to 34-year-olds and active retirees over 65 that create thriving night-life scenes. “Live, work, play environments are becoming increasingly viable,” said Wall.
She suggested that city officials determine whether developers can build the smaller apartments and dense housing projects that attract those demographics. To encourage developers to propose them, said Wall, the city might change its 52-foot building height limit if they adopt preapproved designs or make certain improvements, like setting aside open space. “If someone wants to build artist housing, is that allowed in the zoning?” she said.
At the same time, most residents also said they wanted to preserve the historic character of downtown Marlborough, where many brick buildings are more than a century old.
The consensus was that the city needed to invest in preserving its architectural gems — like the 1897 Walker Building on Main Street — while encouraging new businesses and buildings that attract newcomers but stay consistent with the city’s traditional style.
“It’s a nice downtown,” said Damon Michaels, a software engineer. “It just needs stuff to attract people.”
But Michaels and others also said they thought the city needed to spend more money on maintaining the parking garages and other infrastructure downtown. Many complained that the garages were dirty and falling apart and discouraging visitors. “Do people really want to go into garages when they go downtown?” said Brewin.
City Councilor Joseph Delano, speaking at the conclusion of the meeting, said the public input on zoning changes was essential as he and his colleagues draft new ordinances. He expected it would take a few months before they have proposals to show the public, he said.
He also cautioned against expecting massive public spending in any proposal.
“When we talk about changes of this scale, we need to know it takes a while,” said Delano. “We don’t have a tremendous amount of dollars to do this. If we do our jobs, private business will come in.”
John Dyer can be reached at email@example.com.