Where some people might see run-down buildings or gaping parking lots in downtown Framingham, Arthur Robert sees potential.
And now the town’s community and economic development director is leading an effort to convince developers that the downtown is primed for a rebirth, centered around its proximity to a commuter rail station.
“We’re looking for a vibrant downtown,” Robert said. “Our goal is to create a downtown that is dynamic, attractive, and urban, that will not just attract people to live there but attract companies to locate in our downtown as well.”
As part of that effort, the town recently put together a tour of downtown Framingham for about 20 local real estate developers. Attendees visited several underutilized parcels, some of which are vacant or located next to parking lots or open space, or include clusters of buildings that lack continuity.
On Concord Street near Howard, for example, is a parcel that Robert says is defined by a parking lot left over from a building that burned. He said the space creates a gap in the corridor.
“What we’re looking for is parcel transformation that can add people, that can help fill in that gap and add dynamism to our downtown and boost demand for retail and services,” he said.
The tour began at the Danforth Art Museum and School, where developers heard from Town Manager Robert Halpin, Robert, and local community and business leaders about the advantages of living and working in Framingham.
Other speakers highlighted downtown Framingham’s background, recent zoning changes, downtown amenities, and development opportunities.
Town officials say the zoning changes, approved at Town Meeting last October, were the first major step in the revitalization of downtown. The changes to Framingham’s Central Business District allow for greater density, lessen the need for special permits, reduce parking requirements, and allow for more flexible uses.
“The new, enhanced Central Business District zoning is designed to encourage residential and mixed-use transit-oriented development around Framingham’s commuter rail station, which is among the rail system’s busiest,” Halpin said. “This type of development will contribute to a dynamic, diverse, and walkable setting we know people are seeking in [a] downtown area such as Framingham’s.”
Sam Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers, which opened in 2011 and recently expanded at a new location on Clinton Street with a beer hall and kitchen, was a strong supporter of the zoning changes as a way to bring in more people and businesses to the area.
“We’ve invested everything we have in a business in downtown Framingham that relies on people showing up here, so anything the town does to make it a more attractive downtown is something we’ll get behind,” Hendler said.
Hendler said he and his two brothers initially opened in Framingham because of its proximity to Boston and reasonable warehouse prices, but they chose to expand in town because they see its potential. He thinks people are looking for more intimate, family-owned businesses rather than the big chains that dot Route 9.
“We really do believe in Framingham rising again,” he said. “You’re seeing some of the old, once-neglected areas come back. With some smart investment and a little luck, the town of Framingham could have a really vibrant downtown area. We believe we can be a part in helping build that, and we think the town is on the right path.”
Robert said the zoning changes are a key part of the revitalization efforts, but just one part of it.
He said downtown has recently benefited from $20 million in public and private investment, including the nearly completed $10 million roadway project along Route 126 that will upgrade downtown utilities, improve traffic flow, and provide an updated streetscape.
He said there has also been significant private investment in the area, including Jack’s Abby, CommCreative, the Deluxe Depot Diner, Pho Dakao, and Exhibit A Brewing.
CommCreative, an international marketing agency, recently announced that the company’s corporate headquarters will relocate from Union Street to the R.H. Long Factory Complex on Fountain Street downtown. Renovations at the new location are underway and scheduled for completion by the fall.
CommCreative owner Bob Fields said the company, which has been in Framingham for more than 20 years, looked at locations outside of town when it came time to expand, but decided to stay. Fields said proximity to the train station, access to students at Framingham State University, support of town officials, and reasonable real estate prices won over in the end.
Fields said the marketing agency is constantly battling to find qualified employees, and the commuter rail station and reasonable home prices are a big draw.
“We’re pushing that in our recruitment ads,” he said. “If you look at the under 40s, they are looking for more than just the paycheck, and it’s amazing what Framingham has to offer.”
Fields said the town’s economic development team has also played a big role in his decision to stay in town. Even though Framingham is home to corporate giants such as Bose, Genzyme, and Staples, town officials are also working hard to lure smaller businesses, he said.
“Anyone would roll out the red carpet for those companies, but our experience with the town has made us feel like equals,” Fields said.
Whether other developers or business owners are ready to invest in downtown Framingham is still unclear, but Robert said he heard positive feedback from those who attended.
“Our purpose was to highlight potential and get developers to think about Framingham as an opportunity,” he said.