January 9, 2017

Framingham on the cusp of downtown boom

Photo/Edd Cote
Framingham Town Manager Robert Halpin has developed a “roofs before retail” policy in order to get more residents downtown to provide customers for businesses potentially coming in.
Photo\Edd Cote
A slew of new downtown Framingham restaurants have created a new atmosphere, including the Padaria Brasil Bakery next to the municipal offices where Halpin works. He is chatting with employee Diones Lima.

Framingham investment

Town leaders are banking on zoning changes to usher in a new wave of investment from developers and other business owners who want to make Framingham home. Here's a look at the newest arrivals, and those that may be next to land in downtown.

Jack's Abby

Framingham's own brewery, which includes a beer hall and kitchen, has continued to grow since it opened its original location in 2011. Now in a former Dennison Manufacturing building on Clinton Street, the brewery represents an investment of about $6.5 million, a workforce of 100 and counting, using about 130,000 square feet downtown.

Deluxe Depot Diner

Located in the historic H.H. Richardson train station, an architectural gem and downtown focal point that has been home a series of restaurants over the years, the Deluxe Depot Diner has garnered rave reviews since opening in 2014. It has sister locations in Watertown and Newton.

Pho Dakao

Attracting similar attention is Pho Dakao, the authentic Vietnamese eatery on Concord Street, which has become famous for its soups above all, since opening in 2014.

Modera Framingham

This is the first new residential project to be permitted since zoning changes allowing greater density were approved by town meeting members in October 2015. Construction of 270 luxury apartments could begin this spring, adding new housing on Waverly Street within a 10-minute walk to the commuter rail station. The project represents a $40-million investment by Texas developer Mill Creek Residential.

75 Concord St.

A second developer has proposed construction of a mixed-use property, including 197 apartments and 2,600-square-feet of retail space. The $60-million project is scheduled for a review by the Planning Board in January.

CommCreative

The integrated marketing firm moved its headquarters into downtown Framingham this year, investing $2 million in its new Fountain Street offices and bringing with it a workforce of young professionals.

Source: Town of Framingham

When Robert Halpin became the Framingham town manager four years ago, one of the biggest problems he faced was how to unleash the untapped potential of the downtown.

On paper, downtown Framingham had the elements to thrive: an MBTA commuter rail station; proximity to major economic centers in Boston and MetroWest; grand architecture and a multicultural vibe generated by the small, immigrant-owned businesses that dominate the district.

But large parcels of undeveloped property remained vacant decades after major manufacturing left downtown, leaving it a shell of what is once was, and the foot traffic needed to support a revived town center wasn't there.

Now Halpin and his colleague, Arthur Robert, the head of the town's economic development department, are hopeful this is about to change. In October, Special Town Meeting members overwhelmingly voted to approve zoning changes Halpin and Robert had presented, which will encourage transit-oriented residential development in the downtown Central Business District.

"It's all about creating foot traffic and vitality on the street," Halpin said.

Roofs, then retail

By adopting a policy of "roofs before retail," Halpin and Robert hope to attract a new population of young urban professionals to make downtown Framingham their home. In terms of commute, they say the area is feasible for people who work in Boston as well as at the big MetroWest business parks along Route 9 and near the Mass Pike.

What's held Framingham back from being a vibrant bedroom community were barriers to building new rental units under the former zoning regulations. Halpin said developers couldn't build new apartments largely because caps on density were too limiting to make it feasible, and parking requirements ate up too much buildable space.

"We reduced the parking requirement … We stepped back from requiring different use combinations, and we allowed more density," Halpin said.

Spurring national investment

Developers seem to be taking notice. Two national developers have proposed projects for downtown Framingham in light of zoning changes. One, called Modera Framingham, received approval from the Planning Board last summer, and it includes 270 apartment units on Waverly Street, within short walking distance to the commuter rail station.

A second project was discussed at the Board of Selectmen meeting last week, which includes 197 units as well as 2,600-square-feet of retail space at 75 Concord St. It's slated to go before the Planning Board by the end of January.

Both are projects owned by national developers and Framingham officials have had to do some courting to encourage their investment. Robert said the first residential projects in an untested area are seen as inherently risky by developers, so the town had to make the right moves.

"When we did the zoning last fall, we let town meeting members know that the first people in are the people who are absorbing the risk," Robert said.

The town is planning to help defray some of the cost of development using a tax increment finance (TIF) program designed especially for residential projects. Similar to the program for commercial business expansion projects, the TIF program would exempt a certain portion of the value of the new residential property from taxation for a set period of time.

It's a program overseen by the state, and it became more attractive as a tool for encouraging development projects under an economic development bill signed last summer, which increased the flexibility of the program, Robert said.

The town has proposed a $2.8-million TIF for Modera Framingham over seven years, and a $6.3-million TIF over 20 years for the proposed Concord Street project. Selectmen voted last week to formally develop the agreements, which are subject to the approval of town meeting voters.

Laying the proper infrastructure

In addition to zoning changes and tax incentives, downtown Framingham has seen some recent infrastructure improvements that are essential to redevelopment.

A series of traffic and streetscape improvements were completed downtown through a $10-million project overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. This increased walkability and helped relieve traffic, said Halpin.

Meanwhile, Boston electricity and heating provider Eversource Energy has invested $30 million in utility infrastructure upgrades. Halpin said this supports power demands that come along with new infrastructure.

Early settlers

Although town leaders have zeroed in on residential development as the impetus for more retail business downtown, important new retail tenants have already arrived.

Perhaps most notable in terms of scale and visibility is Jack's Abby Beer Hall & Kitchen on Clinton Street. Jack's Abby also makes its lagers in its on-site brewery, where tours are offered to patrons. It's become a destination for people from all over New England, said Sam Hendler, who owns the business with his two brothers.

Founded in 2011, Jack's Abby delivers beer to customers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Vermont. They started out in a smaller location near their current site, which is in a former Dennison Manufacturing building. The property had stood vacant for many years since Dennison ceased operations in Framingham in the early 1990s.

Jack's Abby moved to Clinton Street when it needed to grow, adding a the restaurant and bar. In January, the brewery will celebrate the opening of a new tasting room, which was part of an expansion that also grew manufacturing and storage capacity next door to the original Clinton Street site.

Hendler said the brothers chose Framingham for a number of reasons, including the relatively low price for the space a brewery requires.

"The craft beer movement … has a lot of ties to some of the movements you're seeing throughout the economy with people trying to turn back to smaller producers. You see downtowns being revitalized, people turning away from the big malls, and people choosing to do business with local businesses and local artisans," Hendler said.

For all of its selling points, though, Hendler agreed with town officials that a lack of transit-oriented residential development has been the primary hindrance to Framingham seeing more interest from retailers like him. A former resident of downtown Framingham, Hendler said there's a large waiting list at the luxury apartment complex where he lived until recently, also in a former Dennison building.

Hendler considers Robert, the economic development chief, the driving force behind the changes that could push Framingham to the top of list of attractive places for young professionals to live in Metrowest.

"If there were more places to live down here, there absolutely would be more young people living down here," Hendler said. "We see a huge opportunity on the restaurant and entertainment end."

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