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October 23, 2014

Downtown is Marlborough's next frontier for redevelopment

Courtesy of MAPC Planners say downtown Marlborough, shown here, has good bones now and a relatively low vacancy rate of 15 percent. But city leaders would like to expand development prospects through proposed zoning changes.

The work Marlborough planners did to create a mixed-use overlay district in the city’s southwest quadrant paid off, now that several development proposals are in the works. But now they’re turning their attention away from the office parks that line Interstate 495, and inward to downtown.

It’s not that downtown Marlborough is in dire straits. Mark Racicot, land use planning director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), said its ample parking, historic architecture and quaint streetscape elements — such as ornamental lighting — make Marlborough’s downtown the envy of many other communities.

”There are so many communities that would love to have what Marlborough has,” Racicot said.

Room to improve

But there’s always room for improvement. A current proposal to amend downtown zoning regulations would expand the potential for commercial and residential development, removing barriers that may dissuade developers, such as requirements that they build new parking spaces along with the projects. Raising the maximum building height allowed downtown is also proposed, and residential developers would be allowed to build housing without having to obtain a special permit.

As the zoning ordinance is written, Racicot said it acts as a barrier to new development. It caters to “shopping plaza-style development,” he said, rather than mixed-use development that includes first-floor retail shops with housing built on top of it.

That doesn’t make sense, because downtown Marlborough is very walkable, according to Racicot, and there are two parking garages, as well as several surface lots, located downtown. This removes the need for developers to include parking in their plans, which Racicot said is attractive because parking spaces can eat up valuable business space.

The MAPC worked to draft the proposed zoning changes in conjunction with the Marlborough Economic Development Corp. over the last several months. During that time, the organizations had meetings with community stakeholders, including major employers along the I-495 corridor, who want to see Marlborough’s downtown succeed, with more restaurants, stores and housing options.

Large companies are particularly interested in a vibrant downtown because it may encourage young employees who are used to living in Boston and Cambridge to move closer to work, Racicot said. Meanwhile, he said residents are enthusiastic about revitalizing the area for the benefit of the community at large.

The City Council reviewed changes at a meeting Monday night, and referred the proposal to its Urban Renewal subcommittee for further review. While some councilors said they had questions about aspects of the proposal, Racicot said the council has been supportive of the rezoning process.

“I think the council is just very interested in having a very vibrant downtown,” Racicot said.

Will market support new residential development?

Another champion of the proposed zoning changes is Stas Burdan, a Cambridge-based real estate developer who recently completed a condominium project in the former Howe Shoe Factory building on Pleasant Street. Burdan is selling those units now, and he hopes to see more downtown residential development as a result of zoning changes.

But it won’t necessarily be easy to come by. Burdan said the feasibility of building new residential units is difficult to measure, and developers will have to take a hard look at whether Marlborough’s real estate market will justify the cost of building new housing. He said it may take a coalition of community leaders to make such a project work. If one is successful, more would likely follow, he said.

“Somebody has to come and take the risk,” said Burdan, adding that he may get involved in additional downtown development after he sells more condo units at the Howe Shoe site.

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