Thursday, March 6, 2008

Boston Globe - At home in downtown Franklin

In can you missed this good summary from the Sunday Boston Globe:


At home in downtown Franklin

Fifth in a series

FOR MOST of its existence, Franklin looked like a New England town straight out of Currier & Ives. And in some ways, it still does. While the town center languished as the region's mills declined, it still boasts a compact business district surrounded by historic homes and the leafy campus of Dean College.

During the tech boom of the 1990s, Franklin, 25 miles from Boston, turned into something else: the quintessential Interstate 495 exurb. Flex-space buildings and shopping centers clustered along the highway, and new subdivisions sprawled across what had been open space.

But that rapid development has slowed, and in recent years Franklin began confronting the problems that past growth had left behind. Among other things, that meant knitting Franklin back together by revitalizing the town center. "We had a traditional dying downtown," says Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting. Yet with an MBTA commuter rail station in the heart of town, Franklin was primed to capitalize on a movement toward transit-oriented growth.

So businesses and civic groups formed the Franklin Downtown Partnership to push for beautification and economic development. In 2001, Franklin rezoned roughly 40 acres in the town center to allow for mixed-use development; the old zoning forbade new housing in commercial zones. Because it's hard to get around without a car, Franklin joined the Greater Attleborough Taunton Regional Transit Authority and will inaugurate a bus line in March. Franklin is now using a $5 million federal grant to improve traffic flow and make other streetscape improvements downtown.

The goal, as the partnership puts it, is to make Franklin "the 'up and coming' downtown of the western suburbs." These efforts are starting to bear fruit. Since last summer, developer John Marini of Canton has completed two mixed-use buildings that are part of the $35 million Franklin Center Commons project. A third is underway, and a fourth is also planned.

Even so, this model of redevelopment remains an experiment, in Franklin and elsewhere. It gained currency during a period of economic prosperity. And to the extent that its power depends on the popularity of cute shops and upscale condos, its prospects are less certain now, as the economy falters.

Unsustainable development
Franklin grew faster in the '90s than all but a smattering of Massachusetts towns - from 22,000 residents in 1990 to more than 32,000 today. Eventually, spec houses with stiff pricetags were replacing green fields in the town, once an affordable alternative to communities closer to Boston. But this centrifugal style of development puts too many strains on public services and the environment.

As part of a project known as MetroFuture, an effort to promote sustainable development in Eastern Massachusetts, the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission studied how towns might evolve in the future. Had Franklin continued to sprawl as it did in the '90s, it would be on track to lose 2,600 acres of open space to development by 2030. In contrast, by steering development to existing population centers, areas near public transit routes, and previously developed land, the town can accommodate almost as much population growth - but would lose fewer than 1,000 acres of undeveloped land.

Ironically, the consequences of past sprawl may be helping downtown revival efforts. "The reason downtown fell into problems," says Bryan Taberner, Franklin's new planning director, "is that there was a lot of land available" elsewhere in the town. Now, he says, undeveloped land has become scarcer and more expensive, so downtown redevelopment looks more attractive than it used to. And while the construction of retail shops alone can be cost-prohibitive because of land prices, mixed-use developers can generate more revenue on the same parcel by adding one or more floors of offices and apartments above stores.

The Franklin Center Commons project suggests that the market has caught on to the advantages of such development. While the town used a grant to demolish a piano factory that once stood on part of the project site, Marini has otherwise relied on private money.

Cautionary notes
But as ambitious as that project is, it hasn't yet ushered in a mass movement back to downtown. While Marini now specializes in mixed-use development in town centers, Franklin officials say their efforts to revive their downtown haven't yet lured the kind of developers who normally build on undeveloped land on the outskirts of town.

While Franklin has been adding fewer than 100 single-family homes a year throughout this decade, about 350 such homes were built in each of the two peak years of the '90s construction boom. By comparison, the Franklin Center Commons project plan calls for only 77 condos. And even that number isn't firm; Marini says he may seek to replace condo units in one proposed building with office space, because of a weak housing market.

Moreover, while Marini thinks his new retail space will rent for a premium - about $20 to $24 per square foot, he says, compared with $12 or so in older buildings - he has yet to find tenants for much of it. Amid all of Franklin's exertions and aspirations, the laws of retail physics still apply: The town isn't just competing with other downtowns for upscale shoppers; it's also competing with nearby Wrentham Village - an outlet mall so popular that it shows up in Japanese travel books.

Of course, there's more to downtown redevelopment than just luring retail stores. "That's the easiest thing," says Marc Draisen, chairman of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. He stresses the benefits of luring corporate employers to downtowns instead of to anonymous office parks. Then again, Nutting says, the amount of vacant office space elsewhere in the region may make Franklin's downtown a tough sell.

Even so, he figures Franklin is keeping pace with other downtowns with similar aspirations. "It's not like we've done one thing and said, 'That's it,' " Nutting says. "This is in perpetuity." Downtown Franklin frayed over the course of decades. Efforts to revive it won't succeed overnight.

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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