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City living in the suburbs

City living in the suburbs

BANKER & TRADESMAN – Forget the Brady Bunch 1970s-style subdivision living. Urban is hot right now and suburban is not.

But the growing popularity of downtown living doesn’t mean we are going to see suburban exodus. Rather, the city is coming to the suburbs.

The growing popularity of downtown living is transforming once-sleepy or long-neglected suburban, town and small city centers across the Boston area into urban-style hubs with the flavor of big city living.

While it’s a trend that has been building for a couple years, it is starting to intensify and spread, from close-in commuter cities to suburbs and small cities out on Route 9 and I-495.

“There is a big overall trend of people moving back into urban centers,” said Michelle Landers, executive director of the Urban Land Institute Boston/New England. “But not everyone wants to live in Boston or can afford to.”

“There are plenty of people who want to recreate some of that experience in some of these smaller suburban centers,” she noted.


City Living, Suburban Centers 

Waltham was a pioneer in the urbanizing trend, with its downtown coming to life in the early 2000s with the Cronin’s Landing apartment complex, which spurred a restaurant revival.

Another, more recent round of apartments is bringing additional vitality to Watch City’s now hopping center.

But now the urbanization trend is moving deeper into the suburbs, reaching Wellesley, Natick and Framingham on Route 9 and Marlborough and Haverhill out on the 495 beltway.

After years of construction stalls and false starts, Wellesley Center now has a sizable residential enclave of its own, with the Belclare having opened late last year.

Next door Natick is now seeing its own residential building boom.

Over the past few years, hundreds of new apartments and condos have opened up in the center or within a short walk, including a trio of new projects near the Natick Center commuter rail station and the conversion of the turn-of-the-century National Guard Armory into town homes.

The new apartment and condos, in turn, have helped the acclaimed Natick Center for the Arts to thrive while supporting a growing restaurant scene.

Now a second wave of residential construction is taking place. Developers have torn down the old American Legion hall and another building that was home to a  hardware store, with plans to build a combination of shops and upper floor residential units.

Farther out in the burbs, Framingham and Marlborough are pumping money into making their centers attractive amid the growing appeal of urban living.

The Modera Framingham, a 270-unit luxury apartment complex, is slated to take shape near the center at the site of a former Harley-Davidson dealership. Rents will start at $1,600.

The development follows a planning process by town officials aimed at promoting residential development near the commuter rail station in Framingham center. Jack’s Abby, a craft brewery, is also helping bring new life downtown.

And out on 495 in Marlborough, a developer recently proposed building a 6-story, 32-unit condo building in the town center with a ground floor restaurant. The move comes after officials rezoned part of downtown Marlborough to make it more attractive to new residential development.

The trend has even reached as far as Haverhill on the New Hampshire border, with hundreds of new apartments downtown bringing new life to the city’s restaurant scene.


Alternatives To Boston

So what’s driving the suburban center building boom?

For starters, there is a large and growing group of homebuyers and renters who want to enjoy some of the benefits of urban living but don’t want to move to Boston.

More and more people, especially Millennials, are factoring in walkability when deciding where to live.

For them, living in or near a town center like Natick, where you can walk to the commuter rail and have your choice of restaurants, may be more appealing than a more bucolic or rural suburb – Dover anyone? – with few downtown attractions.

Nor is Boston affordable to everyone, with the likelihood that you will pay a lot more for less space.

But more than just price and convenience are at work here. There is a real hunger for community in our increasingly atomized age.

The 1960s-style subdivisions certainly had their charms, offering new homes at relatively reasonable prices, especially in a market like Greater Boston, where old and not necessarily well-maintained homes have long been the norm.

But these Brady Bunch-style tracts of homes could also be extremely isolated and disconnected places; you may or may not know your neighbors and a trip to the store could mean a half-hour drive.

By contrast, “in-town living,” as one Newton broker has coined it, offers the best of both worlds, with the attractions and feel of a smaller, more intimate city neighborhood without the hassles of the big city.

Of course, when the children of the Millennials come of age, they may decide that they would rather go-off the grid altogether to get away from their city-loving parents.

In real estate, the only constant is one cycle follows the next.

That said, urbanization is clearly one trend that is here to stay, for this generation, at least, and smart developers are leading the way.

This article by Scott Van Voorhis originally appeared here.