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Study on waking up sleepy downtown

THE BOSTON GLOBE – A glut of parking spaces and a lack of car and foot traffic have made downtown Marlborough a humdrum destination, according to a report issued recently by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute and the quasi-public MassDevelopment.

But Marlborough’s center also has advantages that many municipalities in suburban Boston would envy: historic buildings, a compact Main Street that already sports restaurants and offices, as well as thriving neighborhoods within walking distance, the report found.

Now, it’s time for Marlborough to leverage its assets to dispel downtown’s sleepy feel, said specialists and local leaders who discussed the report at a City Council meeting last week. The city’s outlying industrial parks already host tech start-ups and major corporations like TJX Cos. A revived downtown would reinforce that growth, they said.

“Big businesses tell us they want to retain young employees,” said City Councilor Joseph Delano. “Young people say they want a vibrant downtown where they can live, work, and play.”

Compiled after planners, architects, and others toured Marlborough in September, the report, “Coordinating Action in Downtown Marlborough,” recommends changes that might surprise residents who have long discounted the city center as a lost cause.

City ordinances require developers to set aside 10 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of commercial space they construct, and new buildings must be set back 50 feet from the road. Given that two public parking garages are a block from Main Street, the rules needlessly increase the cost of building downtown. As a result, empty lots, unused parking spaces, and old properties blight the area, the report said.

Specialists who put together the report recommend reducing the required parking to less than three parking spots per 1,000 square feet of commercial space and eliminating the 50-foot-setback rule. More signs pointing drivers to the municipal garages would make sure drivers find parking.

“It was not zoning that was put in place to spur change and catalyze growth,” said Andrew Sutton, a real estate attorney at Riemer & Braunstein who was on the team that wrote the report.

The report also recommends new zoning to attract new businesses to Weed Street, which runs parallel to Main Street and Granger Boulevard. Currently, Weed Street isn’t particularly welcoming or used much, said Scott Payette, a Jamaica Plain-based architect who also contributed to the report.

Zoning encouraging a mix of residential, office, and commercial spaces would create a denser, livelier neighborhood, Payette said. He recommended the city acquire, or encourage a developer to purchase, the Post Office on Weed Street in order to convert the property to a new use that would add life to the area, like a hotel or gym.

“There might be an opportunity to gather up some parcels and offer it up as a development opportunity,” said Payette.

The report also suggests changing the “slip street” at the intersection of West Main Street and Granger Boulevard with new signs or traffic rules because it diverts vehicles away from Main Street and its shops to Granger, only to reconnect that traffic — and potential customers — with Route 20 on the other side of downtown. Signs might divert trucks to Granger but direct other vehicles to the shops.

“You could encourage people to make a stop in the morning on Main Street for coffee or later for dinner,” Payette said.

Some people at the meeting found the report’s conclusions about Granger ironic.

In line with urban planning trends at the time, Marlborough built Granger Boulevard in the 1970s to reroute truck traffic away from then-congested Main Street. Since then, the downtown has been in decline. The advent of big-box shopping centers on the east and west ends of the city and the development of the Solomon Pond Mall in the 1990s nearly killed off commerce in the area.

“As I recall,” state Representative Danielle Gregoire, a Democrat from Marlborough, said, “when Granger Boulevard was built, that was the whole point of it — to bypass Main Street.”

The report also suggests that the city consider narrowing Granger Boulevard and adding trees, benches, and public art to the road to make it more inviting and less of a barrier to pedestrians seeking access to Main Street.

“Define it,” said Dick Lampman, director of business development at G. Greene Construction and another member of the panel that wrote the report, referring to the boulevard. “Give it a presence and suddenly you can have a whole other district here.”

Other suggestions for downtown include turning the unused armory on Lincoln Street into a theater that could become the center of an arts district in the French Hill neighborhood; allowing hanging signs to give Main Street merchants more exposure; and adding bike lanes that might connect with the Assabet River Rail Trail.

To implement the report’s recommendations, Tim Cummings, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation, said he would draft proposed zoning changes and options for tax incentives for downtown, with the goal of presenting them to Mayor Arthur Vigeant and the City Council in May. The corporation funded the report at a cost of $10,000, he said.

Local business owners embraced the report’s findings.

“It’s long overdue,” said George Voyiatzis, who owns a block of shops, including a Starbucks and the Fish Restaurant and Wine Bar, at the corner of Weed Street and Route 85.

He especially liked the idea of building more apartments above businesses in the downtown. “The residential component is key,” said Voyiatzis. “They just bring life to the downtown.”

This story originally appeared here.