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Marlborough tests smart-growth strategy

BANKER & TRADESMAN – There are only a handful of vacant storefronts on Main Street in downtown Marlborough, but new development has been scarce in recent years.

Discount wireless stores abound, but name-brand retailers are absent. Service businesses from shoe repair shops to driving schools are well-represented.

Marlborough officials rezoned 50 acres in the downtown area to encourage new businesses and multi-family development under smart-growth principles, hoping to revitalize an area that has been overlooked in recent years.

“We need more variety,” said Mary Scott, co-owner of the Main Street Cafe. “Fifteen hairdressers and insurance companies aren’t going to draw people down here.”

This month, Marlborough officials enacted a new village zoning district designed to turn 50 acres of the downtown into a 24-7 magnet. The regulations encourage new uses including recording studios, bed-and-breakfasts and brewpubs. They allow new buildings to take up bigger portions of a parcel, while eliminating parking requirements. And they allow multifamily development for the first time in decades.

“Everyone worked together to come up with the best plan. They all realized we needed some housing down here,” Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant said.

The plan embraces smart-growth principles that are credited with reviving downtowns across the country, by attracting younger residents and more nightlife.

Downtown Back In Focus

Marlborough has the biggest commercial real estate market on the Route 495 belt, with sprawling office parks populated by corporate heavyweights including Boston Scientific and TJX Cos. For decades, the strength of those job centers made it easy to overlook the stagnation of the downtown.

The Main Street reboot dates back to late 2013, when city planners and economic development officials participated in a technical assistance program sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. One of the questions they sought to answer was how to encourage development on several small lots that weren’t developable under the existing zoning, which dated back to the early 1980s.

At a series of community meetings, the scope expanded as residents and merchants talked about the shortcomings of the existing business district.

“They were looking for more amenities, restaurants and gathering places. That was a big takeaway,” said Tim Cummings, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corp.

The rezoning checks off many of the most popular smart-growth strategies designed to encourage a walkable neighborhood with more permanent residents. It encourages merchants to maximize the use of outdoor spaces with patios and courtyards, and relaxes parking requirements after officials determined they were hindering the growth of new business.

Until now, businesses were required to provide 10 parking spaces for each 1,000 square feet of space. The village zoning district eliminates the parking requirement. Officials reached the conclusion that there are ample free spaces available on the street and in two publicly-owned garages.

“The parking ratio in the downtown was relatively high. Removing that roadblock and allowing for more building on the footprint itself made sense to create more of a downtown feel,” Cummings said.

That strategy disregarded public comments that downtown parking is insufficient, but Vigeant argues that it’s only a matter of time before locals adapt.

“People who have been down here forever say we don’t have enough parking, but the parking garages are completely underutilized. We’ve gotten in the habit out here of parking right in front of the store you’re walking into,” he said.

Connecting To Main Street

Main Street and Route 20 form the north and south boundaries of the district, a six-block area about a mile east of Route 495.

Before city officials began the downtown study, local merchants, property owners and residents took matters into their own hands by forming the Marlborough Downtown Village group. Now going on five years, the organization sponsors special events, such as art openings, designed to generate more foot traffic.

Scott, the café co-owner and the group’s chairwoman, said the downtown has never recovered from the opening of regional shopping centers like the Solomon Pond Mall. But with the reviving popularity of urban centers, downtown has an opportunity to make an impression on newcomers.

“You’ve got these big businesses with young executives moving into the area,” she said. “But you’ve got to give them something: a little martini bar, a small boutique-y shop, and that’s what we’ve been all about.”

Vin Bin, a gourmet wine and cheese shop located in a former firehouse, is a model for the type of unique attraction that could thrive in the new district. On a recent weekday, dozens of shoppers browsed the aisles for wine and craft beer. Others waited in line to order banh mi sandwiches or lingered over lunch in the store’s café.

“Once you get that domino effect, people will see that we’re sincere and the energy’s good here,” Scott said.

This article by Steve Adams originally appeared here.

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