As Framingham voters make a dramatic change in the composition of their Planning Board, its somewhat glib to say that this was about pro-development or anti-development candidates. When incumbents are replaced, its sometimes less about criticism than an acknowledgment of work well done–and the need for fresh ideas. Sue and Andrea served Framingham long and well, and have made a lasting and important contribution that will be historic for the town.
Blaming the Planning Board or particular members for Framingham’s anti-business problem is simply not fair. Like many Massachusetts communities, Framingham entered the rat race of thinking that mega-business was more important than small-business, and routinely ignored the fact that Bose, Staples, Genzyme and TJX were less important, in the long run, than my law firm. Huge corporate headquarters lurking in remote office parks, and big box stores hidden by trees, do not create the kind of ground level economic activity that hundreds and thousands of lawyers, entrepreneurs and small shop owners bring to the neighborhoods on a daily basis. None of these large corporations have ever inspired street life. And at the same time, the town has seen a drop in high end, modern office space and the amenities that make it possible to do business here.
One of the curiosities of this election is that I remember when Lew Colton held an electrifying event at the Sheraton as Building Commissioner, in which he discussed his vision of new urbanism in Framingham. A lot of us signed on to that vision, and we’ve been waiting for its fulfillment ever since. Last year, I finally moved my business out of Framingham to find that vision. I found it in Concord, in a renovated mill building. I can walk from home to work. During my work day, I can run productive errands. I can do business with other local business people. My clients enjoy coming to my office. And, for what it’s worth, there’s a grade level train crossing less than 100 yards from my office which backs up traffic, and it doesn’t matter.
The problems that make Framingham difficult for business are really pretty simple and pretty cheap. Sidewalks. Crosswalks. Allowing McDonalds or CVS or Walgreens to stimulate depressed neighborhoods. My old office was on the end of Speen Street, and I felt that I had become a prisoner of my street corner. My clients complained as well. For me, the weirdest experience was having clients complain to me about losing Bickfords, and having the town fight a McDonalds on Route Nine. While it’s not everyone’s idea of development, these kinds of amenities are important to itinerant business travelers, and they thus become important to local business owners. It’s time to view these crossings, such as Speen/Route 30 and the New York Avenue/Rt. 9 corner, as possible urban villages, and it’s time to unchain the developers who want to make this happen. It’s time to lift the height cap on new buildings, and to dismiss the idea that density is evil. That was Lew’s vision back then, and we’ll see if the Planning Board has the power to effectuate change. Personally, the Town Meeting system gets my vote as the obstructionist force, but we’ll see.
There is another problem as well–many developers have viewed Framingham as futile. Whether they are right or wrong is immaterial. As one local broker can attest, my own development company, Framingham Land and Cattle Company, suffers from the malady of pessimism. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen opportunity somewhere in town, and simply let it slide because I didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, a drawn out process that would ultimately deny me the benefit of what I wanted to do. Again, I don’t blame Sue or Andrea, but a change in the Board will serve to stimulate growth, and, again, we’ll soon find out if the sense of futility was caused by the Planning Board.
Lew and Victor have their work cut out for them. Much is expected of them.
As for Sue and Andrea, we owe them a huge thanks for the foundation that they have built through their hard work, dedication and devotion. Their energy has left a mark on this town which will not soon be forgotten.