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Smart Thinking

Franklin, a community south of Boston, became a poster town for sprawl. Now one developer is betting big on revitalizing its downtown. Should the rest of Massachusetts follow suit?

John Marini
To make smart growth happen, developer John Marini was willing to navigate the zoning and permitting process. Other components of smart growth are, from top left, ample parking at commuter rail stations; stations close to residences, so riders can walk to the train; and building projects located in existing town centers to conserve farmland or forests. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)

The next boom in real estate may have started with a wrecking crew. The target was a single abandoned furniture warehouse right in the center of the once-thriving downtown of Franklin. What went down with the warehouse may be the whole idea of living in a huge house on gobbled-up farmland in the suburbs and spending the better part of your life behind the wheel of a car.

If all that seems like a lot to read into the demolition of one building half an hour south of Boston, back up a few years. In the 1990s, Franklin became a poster town for development run amok. Its population has boomed since 1990, increasing from 22,000 to 30,000. But there was little growth downtown, where Franklin had clustered from the 18th to the early 20th centuries between the mill-friendly Charles and Blackstone rivers. It was happening in the forestland and open spaces on the outskirts of the town. Among communities surveyed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 2003, Franklin ranked third in the amount of farmland lost to development between 1985 and 1999. Meanwhile, between 1970 and 2002, the average lot size in Massachusetts grew by 47 percent – and more than doubled in Franklin.

Susan Speers moved to Franklin in 1988. Director of the Metacomet Land Trust, a nonprofi t that works to preserve open space, she was shocked by the community’s rate of development. “The floodgates were already open when I got there,” she says. “Now, the trafffic is incredible. The exit 17 interchange at I-495 looks like LA with its six lanes. There are two train stations, but you can’t park at them after about 7 in the morning.” As for Main Street, it’s a shadow of its former self. Speers can remember when there were actually pharmacies and hardware stores, but mostly they’re long gone.

Of course, as an environmentalist, Speers is supposed to be shocked by development. But she was not a lone critic. Franklin’s Master Plan, issued in 1997, reported that the rate of residential growth had “strained town services and changed the community’s character in a way that is upsetting to many residents.”

ONE SOLUTION TO FRANKLIN’S PROBLEMS CAME TO TOWN in a big silver four-seat pickup. Behind the wheel was developer John Marini. He is 69 years old, wears a gold ring on his right pinky, and has a captain deliver his boat to Florida in the winter. His hands are rough and strong from decades of slinging around studs and joists. Normally, developers and environmentalists inhabit fiercely opposed worlds, but Marini’s projects – he hired that wrecking crew in Franklin – make him a “kindly developer,” maybe the highest praise one could expect from an advocate like Speers.

But Marini can drive his big pickup in peace. He’s probably done more for the environment than most people putting around in their sensible Civics. Marini’s project, Franklin Center Commons, is set to replace that derelict warehouse with three buildings split among office space, condos, and stores – all along Main Street and all within sight of the T’s Franklin/Dean College stop. A resident will be able to hop the train to Boston, then pick up groceries and a movie on the way home, all without looking for parking or feeling bad about living on a former farm.

Marini’s Franklin project follows on the heels of fi ve successful projects in downtown Canton. He completed his latest there in 2003; the Village at Forge Pond is located on a lot that used to host a warehouse and a bunch of rotting tractor-trailers, the usual blighted hole at the center of so many old Massachusetts towns. “No one had done anything here for 80 years,” says Marini on a walk around the Canton project. “People were waiting for something to happen. They didn’t know what; they just wanted something to happen.”

What happened was that Marini built 35 condos atop 8,000 square feet of businesses like Centerfields Bar & Grill, which overlooks the sluice draining Forge Pond. Behind the main buildings, there’s a public landscaped garden walk, with benches and a little gazebo. Marini points to some rushes between the brick walk and the water. “We had to clean that up for the turtle nesting and all that,” he says with a shrug. “But I guess you can’t be all business.” The whole thing is across the street from the Canton Center commuter rail stop.

The best part? “I can’t sell these units fast enough,” says Marini.

What’s happening in Canton and Franklin is good business for Marini, but it’s also what city planners and the state of Massachusetts like to call “Smart Growth.” A blossoming movement in urban and suburban design, it’s touted as the answer to pollution, traffic, commuter frustration, local unemployment, and the increasing difficulty of finding a decent tomato. The idea is to stop sprawl and instead to build on high-density lots, with apartments on top of retail spaces, reserving whatever farmland is left for, well, farming – which will hopefully solve the tomato problem.

It also means easy access to public transportation and the possibility of accomplishing many of life’s daily tasks, from buying bread to getting to school, without a car. Though it has been around for years as a concept, Smart Growth has really started booming in the last five years. In Medford, there’s another ambitious downtown project next to the Mystic River. Built on 16 acres, Station Landing at Wellington Circle is slated to have 650 apartments and condos located atop 100,000 square feet of stores, and another 165,000 feet of office

space. And in Manchester-by-the-Sea, the town recently put 39 units over stores near the train station. Similar projects are underway in Revere and Lowell.

A move back to the cities is afoot nationally, as well. The abandoned steel towns of Pennsylvania have seen huge growth from the migration of middle-class New Yorkers. New apartment buildings are going up in downtown Hartford, and they are being filled. Los Angeles is aggressively pursuing transit-oriented growth. Del Mar Station in Pasadena, for one, will have 347 apartments directly over a new light-rail line.

SMART GROWTH, IN MANY WAYS, LOOKS A LOT like the past. This is probably why the state’s secretary of the Office for Commonwealth Development, Douglas Foy, talks so much about Concord. Foy’s job, a Cabinet-level position created in 2003 by Governor Mitt Romney, is to coordinate and oversee the spending at the state offices for housing, transportation, and environmental affairs, and for parts of the department of energy resources, a total operating and capital budget that’s about $5 billion a year. He also directs the disbursement of the $590 million Commonwealth Capital Fund, which provides money to cities and towns trying to implement Smart Growth, paying for sewers, water mains, bike paths and sidewalks, investments in parks, cleanups, and, of course, roads and trains.

Prior to his appointment, Foy spent 25 years as the director of the Conservation Law Foundation, the environmental litigation group. Now he works in the belly of the beast he used to fight.

As with Marini and Speers, Smart Growth makes odd partnerships of all kinds. A recent visit finds Foy in his office on the 10th floor of the Saltonstall Building on Cambridge Street, overlooking the low houses of Beacon Hill – another excellent example of Smart Growth, by the way. It is a casual Friday, apparently, and he looks at ease in black sweater and lightweight hiking boots. His hair is thick and white, his eyes a pale blue, and his features weathered.

“We used to know how to build compact and walkable towns pretty well,” he says. Concord, established in 1635, is in Foy’s estimation the perfect model for Smart Growth. It is quintessentially compact. Stores are lined up in front of generous sidewalks, with housing above. Public transportation, in the form of the Fitchburg Line of the commuter rail, is easy to get to without a car, he points out. “The irony is that Concord, this paradigmatic town, is illegal under a lot of current zoning laws,” says Foy. “You couldn’t build a new Concord.”

Marini knows this too well. When he presented his Franklin project to the Town Council, just about everything he wanted to do required a “special permit,” even though the community was largely supportive of his plan. In the 14 months it took to get Franklin Center Commons approved, Marini went to 14 hearings to explain what he wanted to do. He spent $3.85 million for the land and $480,000 to plan, design, and engineer the project.

Because of the zoning laws in Franklin, building in the dense Smart Growth style is more difficult than a zoning-tailored project. “Most towns want 40,000-square-foot single-family lots,” says Marini. “But in the center of a town like Canton or Franklin, I think you should be able to build on 2,000-square-foot lots.” In Franklin, the smallest ready-made zoned lot is 5,000 feet. Less than that, and developer permits are in the time- and money-consuming “special” category.

This is true around the state. According to the American Planning Association, Massachusetts’s planning laws are some of the most backward in the nation – complex, difficult to navigate, and often unforgiving.

But Foy, in what is possibly the core of his job, is taking on the role of Zoning Avenger. If he can streamline the approvals process, more developers, even those without $480,000 and 14 months to invest in permits and design, will be tempted to follow in Marini’s lucrative footsteps. Because of Massachusetts’s long tradition of home rule, the state cannot simply order communities to open up their zoning. Instead, the Office for Commonwealth Development has approved alternate zoning rules, known as 40R, and tempts communities

into adopting them by holding out as a carrot the money in the Capital Fund and in the other departments Foy oversees.

Although there are necessarily a few holdouts among major developers of office space and big-box retail, successes like Marini’s in Canton and Franklin ensure Smart Growth support from most angles. Rezoning to allow for houses on smaller lots ought to please builders, openspace advocates, and city and town treasurers. Builders, according to a 2005 report sponsored by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, can sell a big house on a small lot for nearly as much as a big house on a big lot, so they make more money selling four houses on four half-acre lots than they do selling a single house on a 2-acre lot, a practice forbidden under the zoning rules of many communities. Small lots obviously save space, which has additional benefits for communities; in more compact developments, they need to maintain fewer roads, sewers, and sidewalks.

ALL OF WHICH LEADS TO THE QUESTION: WHAT KIND of nut case would abandon the American Dream and move out of that big house in the suburbs to a modest multifamily unit in a downtown struggling back to life? As Marini has found, there are plenty of candidates, including himself. He moved to downtown Canton a few years ago.

“I used to have the big house and all the land,” he says. “We had six people and seven cars in our house. But it wasn’t for me. I like the closeness of a town. I like traffic. I like people.” In

some ways, Marini, too, is looking to the past. He grew up in a three-decker in Watertown.

“There were probably 17 of us in that building,” he remembers. “If we wanted meat, we walked to the butcher. If we wanted a book, we walked to the library. We never heard of

traffic.” In 2001, Marini and his wife moved into a four-family unit that, not surprisingly, he built himself. It sits in the imperial shadow of the Canton Viaduct, an arched aqueduct-style trestle built in 1834. Right down the street is the Kessler Machine Works. And like the residents of Forge Pond, Marini doesn’t need a car to get around. “I can walk to the station,” says Marini. “I can walk to my office. It’s convenient, and it’s part of my exercise.”

Empty nesters like Marini are relatively easy catches. He recently completed a survey of about 300 of his tenants, and most are either older couples or younger professionals without kids. Nearly three-quarters use the train to get to work – downtown Boston is a 25-

minute ride from Canton.

His tenants look a lot like the people who’ve been moving into transit-oriented projects around the country.

But the ultimate prize for Smart Growth advocates is the big suburban family, the soccer moms and NASCAR dads roaming the American burbs in SUVs like pre-Columbian

bison on the Plains. To get them out of their cars and into cozy downtown units, says Foy, you need to build the schools they demand almost before you install the heat and water. To

that end, last November, Foy helped get a bill passed that helps communities cover expenses incurred when additional students move into new downtown developments.

“Our approach for the last 50 years has been ‘Let it rip,’ ” says Foy. “It just hasn’t worked. But I think we’re starting to gather momentum in the other direction. Look at the downtowns of Boston and Newburyport. They’re booming. I think we’re headed back to the great New England neighborhood.”

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