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In Wellesley, center's success spreading out

Wellesley planning director Rick Brown, with the Linden Square project in the background. Wellesley planning director Rick Brown, with the Linden Square project in the background. (BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

Several town planners mention Wellesley when they talk about the town center they'd like for their own community.

The story of how Wellesley got such a prosperous downtown starts with a coincidence.

A plan to widen Route 16 about 20 years ago coincided with a school redistricting project.

"Everything hit the fan" when parents learned that their children would be walking to school along a double-wide stretch of highway, town planner Rick Brown said. "The project ran into a buzz saw."

Town leaders changed consultants and architects. Sidewalks got widened. Workers installed decorative street lights, benches, and tables. They planted trees.

Local shop owners saw a surge in business. New businesses opened.

"It really was a complete shot in the arm for the business area," Brown said.

Today, Wellesley's downtown is a New England version of Rodeo Drive. There are five-star restaurants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, scaled-down chain stores. And the commercial success is spilling over into nearby neighborhoods. A third of a mile from downtown, a lumber and coal yard has been converted to Linden Square, a complex that will include a spa, upscale stores, and a health club.

It helps that the town can draw on the considerable wealth of its residents. The median assessed value of a typical home is $824,000. According to a news release from Linden Square's developer, Federal Realty Investment Trust of Maryland, the average income within a 3-mile radius of the project is $191,000 a year.

Dennis Frenchman, chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology urban planning department, said that kind of affluence surely helps a downtown to prosper, but it doesn't seal the deal.

"There has to be a little serendipity, too," he said. "These things are under our control. If a city is vigilant about trying to focus activity in its town center, obviously that helps."

Megan Woolhouse

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