In Wellesley, center's success spreading out
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,
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."