While officials are counting on the Arcade at Downtown Framingham, a nearly $60 million mixed-use project, to revitalize the town's commercial core, some worry that the project will help push out immigrant businesses.
After nearly three years of negotiations with developers, community leaders are touting the Arcade project, which includes renovation of historic buildings, a new garage, and an apartment complex, as the cornerstone of downtown revitalization.
"I think it's huge," said John Steacie, chairman of Framingham Downtown Renaissance, a coalition of community groups. "It would bring people into the downtown [who] have discretionary income. They'd be willing to spend, so that's a big economic boom."
The project would include 290 one- or two-bedroom apartments, a six-story, 563-space parking garage, and 50,000 square feet of new commercial space.
Michael Gatlin, an attorney for developer Framingham Acquisition LLC, said officials are "pretty optimistic" construction could start as soon as early winter and be completed within 2 1/2 years.
Developers are building multimillion-dollar projects in downtowns across New England, including in area communities such as Lincoln, Franklin, and Westborough. But what's happening in Framingham is an early example of a new gentrification trend, one that pushes out immigrant-owned businesses, according to Jonathan Leit, who wrote his master's thesis on the Arcade project for the urban studies and planning department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After the project's completion, commercial rents could double to $18 to $20 per square foot, which has some existing merchants feeling uneasy, and some, in cluding Brazilian business owners, fearing they could be displaced.
Vera Dias-Freitas, an advocate for the Brazilian community and owner of a jewelry store in the existing Arcade building, one of four Concord Street buildings included in the larger project, said the concerns of local businesses are not being taken into account.
The developer "received a tax break from the town, and they don't have plans of gradually increasing the rents so we are able to come back here" when the reconstruction work is completed, Dias-Freitas said. "They are destroying our client base because they pushed out the businesses from upstairs, 95 percent of which happen to be Brazilian."
Gatlin said the project's funding sources are still being worked out, and pointed out that relocation assistance would be required only if state funds were obtained by the developer.
Business leaders say there's no reason the Brazilian businesses can't remain in the revitalized downtown.
"Anytime you're looking for redevelopment, you're going to get some change," said Ted Welte, president and CEO of the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce. "And I don't see anything that says the Brazilian entrepreneurs will have to go somewhere else."
On its own, the Arcade project is a good thing, but not when it means displacing an immigrant community that helped to revitalize downtown in the first place, according to Leit. "I don't think anybody has a problem with Brazilians," he said. "It's a problem with the identity of downtown being so Brazilian."
Frank Kavanagh, president of the Brazilian American Association, known as BRAMAS, said town officials never considered the opinion of the community before approving the project.
"There's no inclusiveness of the Brazilian population in the process," he said.
But Selectman John Stasik said Framingham officials do not want the Brazilian businesses to close down. "It's not deliberate on the part of policy or any board in town that we are trying to displace any one group," he said. "I do think there is an economic reality that goes on over time . . . we have to work within it."
Stasik said that the project can bring about changes that are compatible with the downtown's existing identity. It also means that more nightlife is possible without offsetting Framingham's image as a family-friendly place, he said.
"It doesn't have to be rowdy drugs and crime."