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Big dreams for downtowns delayed by sleepy economy

Realtor Eileen Mason with prospective tenant Ted Dimacopoulos in Franklin. Realtor Eileen Mason with prospective tenant Ted Dimacopoulos in Franklin.
(Globe Staff / Bill Greene)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2008

Some suburban communities may have to defer their dreams of revitalized, bustling downtowns, rich in old-fashioned New England character and packed with new shops, restaurants, and apartments. Ongoing mixed-use projects in Franklin and Westborough, hailed a few years ago as key to revitalizing those towns' centers, are not taking off as expected - and may not until the economy improves, developers and officials say.

Walking around Westborough's Bay State Commons, a 23-acre shopping center with 44 condominiums on the former site of an abrasives factory, Meghan Handrahan of Hopkinton noted the gap between the buzz that once surrounded the project and the current reality.

"We don't have many stores close to us, so when it opened we thought it was a pleasure," she said. "People were excited to see what stores were coming in. It looks like a ghost town today."

Garrett Baker, assistant manager at the complex's Mattress Giant store, echoed Handrahan's impression. "It was a slow start," he said. "I think as more stores open, we'll do better."

Representatives from the project's anchor tenants, Wellesley-based Roche Bros. supermarket and Stein Mart, a nationwide department store chain, said their outlets have been successful since opening in October and April, respectively. But Bay State Commons has numerous empty storefronts.

That's the retail end of the operation. The original vision called for the project's condos to house a new population in Westborough's core as well, but there's no sign that any of the new units are occupied. Officials in the town assessor's office said they had received no notifications of the deed transfers that would follow any sales in Parkview on the Commons, the luxury residential building on the site. Claire Murphy, the real estate agent selling the condos, did not return calls for comment. Late last year, she said prices ranged from $535,000 to $740,000.

A partner in Philips International, the New York firm developing the $100 million Bay State Commons, Gregg Saunders acknowledged the project's start was sluggish, but said he wasn't surprised. A handful of other stores are poised to move into the development, he said, but they are dragging their feet.

"Even the best retailers are holding up contracts all over the country," he said. "Retailers are more focused on trying to tighten what they have."

Saunders said he is confident Bay State Commons will realize its potential once the stores develop a permanent client base and the economy turns around. In the meantime, the complex isn't going anywhere.

"This one is a gem," he said. "We've put a lot of money there. We have deep pockets. We built it. We own it. It will come around."

Westborough's town planner, Jim Robbins, said the 2-acre park and public road improvements made to accommodate Bay State Commons have not been completed, but the benefits of the development are already being realized. Residents take afternoon walks in the development, and restaurants like Panera Bread are usually packed, he said.

"I'm not worried about the retail or commercial portion at all," said Robbins. "Once that park is fully completed, which will be before the end of summer, you're going to see those condos sell."

He also noted that Verizon recently opened a store in the project, and the Boston Sports Club is expected to open its doors soon.

The town of Franklin, which also based its hopes for a newly vital town center on a mixed-use project, is seeing similar challenges. The four-building Franklin Center Commons project is half complete. Real estate broker Eileen Mason said she rented 11 office spaces and three retail units in the first building on Summer Street within six months.

Unlike Westborough, Franklin's development has found clients for its new condos, but not in the way that was envisioned. In one fell swoop, developer John Marini recently filled all 20 condos in the project's East Central Street building by leasing them to Dean College for student housing, Mason said.

But having college students on the premises has created some challenges. The four retail spaces in the East Central Street building's first floor are not selling, in part because Dean College requested that no tenants possess a liquor license, ruling out cafes and other eateries that often depend on serving alcohol. "We're struggling with the retail," said Mason.

The 1,000- to 2,500-square-foot retail spaces would be best for small family businesses, said Mason. But economic conditions aren't favoring those types of establishments. Small businesses in the area probably won't be moving into the building unless they're start-ups, she said, and start-ups are not common these days.

"We're looking for good, solid retail shops, coffee shops, it could be a print shop, a postal center type of thing," she said, but "banks are not loaning money like they used to. You need to be more established."

Mason said she believes the 27 condos in a third building under construction on Summer Street, and slated to open in September, will sell because they are priced reasonably for the area, from $289,000 to $369,000. Ideal buyers would belong to the demographic groups that planners say would enliven downtown.

"We're looking for commuters, the professionals who use the train," she said. "You can walk to the train, banks, restaurants, that's the convenience part of it."

A fourth building with condos and retail space, also on East Central Street, is scheduled to open in March 2010.

Lisa Piana, executive director of the nonprofit Franklin Downtown Partnership, said the area's problem is not too much empty space, but too little space in general. She often receives calls from businesses interested in moving downtown, she said, but she doesn't always have leasable space for them.

"Our challenge is to find the right fit," Piana said. "What I mean by the right fit is that we have people who want a small space. Others want a large space. There's not a lot of space available. I have a restaurant now that is not a good fit for the Marini project, but who wants to move downtown. They are on my waiting list."

That there is interest in the retail space validates the concept of concentrating business and residences in the town center, Piana said. "Residents call me and tell me they want the New England downtown that they dream of, with the ice cream store, gift shops, restaurants," she said. "They want to come and hang out downtown."

Like Robbins in Westborough, Piana predicted that once public amenities are completed at Franklin Center Commons, the buzz about the development will be realized. The state Highway Department is set to make $5 million in improvements along Route 140's path through downtown, adding new streetlights and sidewalks. Officials are also planning a museum downtown to showcase Franklin's 19th-century history as a straw-hat manufacturing center.

"In the next three years, our town is going to be much more of a town you want to be a part of," she said.

Proponents of a proposed revitalization project in Ashland weren't dissuaded by the mixed success of the Franklin and Westborough projects. The town's Planning Board recently approved the proposed site plan for a three-story building on Front Street that would include 8,200 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor, and 14 apartments in the upper stories.

Under the plan, the town would retain control of the land, but would seek a developer to construct and lease the building, said Pamela Bathen, chairwoman of the Ashland Redevelopment Authority.

Officials hope the building will draw pedestrians and bring life to the area, Bathen added. She said the project would avoid pitfalls encountered in Franklin and Westborough because it doesn't seek to radically expand Ashland's town center. Realty firms and cafe owners have already expressed interest, she said.

"This project is very fitting to downtown Ashland because of its scale," she said. "It's rather small, actually. No one is trying to put a very large building or a very large development downtown."

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