Municipalities seek identity in town centers

Mix of history, culture seen as key to economic future

The old Shurfine Market building will be demolished as the first step in Tyngsborough’s plans to redevelop its town center. The old Shurfine Market building will be demolished as the first step in Tyngsborough’s plans to redevelop its town center. (Photos By Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / July 16, 2009
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The upcoming demolition of the old Shurfine Market building will become the first tangible evidence of Tyngsborough’s attempts to carve out an identity for itself beyond a bedroom community and a passageway to big-box shopping in Nashua.

Right now, points of interest in the center of town include the Littlefield Library, Winslow School, and Old Town Hall - all of which are vacant. Municipal business is conducted at the new town hall/library, located in a remote wooded area away from the center. In Tyngsborough, as some observers put it, there’s simply no “there’’ there.

But selectman Richard Lemoine sees this as an opportunity for the town to reinvent itself. Since his election in 2002, Lemoine has advocated creating a new master plan for economic development, and has been a proponent of pursuing as much open space as possible.

“We want to make sure we develop a town center that recognizes the history of the town, along with grasping the culture and the wants of the residents,’’ Lemoine said. “We’ve never had a town center, an identity for a town.’’

Tyngsborough is not alone in its identity search, as many communities see the value of an attractive town center to their economic future as well as their character. Tyngsborough’s efforts were recently recognized at a recent state Department of Housing and Community Development conference sponsored by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, said the commission’s executive director, Dennis DiZoglio.

“Tyngsborough is one of those kinds of communities that is trying to develop an identity because there really isn’t a lot there,’’ DiZoglio said. “Focusing the conversion of their [old] government buildings for private use is a strategy they’ve focused on.’’

In 2002, Tyngsborough Town Meeting approved the start of a master plan and by 2004 it was completed, Lemoine said, adding that it became “our road map to the future.’’ From there, committees were created, new overlay district zoning was approved, and more land was acquired, such as the old Tyngsborough campground by the Merrimack River, which will open as a “passive park’’ possibly by the end of summer. The next phase in the town’s evolution will be a market analysis, focusing on what the residents envision for the center and its vacant buildings, Lemoine said.

“Now we’re to the point of trying to identify what our niche is for the build-out, work with the townspeople to move forward,’’ he said. “First is the demolition of the Shurfine Market, and then finish the market analysis study.’’

The study could take about five months to complete, he said.

“It would be nice to have a place of social gathering, a coffee shop, a breakfast place, an eatery where people can congregate and support their local businesses,’’ Lemoine said.

Billerica Town Manager William F. Williams, who was recently criticized after publicly pointing out the lack of character in some parts of town, said that in the past, too many communities built their identities around shopping centers. When those big-box stores ultimately relocated closer to highways, town centers suddenly became hubs for nail salons and law and insurance offices, he said. Lexington and Winchester are examples of well thought-out town centers, with ample parking, mixed use, and preserved historical charm, Williams said.

He remains unapologetic about Billerica, saying too many look at it “through rose-colored glasses,’’ believing its current state is the best the town can do.

“They’re not going to want to have a small community arts group and put in an arts center,’’ Williams said. “With a downtown and a vibrancy has to come some sort of culture, whatever people want. You’ve got to have activities for young people and adults in order for it to be good.’’

Building an identity around one use is too risky, said DiZoglio, a former planner and mayor of Methuen. Billerica’s neighbor, Lowell, learned that the hard way when Wang Laboratories, credited with the former mill city’s economic revival in the 1970s and 1980s, folded, he said.

“When you have one thing, it’s not going to work. You need diversity,’’ he said. “What’s really big now is the smart-growth agenda, where you have a number of uses, housing, governmental, retail, office, commercial, things like that, so it’s a mix of uses trying to take advantage of the existing structures. Smart growth is the buzzword of the 2000 era.’’

That was the lesson Lowell applied in the post-Wang era, said Theresa Park, the city’s economic development director. Lowell’s biggest assets, its many mill buildings, were converted and put to use in different ways, Park said. Since 2000, there has been about $240 million invested into downtown Lowell, including 1,644 residential units built in 2007 alone, she said.

“Lowell’s identity now is to appeal, in some respects, like a traditional urban center in the sense that it has a mix of uses in the downtown, a scale that’s pedestrian-friendly, accessible to public transportation, better access to retail uses, attractive to daytime and nighttime populations,’’ Park said. “We continue to be the type of community that some of these other cities desire to be.’’

Maintaining historic structures and putting them to use in modern ways is another major aspect of smart growth, DiZoglio said.

Newburyport was one of the first communities to adopt this method, he said. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city ripped down the facades that covered brick buildings, as well as fluorescent lights, and put in brick sidewalks as part of a revitalization plan that included a nod to its historical architecture.

Park said Lowell has achieved the same balance.

“In a way, it’s sort of a living history,’’ Park said. “In one way, you’ve captured how the city developed and at the same time we’re functioning in a very modern way, a crossroads of history and modernity. As far as things that people want, it has all the amenities of a big city, but with that small-town feel.’’

In Tyngsborough, residents are already chiming in with opinions as to the fate of the old town buildings.

The town’s Community Preservation Committee favors preserving the old Town Hall, pledging $2.5 million for the estimated $3 million it would take to restore it, Lemoine said. The committee has been asked to wait until the market analysis is completed, he said. Residents will also have a say in what should become of the Shurfine Market site, which will feature a long-obscured view of Flint Pond, which Lemoine calls “essential to the town center.’’

“A center of town, whether it’s just a few shops, a green space, a bandstand, something that recognizes the significance of a community, every community strives for one,’’ Lemoine said. “That’s what we’re striving for.’’