So I took a couple of roads trips recently to see if I could get a feel for ways tasteful commercial development can occur in a small New England town center, and also how/if it can co-exist with the residential qualities of a village. I visited 17 towns in a mostly northern loop: Sudbury, Concord, Acton, Littleton, Harvard, Groton, Carlisle, Pepperell, Townsend, Ashby, Ashburnham, Jaffrey (NH), Peterborough (NH), Shirley, Sterling, Rutland, and Westminster. Maybe I’ll cruise a southern loop later but, for now, here are a few observations (without conclusions):
- Good examples. I found one instance of what I think is a well-done commercial development within a town center.
That is Depot Square in Peterborough, NH, where fourteen retail shops and restaurants are arranged within a collection of converted sheds and warehouses, and nestled behind the street-facing office and retail buildings in Peterborough’s downtown. About two hundred parking spaces are scattered throughout. Atmosphere is like a small village. There are no national or regional chains–all independent shops.
If there is an “anchor,” it is a mid-sized independent bookstore/café. There is some convenience shopping (a dry cleaner, for instance), but mostly Depot Square appears to be geared toward visitors, tourists, and workers in the downtown office buildings. Very nice, and potentially a good source of inspiration for a developer in terms of design and ambiance, but in my mind probably does not represent a practical possibility for Bolton.
- Preserved historic centers. A number of towns have protected historic centers that lie within Local Historic Districts. In these towns, there is no or very limited professional/retail activity in the center. The commercial areas are, by design or advantage, outside of the historic center, often clustered along state highways or around major intersections. This arrangement suggests conscious planning. Examples of this include: Acton, Carlisle, Harvard, Pepperell, Townsend, Shirley, Sudbury.
- Mixed use. One of the main reasons I went touring was to see what “mixed-use” looks like and feels like, since we’ve been talking here about considering a mixed-use overlay district in the town center.
I did not find many attractive examples, among the 17 towns, where commercial and residential uses commingle nicely. If any town comes close, it is maybe Westminster. If a town center has more than 2 or 3 going retail establishments, then in most cases it has a core that is exclusively commercial, at least on the street level. There are numerous examples of multi-use buildings in centers (retail on street level, apartments or offices upstairs). Some are attractive, some are not.
Around the edges of the commercial core is usually an area of former homes turned into professional offices or small shops or multi-unit rentals, as in the picture at right. After that comes residential homes. In most cases, there is a fairly clear separation between these three categories of use, and it looks like the commercial uses gradually expand to push out the residential, at the least single family residential. Examples of this include: Littleton, Groton, Ashburnham, Jaffrey, Peterborough, and to some degree Sterling and Westminster. Concord, with its strict downtown Historic District, and the presence of an in-town private academy, is an outlier to this paragraph of generalization.
- “Anchor” stores. It is hard to gauge the impact of “anchor” stores in these towns, if indeed there are many. I’ve heard from a number of folks that an anchor is an important component in creating sufficient draw and traffic for smaller surrounding businesses. Groton may have an anchor in the form of a chain hardware store that is located in the village center.
Ashburnham has a small family-owned market off Main Street (parking is only about 20 cars) that could maybe qualify. Concord and Peterborough are their own anchors in that they are destinations in themselves. Jaffrey has a downtown chain drug-store that by site plan and access appears to want to separate itself from its neighbors rather than draw people to them. Apart from Peterborough, only Westminster has a small shopping center in or near the center, and that does not contain a clear anchor.
Some towns clearly do not have an anchor and, for the most part, enjoy town-center conveniences in scale with their surroundings, such as: Ashby, Ashburnham, Townsend, Harvard, Pepperrell, Sterling, Carlisle. Sudbury, Littleton, and Acton have numerous anchor-type establishments but they are spread along miles of Route 20, 2A, or 27, not in the “center”.
- Town water/sewer in center. All but two of the towns I visited have either public water or sewer, or both, serving the town center. Ashby and Carlisle, like Bolton, do not have either.
So, all in all, it wasn’t a hugely productive exploration. But I’ll keep looking. Do you have any suggestions of good examples to study, within a 2-3 hour radius? Towns that you think Bolton should emulate in its town center planning? I’ve got a full tank of gas.