Anchors away

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):

  1. Good examples. I found one instance of what I think is a well-done commercial development within a town center.

    Click to enlarge

    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.

    Click to enlarge.

    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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Sterling, mixed-use? Click to enlarge.

    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.

    Littleton-former home. Click to enlarge.

    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.

  4. “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-market. Click to enlarge.

    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.

    Ashby center. Click to enlarge.

    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”.

  5. 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.

—Roland

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7 Responses to Anchors away

  1. Mary Delaney says:

    How about Woodstock, VT? Bigger Main St. than ours would be, but besides the brick buildings they have beautiful areas of former homes that are now businesses. We could emulate by insisting that the new buildings look like antique houses and surround a common. Check out this link for pictures.

    http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/12178-Woodstock,-Vermont-info-and-architecture,-with-some-thoughts-about-old-time-New-England,-Part-1.html

    The best part of Woodstock is Gillingham & Sons General Store. That’s what we need! Forget another Supermarket. We can go to Stow or Clinton for that.

  2. Joan Entwistle says:

    I have been doing college tours with my daughter over the last month. I did like the little “town commons” development in South Hadley, across from Mt. Holyoke College. It is at a fairly major intersection, and next to the admissions office. There was a great deli/lunch place plus a few shops and offices, and a restaurant.
    Later that day we went to an outdoor concert in Easthampton – in a park with a band shell similar to the one proposed in “UMASS Commons”.
    At Wellesley, there is still a quaint “department store”, which sells mainly clothing and some home furnishings.
    On a recent visit to Camden Maine, we saw that the Rite-Aid fit right in on the street, with parking in the back. Inside, the store seemed just like the others that have been built recently in this area.
    I don’t think we should be looking for an “anchor” to bring in more traffic, but finding businesses and services for the town. Keep in mind that most places in Bolton are only 10 minutes from a grocery store or drug store in Stow, Hudson, or Clinton. At 5 PM it would take as long to go to a store in Bolton Center as to the other towns.

  3. boltoncenter says:

    That’s a good one. I’m always up for a road trip to Woodstock, and a burger at Bentley’s! Woodstock is in my mind more like Peterborough (NH), Concord (MA), or, say, Lenox, MA. It’s a big destination unto itself and so supports a whole different set of economic models than a town like ours can. You do speak to design guidelines however and those are extremely important.
    -Roland

  4. Christie Mayo says:

    I really like the looks and imagined use of Dock Square in Peterborough NH. I would be all for seeing that promoted as a goal for Bolton Center. Would you consider taking another trip there and generating a number of photos–perhaps a pedestrian eye-level series of photos taken during a walk along the stores. Or would you be up for generating one of those video mini-tours like they do for real estate. (Nice of me to come up with an ambitious project for someone else, wasn’t it.)

  5. Stephanie says:

    Hingham Mass is very built up compared to Bolton, but they do have a fun center full of mom & pop type stores; ice-cream, boutiques, that sort of thing. A cheese shop opened up there recently. Something on a smaller scale for Bolton could be a nice addition to town. The town in general is very strict about historical preservation. In other areas of town they have new retail development that was built to blend in with the character of the town (Derby St Shops). Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Lots to see there!

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