Adaptive reuse

Main Street, Sterling.

When planners and architects talk about adaptive reuse, they are usually talking about such things as converting old warehouses into loft housing, or turning abandoned mills into art spaces or technology incubators. Adaptive reuse can be a wonderful strategy to coax new life from old buildings.

But on a recent swing through several town centers in the region, I saw a different kind of adaptive reuse—former homes now doing duty as offices or retail outlets, as above and below. In my observation, if there was any concentration of commercial activity in a town center at all—and especially if any of it was purpose-built—then there were almost always significant stretches of conversions, like the ones shown in these pictures, emanating outward from the inner center.

Bolton will soon be looking into zoning amendments for a possible village center overlay district, together with design guidelines, that could allow some kinds of business uses and/or dense development in our predominantly residential historic town center. Conversions of residential property for allowed commercial uses in an overlay district would likely require special permitting and reviews, and may or may not be allowed. Nonetheless, it would seem that opening the doors to broader business use in the town center has the potential to set forces in motion with long-term consequences that we may not yet fully understand.

—Roland

On the common, Littleton.

King Street, Littleton.


Main Street, Groton.

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7 Responses to Adaptive reuse

  1. Trebor says:

    I think converting some of the structures in town center to businesses would attract people to Bolton and business as well. I would like to think of it as an alternative to grocery store! Biggest issues are making changes the people who run the town agree with and the most important is the parking issue…there is none!

    • Barbara Bing says:

      So you honestly believe that converting our antique homes in the town center into pizza parlors, insurance offices, Dunkin’ Donuts, and funeral homes will attract people to Bolton? I have two more questions for you: Whom do you think it will attract? What attracted you to Bolton?

      • Trebor says:

        My first thought was a small “community” of people, friendly neighbors, hometown goodness then after living here I found none of that. The neighbors ignore one another. I wave at them and they bow their heads as if not to notice. They’re run you down on the back streets of Bolton and keep on going. Since their is not “community”, friendly people or good neighbors I suggest we open some shops, stores, coffee and bakery shops, drug store to attract some new people to this community that will respect their neighbor and create a sense of community, which this place lacks very much! Secondly, I wanted privacy, but since there are so many developments being built…that’s out of the question too. When the housing market rebounds it’s time to move on. Florida is real friendly!

  2. Joe Myerson says:

    I agree with Trebor on both counts: Converting some of Main Street’s existing structures to limited commercial use (or professional use) would offer a way of bringing more businesses into town.

    However, I also agree that there is no viable commercial parking space along the village stretch of Rte. 117. Unless the town can get the state to agree to installation of additional traffic signals (perhaps at Harvard/Manor Road, Wattaquadock Hill Road or both), the traffic gridlock on Main Street will only worsen.

    Still, Roland’s observations — and pictures — do offer some possibilities for increasing the commercial presence in the village center.

  3. boltoncenter says:

    I really appreciate the thought and perspectives that readers of this blog offer.

    In this case, I think both of the commenters missed my point. I was trying, in my clumsy way, to express a concern about the possibility that zoning changes could, over time and if not carefully instituted, initiate a rather wholesale transformation of the residential housing stock in the center. What I saw in town after town of my recent travels, was that the level of commercial activity in the center was a pretty good predictor as to how many of the surrounding [mostly] old houses had become themselves business locations. I suspect this phenomenon occurs because: a) zoning allows it; b) the economics of homeownership in a commercially intensive area changes to favor a conversion; or, most worrisome, c) because of commercial encroachment and impact, the houses become undesirable as primary residences and so the owners either become absentee landlords or sell to an investor/developer. It’s possible that I’m stretching this theory a little far and being a bit alarmist about it. Needs more research and discussion. But, to me, it would be very sad indeed to see our historic center lose its authentic character. It’s the oldest, most established neighborhood in town. It’s been a neighborhood for almost 275 years. I’d really hate to see its viability threatened. The disposition of the Smith property and the Salt Box, and work that the Planning Board is about to embark on relative to village overlay and design guidelines…all have the potential to go a long way toward determining what the center, and the town, is like in 20 or 30 years, in my view.
    —Roland

    • Richard F. Jones says:

      I wonder if one of the reasons discussion of development issues on Main Street grows complicated is that only the southern side of Main Street can be said to be architecturally and historically intact. The houses on that side, from the Gardner house to the Goss house, are pretty much as they always have been, and are largely well-maintained. There are only two businesses, one operating out of a residence, and one housed in the old center store, which has been “mixed use” since it was built in 1820.

      Even though a few of the houses had commercial uses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the south side has been primarily residential for nearly a century. I can’t believe anyone would seriously think it would be a good idea to convert these properties to commercial use. In addition to offering a sense of place, they make the center of town appealing and attractive.

      The northern side of Main Street is a different matter. The properties between the Houghton Building and the Phineas Wright house are somewhat less significant architecturally and historically, and that stretch of Main Street, particularly in and around the Smith property, has accommodated commercial and mixed use for quite a while. I think that when people comment about the center of town looking “run down” it is likely they have this side of Main Street in mind, and that when they talk of re-use or mixed use, they are
      considering the northern side of the street as well.

      That said, I do share Roland’s concern that once the door opens, it will be very difficult to close it again. I also share his desire that we take a long view when it comes to possible changes on Main Street, a view that takes in both the past and the future.

      Many comments have expressed a desire to have more conveniences and amenities available to town residents, but why the center of town? Traffic is a waking nightmare now and will be in the foreseeable future. Parking, as has been mentioned, is not available. I can’t imagine that if there were shops and businesses in the town center anyone except those of us who live on Main Street would walk to them. So, if we already drive everywhere anyway, why would having either small shops or a big box store in the center of town be any more convenient?

      Year ’round, Bolton Orchards and the Country Cupboard offer just about all of what we might need in the way of groceries, baked goods, and sundries in between trips to Hannaford’s. We have doctor’s offices and dentists. We have a florist, a dry cleaner, two liquor stores, and two pizza shops. We have a top-notch restaurant at the Winery. The bar at the Road House is always crowded. We have a great place to grab a cup of Joe and have a conversation thanks to Bruce Slater. And all within a few minutes drive.

      I don’t really “buy” the financial argument, either. Bolton would have to have a massive infusion of commercial development before even the smallest dent was made in property taxes, and there are locations much better suited to development than Bolton center. Those who are leaning toward proposals like Bolton Crossing would be well-advised to consider the additional tax burden they would impose by way of things like the town water and sewer system large projects may require.

      People create community by how they live with one another, by acknowledging that what happens to any one of us happens to all of us. I hope that this spirit of community will have as much influence on decisions about the future of Bolton as anything else.

  4. Jem Mix says:

    Amen, Rev. Jones!

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