Monday, August 3, 2015

Mansfield Downtown Decision Was Bad Choice

GOUVEIA: Clear vision needed for downtown Mansfield

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Posted: Sunday, August 2, 2015 11:07 pm | Updated: 11:23 pm, Sun Aug 2, 2015.
The Mansfield Planning Board made a major decision on the future of the downtown area recently. Only time will tell if their actions will protect the integrity of the cherished area, or if they have ruined the best chance it had for revitalization.
Developer Marco Crugnale saw his plans for some proposed buildings near the Mansfield train station derailed when three planning board members voted against his long-discussed project. Ralph Penney, Richard LeBlanc and Michael Feck surprised most observers by voting in opposition. The other four members supported the proposal, but because it involved allowing some residential use in a business zone it needed a "super majority" of five to pass.
North Common Estates, as it was to be named, would have been comprised of one 42-unit apartment building as well as one 39-unit apartment building with 7000 square feet of retail space. The value of the entire project was pegged at approximately $15 million.
Supporters praised the plan and called it a key to bringing prosperity back to downtown. Town Planner Shaun Burke pointed out it would improve traffic flow. Others said it would be a major factor in the town's efforts to land a MassWorks grant to secure further improvements.
Planning Board Member Don Cleary called it "the right project in the right place" and said the benefits far outweighed the negatives.
But in the end the project was too much residential and not enough retail for the three in opposition. They cited the need to preserve as much retail use as possible in the area. Penney noted the plan would be taking parcels with up to five businesses currently there and converting them to residential use.
What he failed to do was prove that in this case, that is a bad thing.
For the last quarter-century or more, the leadership in Mansfield has debated how to "revitalize" the downtown. When I was growing up and spending considerable time in Mansfield in the '60s and '70s, there was no better place. The businesses were thriving, run by local people who knew the names of most of their customers. It was the centerpiece of the community, and people regularly patronized the shops.
But this is a completely different era. Mansfield is a completely different town.
Over time the shopping habits of consumers have changed. They tend to go to bigger box stores where the goods they buy are less expensive, and where they can fill many varied needs with one visit.
Mansfield has welcomed many of those types of establishments into the community. Right off Route 140 are two major shopping venues including supermarkets, department stores, restaurants, specialty shops, a bakery, liquor stores and more. And those plazas feature ample parking, unlike the limited spaces available in the crowded but quaint downtown area.
Given all that, it is highly unlikely Mansfield's downtown will ever again be a thriving retail center. But you don't need speculation to arrive at that conclusion. All you need to do is learn from recent history.
There are very few successful retail businesses in the failing downtown. There are a lot of vacant buildings suffering from considerable neglect. Despite the presence of a commuter rail station, the vision town officials have long had for this area is just unreasonable and overly optimistic.
Which raises what should be an obvious question for the three planning board members who shot down the North Common Estates project because it did not provide enough retail space:
Why in the world would you want to create more of what has not worked for the last few decades?
Residential units are not as desirable for a community from a tax standpoint. They bring people who require a higher level of public services than retail businesses. That's indisputable.
But in this case, a plan similar to North Common Estates makes a lot of sense. People living in the area would create a better business climate. It would be a win-win situation for the town.
But it doesn't fit the "vision" to which so many still cling.
Planners in Mansfield should stop trying to force the downtown area to be something it no longer is, and start allowing it to become what it needs to be.

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