Around 90 residents, business owners and employees spent Thursday night at Town Hall swapping dreams for the future of Natick Center. The Town and Natick Center Associates organized the Natick Center Forward forum to compile the ideas to increase activity in the area, keep living affordable, improve the parking situation and more.
The crowd broke into groups, led by facilitators, to compile lists of likes, dislikes and dreams for downtown. The suggestions will be used to help create a master plan for the future. The plan will be released in a few weeks.
One group of participants said the community events on the Common, restaurants, commuter train, TCAN and overall artistic feel of the town were major draws to the downtown area, but also pinpointed areas that need improvement. Traffic, lack of affordable housing, unsafe crosswalks and some dilapidated business fronts were concerns that some expressed. Parking, however, was a major issue for nearly everyone.
Currently, there are just more than 400 spots available for leasing in the downtown lots. Around 350 have been claimed, 72 by commuters and the rest by business owners, according to Patrick Reffett, Natick's community development director. For locals looking to run errands, metered spaces are few and far between.
"The historic buildings, which give us the character and the beauty of our downtown, they were designed and constructed in a time before the automobile that's why they are of the type and significance that they are," said Reffett. "But unfortunately they were never built with the land area that has the ability to satisfy the parking needs for themselves in a conventional, contemporary kind of way."
Residents said the town needs to think more outside the box to come up with a solution.
"It's not just about numbers and spaces. It's about design, where they are and what their relationship is to those businesses and the places that people need to get to," said resident Sarallyn Keller. "I think we need to think more creatively about parking—about parking under things, about lifts."
Despite the negative views on parking, residents and business owners spent most of their time looking to the future of what Natick Center could be. Participants shared their visions for an ideal downtown, which included more affordable apartments and condos for older residents wishing to move into a smaller space.
"I'd like to be able to have the buildings that are already accessible and not used on the top floors be allowed to create condos for the elderly so that if you want to downsize and be right downtown, you don't have to go building anything else," said Charlene Foss, a clinical social worker who runs her business out of an office downtown. "There's enough floor space on the third floor of the Clark building...It's beautiful space and you could reconfigure it."
Many of the upper floors of the buildings on Main Street have been vacant or used as just storage for years.
Other desires included making downtown more of a 'one-stop shop' to run all your errands and pick up any items you might need. Co-owner of Five Crows Gallery, Ginger McEachern, said she would like to see a strip of shops built on Middlesex Avenue near Corrado's, which could include a small grocery store, a fish shop, a butcher, florist or similar places where you could pick up everything you need to prepare a meal when you get off the train after work.
Many also said approving use of the former CSX railway as a Rail Trail biking and walking path from Saxonville in Framingham to Natick Center would be a positive step in making the town more walkable and bike friendly, especially for those who use the train to commute into Boston.
What would you like to see happen in Natick Center? Tell us in the comments section.