Natick’s most prominent undeveloped space, the fenced off 1 South Main St. plot resulting from the 2019 fire that razed a handful of businesses, could start returning to life by May or June.
“This is probably the site in town that I am most asked about… like when is something gonna come in there?” said Planning Board member Terri Evans during a Dec. 21 meeting of that body (discussion on 1 South Main starts at about the 9-minute mark of the Pegasus recording).
The team behind “The Block” project told the Planning Board during an update at that meeting that it found in initial marketing of the development as a pop-up hamlet for artists and other entrepreneurs that there was more interest in spaces at least slightly larger, and sometimes double that, of the 500 sq. ft. “jewel box” spaces first envisioned. A restaurant, for example, might require a larger space, or maybe a few restaurants could band together in a larger space that lets them share amenities.
Developer Stuart Rothman added that the realization of the challenges involved in managing a dozen-plus retail tenants also factored into the proposed change of plans. That’s not to say a larger space couldn’t be leased by an outfit that would then manage a few tenants, or sub-letters, he added.
The project has morphed as its made its way through town approvals. There was lots of drama in early 2021, with the developer pulling his plans and then having a change of heart. Then there was talk earlier this year of expanding beyond two stories to three, and perhaps some rooftop use. Now the thinking is to keep it at two floors for the foreseeable future, though shrink the number of spaces within it from 16 to 8 to accommodate larger units. There could be a mix of unit sizes based on demand.
A working group meeting was held in September, and things had been quiet since, at least publicly. The team came back to Planning at the Dec. 21 meeting with some proposed changes to stairways (moving external ones into the building) and an elevator location designed to better suit the shift to larger units.
The Planning Board determined that the proposal added up to minor rather than major change (the latter of which would have triggered a public hearing), and approved the modifications. The development team’s architect suggested ground could be broken as soon as March or April, but developer Rothman said May or June is more likely. There was earlier hope for a groundbreaking this past spring, but the weeds have had a reprieve.
While Planning approved the new proposal, it was not without regret about the loss of some design features—”slightly quirkier elements,” as Evans put it. It feels “a little more formal, a little less playful,” she said of the structure, which does retain an inviting courtyard.
The project team tried to assure the Board that the development will still have a vibrant feel, including with the option for an open air deck on the second floor, plus spaces for locally-owned businesses. The latest renderings don’t feature the colorful sidewalk scenes of some past ones, so that might influence the impressions of those viewing them, said project team member Allison Yee of Upnext, which connects small retailers with pop-up space.