It didn’t look good for Stuart Rothman’s proposed pop-up hamlet at 1 South Main Street—the site where a fire burned down businesses in summer of 2019—following the Feb. 17 Natick Planning Board meeting. A 3-2 vote for the project wasn’t good enough for approval due to a special permit being involved, and a report after the meeting indicated Rothman had informed the town that he had had enough of the seemingly endless process.
But the Planning Board had kept an item about reviewing its decision about a site plan review and special permits on its March 3 agenda, and indeed Rothman and team returned to the virtual table. Unlike other parts of the hearing, this time it took minutes rather than hours to get things done.
Board member Peter Nottonson, who was among the two members voting against the decision at the prior meeting, said he had had a change of heart and made a motion to reconsider the previous vote. This time, the vote went 5-0, and the decision was approved.
Nottonson still believes the project has flaws, but he said that the developer made quite clear that he wasn’t going to accept further revision.
“If the present project is not accepted by the Planning Board, the site will likely remain empty for the foreseeable future. I want this critical site to have something, not nothing,” he said.
The 5,342 sq. ft. development is envisioned as consisting of modular 500 sq. ft. pop-up spaces for artists and other small business owners, with a courtyard nestled inside. Construction should start this year, but it’s unclear when it will be ready to open. Earlier plans for the site involved mixed use for residential and business tenants, but parking requirements put the kibosh on that.
In between the last Planning Board meeting and this one, town personnel, including Director of Community & Economic Development James Freas and Department of Public Works leaders, got to work addressing lingering concerns about the safety of sidewalks around where the development would rise. Indeed, sloping of some of the sidewalks was unacceptable by town standards, and the town has come up with a plan to remedy this as part of its upcoming construction season and in conjunction with the developer.
Before this hearing concluded, board members reflected on the process, and how things almost fell apart. Board member Andy Meyer says he can’t ever remember getting so many emails, texts, and phone calls from the public about a project, with one takeaway being that people felt the town was getting bullied by a developer who displayed strong emotions during meetings. Meyer chocked up the drama more to “justifiable frustration,” though said he hopes to see fewer displays in the future, and urged fellow board members to do a better job of communicating with one another in a transparent way.
“The board didn’t cave in because of pressure from the developer,” he said. “The board came to a good decision with the developer in a bumpy process. There’s a big difference.”
Little Lola’s has announced that its shop in South Natick on Eliot Street has closed, but that the owners are looking to find another full-size location later this year. The takeout spot with outdoor eating, and clutch slushies on hot days, issued the following post on Facebook:
“We have good news & great newsWe are extremely excited to announce that we have closed Little LolasThis may seem slightly odd but let us explain…
The great news – we are opening another full size location in 2021Let us know where you want to see us.”
Lola’s Italian Groceria is still going strong in Natick Center.
Meanwhile, let’s hope something interesting takes the spot in South Natick that sits next to a realty office.
Our roundup of the latest Natick, Mass., business news:
Return of the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle, a 940-acre area in Natick and Framingham known for its shopping malls bordered by major highways and roadways, has suffered from a number of issues over the years, not the least of which have been traffic congestion and a bricks-and-mortar retail industry savaged by online alternatives.
The communities of Natick and Framingham, flanked by a bunch of outside consultants, issued a lengthy report in late 2018 about the golden—or whatever color you’d describe it as these days—triangle. Zoning, transportation, and other development recommendations were made, but then like so many studies it just started collecting digital dust on the communities’ websites.
While the study was conducted before Natick hired James Freas as director of community & economic development, and back when the likes of Toys “R” Us and JCPenney were bailing from the area, Freas isn’t about to let that effort go to waste.
“What that study really concluded is that there is a range of trends in retail and office space that is changing the face of retail and needed a response in order to maintain the strength and vibrancy of the Golden Triangle area going forward,” Freas said. “What we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is those trends identified during that study have all been accelerated.”
He has asked the Select Board to get behind a revitalization of the Golden Triangle, and is coordinating with Deputy Town Administrator Jamie Errickson to move things forward, hopefully with support from Framingham counterparts. The focus would be on new zoning, and near-term achievable transportation and infrastructure improvements.
The Golden Triangle has traditionally contributed big time to Natick’s commercial tax revenue, so it’s in the town’s interest to get more from the area.
Freas shared his update on the Golden Triangle plan as part of a broader review at the Feb. 24 Select Board meeting (starting at about the 35-minute mark) on efforts that the town—including many departments and boards and committees—has made to support businesses during the pandemic, and programs in the works to further support economic recovery. We’ve embedded his memo on the subject below.
- 20 different restaurants offered some form of outdoor dining last year, and their permits are being renewed. Freas would like to see even more restaurants join in this year once weather allows.
- “Zoning amendments approved by the town to support development of the former St Patrick’s school site, give flexibility on front setbacks, reduce or eliminate parking requirements, facilitate expansion of outdoor dining, and support continuous commercial frontage on the downtown’s retail streets.”
- The implementation of online permitting software to stream all sorts of permits, including those for businesses.
Small business score more COVID relief
$3.7M in grants, largely via the state, has flowed into about 70 Natick businesses over the past year. The Commonwealth announced a new batch of COVID-19 relief grants totaling $49M this week, and 8 Natick small businesses were among recipients. Jewelry, fitness, and design firms were among those getting relief in the form of grants ranging from $15K to $75K.
Java’s space ready to refill
The word from downtowners in the know is that the space at 22 N. Main St., formerly occupied by eatery Java’s, is close to getting refilled. Director of Community & Economic Development Freas says this is the only significant vacancy downtown. More when we know more…(please fill us in: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Marijuana second chances
In the wake of Natick moving ahead with one recreational marijuana shop, the town’s is now readying for the runners-up to take a second shot at wooing the public and town officials. We saw a notice pop up on the town website for an outreach meeting with ReLeaf Alternative for March 25, so it appears as though the action will seen start up again on this topic.
Economic Development Committee website
Be sure to poke around the newish Economic Development Committee website, where you can research available commercial real estate, and examine data on competition, customers, and more.
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Natick’s town administration has begun making the rounds at boards and commissions to float a communications plan (embedded below) regarding what to do about the aging and iconic South Natick Dam on the Charles River. By the end of the year, the town hopes to present a recommendation to the Select Board that could range from repairing the dam to removing it, the latter option one that could save the town money at least short term and thrill environmental groups.
As a “high hazard” dam, the town-owned structure could do some serious damage if unexpectedly breached. Recent state reports have shown the dam to be in “fair” condition.
“In some recent inspections it was determined that some deficiencies are coming to light with the dam structure itself. Nothing is imminent. There’s no harm or danger to public safety. But if we don’t address them they can in the long term become big issues,” said Deputy Town Administrator Jamie Errickson at the Feb. 24 Select Board meeting (about 2.5 hours into the meeting).
A Town Administrator-appointed advisory committee will be assembled in March. The process it undertakes will require input not just from environmental experts and town officials, but from residents who appreciate the beauty of the spot and those whose properties and homes could be affected by a decision to keep or remove the dam and spillway (aka waterfall). This means keeping town governments and residents in communities upstream and downstream in the loop, since what Natick decides could greatly impact those in Dover, Sherborn, and Wellesley at the very least.
Natick had been considering a $1.8 repair plan about a year ago, but put that on hold upon consideration of possibly removing the dam entirely. The structure has been in place since the 1930s at a time when dams were vital to supporting mills in the area.
The town early last year received positive news in that sediment samples from upstream and downstream of the dam proved non-concerning. Following that, according to the Natick town website, “The town received a grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to further evaluate the feasibility of breaching the dam and restoring the associated river channel. The Town has contracted with a consultant to complete this work and findings from this analysis should be available in July 2020.” Presumably, these findings will be revealed during the communications process, as they were not public as of the fall when we last checked and currently still do not appear to be available on the town website.
The town plans to step up public outreach in the spring, ranging from flyers to a webinar. Public input will be collected over the summer, and the advisory committee will then meet more regularly in an effort to get its recommendations to the Select Board in the October-November timeframe.
Don’t feel like you need to move up your 2021 or 2022 wedding to get pics at the dam, though. Even once the town makes a decision about the dam’s fate, it will still take a while to either fix the facility or dismantle it.
(Disclaimer: We live in the vicinity of the dam, so are watching this situation closely.)
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