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: email@example.com)
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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When ticking off regrets, people often list things like never learning to play an instrument or becoming fluent in a second language. I’m OK just listening to music and using Google Translate. My big regret is not playing more beach volleyball.
Now I’ve got no excuse if I want to go to the grave sand covered and complete: Natick’s new Beach House at 18 Tech Circle offers four indoor beach volleyball courts that can be rented by groups and that will be available for various league, clinic, and other play as well.
I got a sneak peek in early February, with temperatures outside near single digits, during a socially-distanced friends-and-family soft opening. Owner Steve Mugford, literally the first new person I’ve met mask-to-mask and elbow-to-elbow since the pandemic sent me into shut-in mode, gave me a tour of the venue, starting up high on the mezzanine overlooking the courts.
Mugford explained that this facility, which he built from the ground up, has been in the works since 2017. He and his team needed to navigate the town’s zoning and variance gauntlet and assure neighbors that the business would be a good fit (turns out they much preferred it to an earlier proposal for a car-related business).
Mugford, who used to live out this way but now resides in Cambridge, had actually been looking for something closer to home, such as an old warehouse. But properties were hard to find when he was first looking, and the Natick site became attractive.
It’s unfortunate that Beach House got its go-ahead during the pandemic, and while it is initially opening under state-issued capacity restrictions, Mugford looks forward to a grand opening in the fall once various kinks are worked out. He doesn’t really want to make a splash with an indoor beach during the summer.
Natick beach club
Memorial Beach at Dug Pond this is not. For one thing, it has no water to swim in. It’s all about the sand and space—90×160 feet of court space with a 30-foot high ceiling. That’s roomy enough for four full volleyball courts, or even regulation FIFA beach soccer. Ample lighting is provided via windows and LEDs.
The sand, from a quarry in New Hampshire, is a cushiony 18 inches deep and was delivered via dozens of dump truckloads last year.
You might not think too much of the sand you’ve trudged through, but Mugford says he now knows way more about sand than he ever thought he would. The Beach House sand simulates that from Hermosa Beach in California, which is known for its beach volleyball scene. The sub-angular, or rounded, sand used at the facility resists compacting but provides good traction for making spectacular leaping plays.
The sand is treated with a special oil, too, so that it doesn’t get dusty. Lessons learned about keeping the dust down from indoor equestrian and monster truck events has been applied at Beach House. A fancy HVAC system keeps the air flowing and clean, too.
I picked up a handful and let it slip through my fingers. It’s got a silky feel and it didn’t wind up on my steering wheel on the drive home.
It’s also warm. That’s thanks to radiant heating that snakes below the surface via 5 miles of heating coils configured in 77 loops. “I’m really proud of this set-up,” says Mugford, who discovered beach volleyball in his younger days while training in Florida as a competitive swimmer.
He enjoyed beach volleyball so much though that he later moved to California after college so that he could play as much as possible, washing dishes to make ends meet.
With that somewhat out of his system he embarked on a 20-year-plus career at Capital One, leading marketing for the company before most of us probably heard of it.
But Mugford has never shaken beach volleyball from his system. He and friends annually trekked to Rhode Island for a volleyball-palooza outing, and homage is paid to that with an “Entering Palooza Beach” sign adorning one the Beach House walls along with signs for Hermosa, Manhattan, and Miami Beach (there’s no such thing as Palooza Beach in R.I.).
And now Mugford’s got beach volleyball courts of his own closer to home. Such facilities are rare in the area, but fairly common in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, he says.
More than volleyball
Natick’s Beach House could potentially cater to customers who would use it for anything they might do at the beach, including let their kids just run around, make sand castles, etc. Cornhole and other games for bigger kids are also available.
“I want it to be a great community resource,” says Mugford, whose other interests include supporting charter school development. “I’m thinking of using it for whatever you’d use a beach for.”
The Beach House will also be used for cross training hardcourt volleyball players and other athletes. Former longtime Boston Celtics strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo will run the gym at the Beach House, where the sand will play a key role in fitness training.
As Mugford says: “Sand’s good for you.”
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