A vital downtown starts with Main Street

Boston is the first city in the US to adopt a national revitalization program for most of its neighborhoods

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In order to get Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to attend the grand opening of Ampersand Designs, a boutique that is her first business, Kristen Keefe had to reschedule the event once and generally exercise a lot of patience.

"It took a long time, but he did come and was very gracious," says Ms. Keefe, recalling the 20 or 25 minutes the mayor spent at the ribbon-cutting.

While this may seem an unremarkable vignette, it captures the essence of an urban-revitalization effort that is attracting increasing attention.

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In fact, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls the Boston Main Streets program, which brought the mayor and Keefe together, a model for the entire nation.

The National Trust has long fostered grass-roots revitalization in historic and traditional commercial districts through its Main Street program, but Boston, in 1995, became the first community to take the program citywide.

Baltimore has begun to follow Boston's lead and officials from other major cities keep visiting Boston to find out for themselves how this urban neighborhood renaissance works.

From her experience, Keefe knows the benefits can begin early for a budding entrepreneur. In seeking the best home for her shop, which sells furnishings, decorative accessories, and gifts, she needed dependable demographic data. She struggled to find some that didn't come with a stiff marketing-analysis fee.

Once she was steered to the Roslindale Village Main Street program, she immediately got the needed information - for free. "The fact that I could make a phone call, meet with someone, and they would hand over the research to me and share their experiences was a huge comfort," she says. "I had a sense there was a community here."

Getting everybody on the bandwagon

That is precisely the point: to get local people - merchants, residents, and property owners - to create a shared vision, which can be pursued with the help of professional planners, architects, public-services personnel, and corporate backers.

Kennedy Smith, the director of National Main Street Center, says the program provides a matrix for self-help in four areas - promotion, design, organization, and economic restructuring.

"Boston is taking the Main Street program in a new direction because it's really pushing the envelope and packing as much into that matrix as it can," Ms. Kennedy says. In particular, she points to the way Boston's Office of Business Development helps businesses access the full range of city services.

The Boston Main Streets program provides a wealth of technical assistance and a six-year funding package that is gradually scaled back to encourage self-sustainability. In addition, each group is matched with a corporation that contributes professional help and $10,000 a year over four years.

"This program came out of the mayor's desire to make sure the neighborhoods get their share, that everything isn't just focused on downtown development," says Emily Haber, director of Boston Main Streets.

As a city councilor in the mid-1980s, Mr. Menino convinced the National Trust for Historic Preservation to try out its Main Street concept in Roslindale.

Though once-sleepy Roslindale began to make a comeback, the Trust found little receptivity in other cities. "Mayors kind of laughed at us when we knocked on their doors," says the Trust's Ms. Smith. "They said if it isn't a multimillion-dollar federal grant program, they couldn't imagine it being successful."

Still, the Roslindale experiment worked well enough to take it citywide. Originally 10 neighborhoods were selected in a competitive application process, and now 19 of 32 commercial districts in Boston are participants.

Ms. Haber says the program attempts to help each community define and express its own character. In Boston, this means tapping the African-American heritage of Dudley Square, the ethnically eclectic shops of Allston Village, and the Latino image of the Hyde/Jackson area.

"I think it's probably easier to recruit a chain than develop a locally owned business," Smith says, "but locally owned businesses are more reflective of the community, and ultimately contribute to the type of personality we're all trying to get at."

While Roslindale house prices have shot up about 25 percent in the past year, with most single-family homes now costing more than $200,000, there's been no massive population displacement, according to Linda Burnett, a realtor. The recent revitalization of the commercial center makes many long-time residents eager to stay put.

"The old-timers now have this incredible sense of pride in the community," she says.

"They stuck with it through the hard times, and now they're thrilled they didn't bail out and go to the suburbs. The young families moving in know the neighborhood is the way it is because of these old-timers who kept it up."

Keep business owners from feeling isolated

Keefe expected the experience of going into business on her own to be exciting, but also isolating. In fact, she and other shop owners on Birch Street have formed an alliance, jointly advertising to attract customers outside Roslindale and generally serving as a sounding board and support group for each other.

They and other merchants also stay in touch with Janice Williams, the executive director of Roslindale Village Main Street program.

Ms. Williams, the only paid employee of the Roslindale program, often is the one initiating contact. Instead of sitting by a phone, she gets out, connecting people, learning their needs, and helping to provide the necessary resources.

A former school board member and active parish worker, Williams is well known around town. This provides credibility for her work as a "mother hen," who tends four volunteer committees of merchants, residents, and community leaders.

"I'm always thinking about how we can clean up this street or get rid of that graffiti or how I can convince a merchant he should water the plant in his window," she says.

Volunteers tackle everything from cleanup projects and promotional events to street safety and storefront improvement. Design workshops show retailers how improved signage, lighting, or the removal of unsightly security grates (see story, bottom left) can make a difference in the appearance of their stores.

Foot and car traffic has returned to an area once dotted with vacant storefronts and boarded-up buildings.

For a community to come alive, says Stavros Frantzis, a developer with properties in Roslindale, its commercial district must be a vibrant "living room," where people come together, day and night, to eat, shop, stroll, and congregate.

He sees great potential in the neighborhood's tree-lined sidewalks, alleyways, and nostalgic architecture, and is hoping to create a courtyard behind a row of shops, near the Village Market grocery store that's a downtown anchor (see story far left).

The project is bogged down, Williams says, by differences over trash-removal questions. Getting the abutters to agree on strategy is not easy. "I've developed subcommittees of volunteers who are working on the courtyard, so that at all times there is somebody doing something."

Need to groom successive leaders

Over the history of the national Main Streets program, Smith says, about 17 percent of the programs fail by the fifth year.

Some of these falter because they do not follow the organization's comprehensive revitalization strategy. Others suffer from flagging volunteer enthusiasm or weak public-private partnerships.

The National Trust emphasizes the need to groom new leaders as a means of transitioning between the "catalyst years" and the "long-term growth years," when some community visionaries seem to burn out.

Smith says that for many cities the "X" factor in overcoming this challenge could be political will.

"You can't clone Mayor Menino and the city council and cabinet heads and ship them off to other cities," she says. "I wish we could, because with their level of determination, I can't think of a large city where the Main Streets program wouldn't work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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