By Seth Daniel
City Manager Tom Ambrosino is putting his money where his mouth has been in talking up his hopes for the downtown Broadway area – requesting the Council approve nearly $300,000 from Free Cash to dive into a major organizational and marketing effort for the area.
That request followed a call for major money to be delivered in the City Budget this spring, money the Council did approve within its Capital Improvement plan.
For the Downtown Urban Initiative, first, he is calling for the creation of a downtown coordinator job position to be funded, a position that would coordinate all of the construction projects, infrastructure upgrades and business opportunities in the district. The position would be similar to what Boston calls a Main Streets director, he said.
“The position is critical to the program,” he said. “This new municipal employee would be responsible for coordination of all the City’s downtown efforts. The coordinator will be expected to organize all programming for the area, oversee all municipal services in the area and work with the property and business owners to implement efforts to enhance and enliven the streetscape.”
A second part of the proposed program is a $100,000 plan to institute a one-year storefront improvement program for the corridor, which stretches from City Hall to Williams Street.
“Maybe we can do three or four storefronts to get a start this year,” he said. “We would do it as a matching grant program where we would pay half the cost and the owner would pay the other half. We would probably only require that if you participate in the program, we would ask businesses to take down the grates and have some faith that we can effectively police the downtown area.”
He said the initiative also calls for a little bit of “seed money” for festivals and events to be held on the corridor, possibly closing down the street.
To begin things, he has asked that the Council do a marketing study of the district for around $80,000.
Already, a consultant paid for within the recently passed City Budget, Nygaart, is preparing to start studying the corridor on July 1 for infrastructure improvements and traffic calming measures. That consultant was part of a budget allocation for the downtown within the Capital Improvements plan that asked for several million dollars to fund downtown infrastructure improvements only. The first part of that plan is the contracting of Nygaart. They will study potential improvements to the “bones” of the district for one year, with implementation of their suggestions and the public’s input next fiscal year.
The $300,000 Downtown Urban Initiative request is seemingly separate, but related to the overall effort – with it mostly focusing on marketing studies and storefront programs. In essence, it would be the creation of what in Boston is called a Main Streets District.
On top of all of those changes for the downtown district, Ambrosino has submitted a zoning change package scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, June 27, at Council that – among many, many things – asks for a relaxing of the parking requirements in the downtown area.
Ambrosino said the current parking requirements basically make the downtown buildings unreachable for residential developers as they were mostly built before cars appeared on the streets.
He said he firmly believes that the final piece of the overall puzzle is getting residents living in quality units above the businesses.
“My opinion is very straightforward that if we want this vibrant downtown, we have to build good residential units above the storefronts,” he said. “There’s no parking there and so you have to relax the parking requirements. If you want to improve the downtown, you have to substantially relax the parking requirements for residences above storefronts. If you don’t want to improve the downtown and leave it the way it is, then don’t relax the parking requirements and nothing will be developed because the parking requirements cannot be met.”
He also said the time is now to develop the downtown for residences and businesses – just as 10 years ago the time was perfect for Everett Avenue.
“I think it’s an interesting corridor that’s very close to downtown Boston,” he said. “People are being priced out of East Boston and this is the time to really build this downtown.”