FRAMINGHAM – Dear City Councilors,
Never before in Framingham’s history have we needed to assess the impacts of residential development more than we do now. It is long overdue, and its absence has created the huge conundrum that we face today.
Personally, I have long been a vocal proponent of smart development policies and the scrutiny of residential development—especially in my home neighborhood of Nobscot. It has been a fairly difficult mission (or stance) to take, as understandably, so many Framingham residents had had enough of the shuttered and dilapidated shopping plazas, and just wanted positive change.
Pre-Covid, the traffic nightmare in Framingham had become unbearable.
The voice of our most precious asset, Framingham Public Schools, was never included in any economic planning discussions. To many, we were sailing the ’Good Ship Framingham’ without a compass.
Right now, add ‘uncharted waters’ to that dilemma. Our businesses are closing, our restaurant industry is in collapse. Our office building occupancy rate is diminishing. I fear that this downturn is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the size of which the world has
never known. Conversely, perhaps a vaccine will be developed next week with full distribution by November. We’ll be all set, right? Regardless, what will the near future bring? If anyone tells you that they know what will befall our community, I suggest you walk away from them without response. When it comes to Covid-19, there are NO experts.
“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”. A quote from a former U.S. Defense Secretary.
Never more of an appropriate message, than it is in today’s world. Yes, Covid has changed the world as we know it, and the future is anything but clear. Caution and calm are the order of the day. If we moratorium-force traffic studies right now, or moratorium-force school population and impact studies right now, how can we even think that they will be of any value or consequence? There are
zero baselines, at present, to cement an appropriate foundation for any of these studies. Pre-Covid data, yes. But not necessarily valid for today or the days to come. Will we possibly be throwing darts at an obscure target, still hoping for a bullseye? At what financial cost? Especially with our City’s current financial state of affairs? Will procedural red tape, including, but not limited to RFP’s, allow for anything of substance to be completed to the satisfaction of our elected and appointed leaders—in nine months”? Will we have to extend the moratorium to finish studies once? Twice? Will we lose out on State funding, grants, and the like that could help us put forth affordable housing initiatives?
So many questions, not enough answers. In my opinion. And in many others’ too. There are a number of people in our Framingham business community that have intense objections to the idea of implementing a moratorium at this time. They fear that it will magnify the already implied sentiment that Framingham is business-unfriendly. It’s not just downtown Golden Circle’s Roman Vynnytskyi
or Pho Dakao’s Dang Pham who are having sleepless nights during these times, it’s most likely also that Framingham resident and TJX’s CEO Ernie Herrman, and La Cantina’s Lee Mencaboni, and most definitely Jack’s Abby’s Hendler brothers and Exhibit A’s Kelsey Roth are experiencing the same. Have they really been heard? We cannot summarily dismiss the business community’s apprehensions as not warranted. Whether their concerns are valid or not, they must be recognized. Remember that perceptions are often reality. Small business AND big business are the economic drivers of our City.
Our highly respected EDIC group, chaired by Doug Lawrence has opposed the moratorium. The EDIC believes that “the moratorium undermines the confidence of businesses that have invested and may be considering investing in the Town’s (now City’s) vision of downtown revitalization driven by transit- oriented development supporting a diverse and growing family of retail shops and restaurants.”
Possibly Framingham’s most industrious redevelopment ambassador, Courtney Thraen, and her Downtown Framingham Inc. has vigorously opposed this moratorium. Framingham-grown MetroWest Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jim Giammarinaro has expressed the opposition of the moratorium by the Chamber.
The Framingham Planning Board, chaired by (IMO a municipal planning superstar) Kristina Johnson, has voted against enacting the moratorium. I hope all councilors have reviewed the recommendations from the planning board report. For reference, they include:
• A fully-scoped, funded comprehensive study to be completed within the next six months and no more than 12 months that covers the following disciplines: a multimodal transportation analysis; an economic and real estate market analysis; a school enrollment demographic analysis; sewer and water infrastructure capacity analysis.
• The TOD Zoning District be excluded from the multi-family moratorium.
• Multi-family units 25 or fewer be excluded from the multi-family moratorium
• A more cohesive permitting review process be implemented and managed by the newly formed Planning and Community Development Division to ensure all key regulatory Boards including the Zoning Board of Appeals, the School Committee, the Conservation Commission, and the Traffic Commission are coordinating on large-scale development initiatives.
Mike Gatlin, Chair of Framingham’s S.I.F.O.C. and former Chair of the EDIC, pens in his recent editorial “A moratorium takes the City back to the days when it was not welcoming to business, suggests that the City of Framingham is not serious about being business friendly, and is in fact an unreliable partner.”
A colleague of mine who is well versed in these matters cautions, “Framingham should make sure that it does not jeopardize its status as a ‘Housing Choice Community’ by the State, which could impact funding eligibility.” She added that in addition to TOD, housing in the geriatric care/elderly realm should also be spared from any limit/moratorium. “Given that those are needed housing forms, a disruption in any production of those would be especially harmful, and because those uses won’t add any children many of the impact arguments do not apply.”
Aside from the myriad of unknowns created by this Covid epidemic, we are also in the dark as to the impact that we’ll face (economically) by the pending Allston Multimodal Project. Periods of lane closures on the Mass Pike? Major interruptions with the Train schedules, track utilization and more? Commuter chaos. Do we not think that this will have a huge impact on Pharma, Life Sciences and Bio’s future expansion plans West of Boston? Add a Framingham housing moratorium on top of that? Studies have shown that CRE (commercial real estate) is already focusing North and South of Beantown for their future expansion plans—most for reasons pertaining to both public transportation and $ per square foot (supply).
As a very long-time resident of Framingham and a thankful volunteer—serving first at the pleasure of the Board of Selectmen, and now at the pleasure of the Mayor and City Council, I truly applaud the intense energy that has been brought forth with this moratorium proposal. I completely understand the angst brought on by the perception by many that there is a lack of direction and strategic planning. It’s not rocket science. I get it. I also get that sometimes it is human nature, that we are so confident in our opinions that we don’t properly vet all of the concerns about an issue before going ahead with a decision or a plan.
These concerns are not only proffered by some of most respected colleagues and leaders in the City, they are echoed by economic professionals outside of our City borders. Our Mayor also opposes this measure. What is the answer, you ask? More intelligent minds than mine could probably collaborate to put together, say, a five-point Covid Economic Response Plan. City Councilors, we need a rock star amongst you to lead the way. You are all quite mintelligent and capable. Formulate a short-term strategic housing directive that would satisfy not only those members of the public who are concerned that Framingham is overwrought with new housing, but also the business community’s desire to see the City take a proactive stance and come up with a clear economic growth vision. Establish a well-defined (and accountable) set of goals and objectives. Initiate directives to scrutinize any housing development that is not ‘by right’. Get the Planning Board and ZBA on board. Work as a collaborative. Have roundtable discussions with representatives of the
Framingham Business Association, Planning Board, EDIC, ZBA, Downtown Framingham, Inc., MetroWest Chamber, City Council, the Mayor’s Office, and most definitely – the Framingham Public Schools via the School Committee.
These boards and people are the brain trust of Framingham. If we cannot come together and live in the solution, then we have failed. And failed a long time ago.
Call me a dreamer, or overly optimistic (pick one) but I truly believe that we can come together and build not only compromise, but a win, win, win situation for our residents, legislative bodies, and our business community.
It’s all up to you, City Councilors—as it seems that for the immediate future, our success lies in your hands. Your constituents have put their trust in your ability to weigh all options and realize any and all concerns. And we are counting on you to make an informed decision—based upon what is best for the City.