In praise of downtowns, Main Streets

To give them a boost, end policies that codify car worship

Winchester Center

[This article appears in CommonWealth Magazine.]

Coming from Newton I should have known that Greater Boston has hundreds of wonderful little downtowns and village centers, the hearts of walkable neighborhoods. Newton itself has 13 villages. I grew up walking to downtown Newtonville for blue slush puppies and books at the branch library, now a senior center. In my 30s, I lived by West Newton Square, where I’d walk to the train, synagogue, Comella’s, ice cream, and artsy movies. Now I’m back in Newtonville, still a stroll to many things I need and like.

I had figured Newton was special. Then, a few years ago, I set out to visit all of the cities and towns of the region. My tour brought me to a truffle shop in Melrose, the Victorian City, where a plaque on the counter announced, “No matter where I roam, Melrose will always be my home.” The friendly woman behind the counter filled me in: “I grew up in Melrose, and I returned to live here.” Like me in Newtonville!

She gushed that Melrose’s traditional little downtown is “so Norman Rockwell,” as she painted an image of kids and parents strolling along the sidewalk, ice cream cones in hand. Sounds like Newtonville.

Melrose and Newtonville are train suburbs. From 1833 to 1855, eight railroad lines ending in Boston opened, and suburbs grew around the stations. By the early 1900s, electric streetcars stretched nine miles from Boston, north to Lynn, west to Waltham, and south to Weymouth — tying the region into an interconnected web, a lattice woven with train tracks, turnpikes, parkways, and sidewalk-lined roads like vines blossoming with little downtowns. Urban villages covered much of eastern Massachusetts before cars began dominating urban design.

This is really good news because our urban villages are part of the answer to so many of our biggest challenges, such as the housing shortage, traffic, climate change, social isolation, and social inequity. Plus, they make for nice places to live.

In the ’80s we thought the mall did in downtowns like Video Killed the Radio Star. But historic downtowns, by design, are resilient, adaptable. Today’s Main Streets, across the region, have excellent, diverse restaurants, indie shops, civic spaces, even new housing. Demographic, economic, and social trends are favoring them, and public policymakers are encouraging their growth. The rise of remote work is bringing more business lunches, coffee breaks, and happy hours to Main Streets.

The story, though, is not all Norman Rockwell and ice cream cones. Like most true stories: It gets complicated. Just because you can take a train doesn’t mean you will. People tend to drive where parking is plentiful, roads are open, and incomes make car-ownership feasible. And just because old-time centers have the right magic for scrappy entrepreneurs doesn’t mean village growth always advances equity of opportunity for Greater Boston’s people. Suburban growth can diversify the region, or fortify the most affluent communities. It can bolster urbanism, or drain downtown Boston of vitality. The difference swings on our public policymaking.

Do trophy towns take the trophy?

A few years ago, I visited a law office in Winchester Center to sign some legal docs for a friend as a favor. Looking around the center, I marveled: How does Winchester Center support both a toy store and a book store in the age of Amazon?

Winchester Center, 2019

And this was not Winchester Center’s only trick! Winchester Center is the clown car of downtowns, squeezing an impossible number of cool things into one little area: a train station (20 minute ride to Boston) and bike trail, a high school, middle school, and elementary school plus athletic fields, a town hall and public library, four churches and a synagogue, a photography museum, a river and ponds, office buildings and supermarket, a town green and shops, and single family houses and apartment buildings. For dining options, take your pick: porchetta at farm-to-table A Tavola, pastrami at D’Agastino’s Deli, or probiotic vegan coconut yogurt at Nourish Your Soul.

I was intrigued: How many Winchester Centers could I find? My tour of cities and towns was launched. I began sketching a listicle of “centers that we may as well hate for having it all,” A) a train station, B) an excellent selection of restaurants, C) handsome civic and religious buildings, and D) a book store and a toy store. The trophies for this contest came to Concord, Newton, Wellesley, Belmont, Brookline, Salem, Gloucester, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Cambridge, and Winchester.

This was a silly assessment. Downtown Hudson doesn’t have a train station, a book store, or a toy store; it does have a rail trail, bus service, a fancy cheese shop, and a speakeasy. The “speakeasy” is accessed inside its ice cream shop, New City Microcreamery. In the gloomy August of our pandemic year, I was happily surprised by the Friday evening vibe of downtown Hudson — live music outdoors, people out on dates, restaurants drawing crowds to their outdoor seating.

The affluence of Winchester and Belmont make toy stores viable in their centers; same for the tourism of Gloucester and Salem. Downtown Hudson went through hard years, after its mills had closed and shopping malls drew its shoppers away. But Hudson has good bones. And not only Hudson. It isn’t that every downtown needs every amenity; the charm of our downtowns is their elasticity, their readiness to embrace what the denizens or entrepreneurs dream of.

Once I expanded my criteria, the list of awesome downtowns rolled out like a red carpet to include Lexington, Needham, Dedham, Arlington, Cohasset, Waltham, Lynn, Beverly, Franklin, Norwood, Woburn, Reading, Scituate, Quincy, Medfield… it goes on and on. Some centers, like downtown Walpole are undergoing a growth spurt right now, gaining apartments and restaurants. Also, many cities and towns, like Newton, have several village centers. Belmont has Cushing Square, Waverly Square, and Belmont Center. Cambridge has Central, Harvard, Kendall, Porter, and Inman Squares.

Downtown Beverly, 2018

Forces are favoring Main Streets

There are exceptions to prove the rule. In downtown Foxborough I imagined myself to be a location-scout for a 1980s-era set, like for Stranger Things. Foxborough would work. Either it was frozen in time, or I was just cold, but no shops or cafes were beckoning me in. The center is cute, with a white steeple church, a small pink theater, and a big green, but its quietude was quite unusual among Greater Boston’s town centers. (This has something to do with downtown Foxborough’s lack of sewers slowing development.)

Downtown Foxborough, 2019

In Foxborough, I did find Fab Finds Foxboro. Our downtowns are full of fab finds — that my kids and I scouted out on weekend trips. In downtown Danvers’s Italian bakery, we found cupcakes lovingly crafted into pink pigs, their frosting-mouths gaping open as if in cries of agony, so weird and adorable and unexpected, like mini-mascots for local entrepreneurship. In Salem’s witch town, we visited Wicked Good Books; in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Manchester-by-the-Book; and in Chelsmford, Beadles Bead Boutique.

Cupcakes in Danvers, 2019

I have been going to Waltham’s Moody Street for Indian food since high school. Now my kids have sampled samosas, and aloo ghobi, from Waltham to Weymouth to Woburn. To tour Greater Boston is to globetrot, for the culinary scene.

The downtowns are not dusty shells, as I thought I might find. They are emerging destinations, engines of small business development, hearts of neighborhoods. What accounts for their vitality in the face of car-oriented competition?

Before the pandemic, the blazing economy meant that a good number of people had cash to spend in neighborhood restaurants and gift shops. Foodie culture smiled on Main Street’s indie eateries. It is possible that Amazon even helped downtowns by hurting so many malls and big box stores — thus opening a sliver in the marketplace for locally owned shops to fill. Call it karma.

In the new millennium, local leaders began explicitly adopting a pro-housing strategy for downtown revitalization. The idea is that after apartments and condos go up, new residents frequent next-door businesses. Most municipalities have added housing to their downtowns since 2000, not enough to satiate housing demand, but perhaps enough to help local retail.

Downtown Lynn, 2020

Demographic trends have also been in Main Street’s favor. America’s two largest generations, the boomers, now ages 57 to 75, and the millennials, ages 24 to 40, are pumping up the suburban market. The boomers own more than than 40% of America’s homes. Some will downsize. Millennials are catching up with my generation, Gen X, as homeowners.

Boomers may pay a premium for elevator buildings and townhouses (with first-floor bed and bath) on or near the Main Streets of the communities where they have been living. Main Streets offer walkability, social opportunities, and far more amenities than any single developer could fit on a private rooftop or courtyard in highway-oriented development. By selling their homes, many boomers can afford pricey new construction.

If there were more available, millennials would be flocking to townhouses with small yards near Main Streets, where their kids could walk to school, the library, and friends’ houses on continuous sidewalks. Meanwhile many millennials are pushing towards the centerless “exurbs” for a lack of suburban options, and because remote work has eased their commuting migraines.

The rise of remote work will bring more “office workers” to cafes, libraries, and co-work space on Main Streets. Even before the pandemic, people-with-laptops were lining up for tables at Newtonville’s cafes. Now locals showing up at the village promenade “to see and be seen” might cross both ladies with lapdogs and ladies with laptops, among others.

What makes Main Street so special?

The magic of Main Streets is in their design. They are not asphalt hellscapes or driver-only greenscapes.

Little downtowns contain so many diverse destinations that people are coming and going for all sorts of purposes at all times of day. People waiting while their laundry spins grab a coffee; train commuters cross town green; folks leaving a fitness class smile at toddlers getting strolled to the library; high school kids pick up burritos; church congregants place orders for pastries.

Laundromat in downtown Beverly, 2018

Moms-and-pops and folks-with-ideas-and-energy start businesses in the small spaces in old buildings, especially the 1920s-era rows of concrete boxes crowned with diminutive embellishments, but also the Italianates, Queen Annes, Second Empires, and Greek Revivals of the 1800s and the one-stories capped with faux mansard roofs of the 1970s. Diverse buildings make space for diverse activities. The older properties typically lack much private parking. National chains pass such venues by, so rents stay low. New residential buildings with first floor retail add higher-end space to the mix.

That so many properties contain no private parking means sidewalks are infrequently interrupted by driveways. Often, the sidewalks are further protected from traffic by parallel parking (in contrast to the unprotected sidewalks of strip-mall corridors). In little downtowns, drivers typically park one time, in the public lot or garage or curbside, and then walk to all of their destinations. Numerous residential streets lead into Main Street, so thousands of neighbors can walk there. Dense settlement of housing, businesses, and institutions supports both walkability and mass transit.

Traditional urban villages are stars in constellations, beads in a tapestry, nodes in a network. Highway access is not required for travel. Carless teenagers, and others, can get themselves from one hub to nearby hubs by foot, bike, bus, or train, even though buses and trains sometimes run infrequently and, in many places, the bike infrastructure sucks. When I was a young teen, my friends and I would bike to Newton Corner (Bertucci’s), West Newton (TCBY), and Newton Highlands (T stop) — on the sidewalks. It is worlds easier to increase transit frequency and build protected bike lanes than to design a networked region from scratch. With so many little downtowns dotting rivers, someday we could have kayak rideshares as well.

Main Streets are particularly rich in social infrastructure, a squishy term for physical environments that facilitate social connections. Social infrastructure includes libraries, cafes, and the sidewalk berm where my neighbor recently sat tending irises, in front of her purple Victorian, as I strolled by and thanked her, “So pretty!”

Some little downtowns offer more texture than gleam

Cambridge’s Inman Square is a node in the network, with no train station, but with lovely sidewalk-lined streets that lead pedestrians to multiple other squares with train stations. Inman impresses for having so many nicely decorated shops, all lined up. In Inman, you might: A) admire well curated fabric rolls including one patterned with little green frogs, B) enjoy the aroma of spices in neatly arranged glass jars, and C) overhear millennials discussing, among stylish paper cards, whether to use the word pleasure or honor. In an orange walled café there, I sipped hot tea and gazed out at the slush and sleet.

Fancy shops are fun, and Inman even has jazz. But just as Inman doesn’t need a train station to be great, little downtowns need not offer high-end retail or breakfast at Tiffany’s to make the grade.

Everett Square boasts architect-designed commercial buildings, of red and yellow brick, in Romanesque, Renaissance and Colonial Revival styles, that do not house any upscale boutiques. Everett Square is rough around the edges, and soft in spots from decay. Radiating out from the square are narrow roads lined with sidewalks and workforce housing built back when Everett’s agglomeration of companies specializing in paint and varnish, iron and steel, and gas, oil, and coke products employed many of Everett’s residents. The City of Everett has been trying to spur redevelopment in Everett Square, but the market has been slow to respond. Still, the design of Everett Square has set up the center for centuries of resilience and adaptation.

Downtown Everett, 2019

In my 2019 visit to Everett’s 1894 Parlin Library I beheld the multitude at study. Down Broadway, at the Brazilian eatery Pastelaria Ki Sabor, friends and families gathered gregariously at the tables and in line. Everett Square contains multiple churches, bars and restaurants, dollar stores and dental offices and tax services. It also has little Latin grocery stores, one just wide enough for two very narrow aisles, where the onions are piled in deep bins, cardboard boxes are brimming with small bags of potato chips, and the dark flooring is ripped and degraded. Shoppers select hot prepared to-go foods from a glass box next to the cash register.

That the square lacks the gleam of other downtowns says more about Greater Boston’s income disparities and class segregation than about the downtown itself. Everett Square is highly accessible to its many immediate neighbors who, on average, have lower incomes and own fewer cars than the people of the metropolitan region as a whole. The question is whether the other downtowns of Greater Boston are accessible to Everett Square’s neighbors, either by public transportation or by availability of housing that they could select for their next move. The question gets to the core of our civic commitment to build a civilization of fair opportunity, sustainability, and human flourishing.

Downtown Everett, 2019

Are the urban villages of Boston’s suburbs accessible?

Elite suburbs (my dear Newton included) have used zoning very effectively to protect their neighborhoods from change and to reinforce the exclusivity of their real estate. This is the area of my professional expertise. I have conducted two studies of local land use regulation in eastern Massachusetts, fifteen years ago and pre-pandemic.

Suburban prohibitions on development of condos and apartments on the vast majority of land in metropolitan area have caused housing shortages and price escalations — and homelessness and all sorts of stress and problems. Before the pandemic, one in four of Greater Boston’s renters was paying more than half their income on rent.

Winchester officials undertook a ten-year planning process that resulted in rezoning to allow development of approximately 200 dwelling units in Winchester’s dreamy little downtown, a 20-minute train trip from Boston. Greater Boston has had a shortage of hundreds of thousands of homes relative to demand. A ten-year process to allow 200 dwelling units is at once admirable, impressive, and horrible.

Two hundred homes is more than Manchester-by-the-Sea has allowed. In 2004 Manchester received smart growth awards for permitting a mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented, New Urbanist, village-center development with 39 condos and apartments. In the 17 years since then, Manchester hasn’t allowed any more multi-family housing in its downtown. It is not for a lack of demand. Price is an indicator of demand. The median sales price of owner-occupied homes in Manchester is more than twice that of homes in Malden, and almost three times the value of homes in Lynn.

Manchester-by-the-Sea: Award-winning development, built 2004, photographed in 2019.

In the last twenty years, most cities and towns have allowed a modest number of apartments and condos to be added to their Main Streets, growth that has increased the vibrancy of Main Streets. Yet, the scale of the growth has not satiated demand for housing or offered enough diversity in housing to serve the diversity of Greater Boston.

Meanwhile, on public transit from Everett and most places, it is much easier to reach downtown Boston than most suburban destinations. The hub-and-spoke model of public transportation has logic. People who own cars (and most people own cars) take public transportation when traffic is bad and parking scarce, which is the situation at rush hour in the city center. Hub-and-spoke allows many commuters to stay on public transportation even after moves, from Belmont to Braintree for example, and job changes, say from Downtown Crossing to Seaport. Also, enough people are traveling in the same direction at the same time to fill trains and buses.

But the hub-and-spoke is not sufficient for moving the car-less to the region’s opportunities or for moving all of us to a less car-dominant future. So, we have been building on our pre-1930 hub-to-hub infrastructure, paving rail trails, planning for protected bike lanes to connect the rail trails, improving sidewalks, launching pilots for bus rapid transit, and considering all-day frequent rail service (called regional rail). We’ve only just passed “go” in the mission to create robust hub-to-hub multi-modal connections.

Assabet River Rail Trail, in Hudson, 2020

What if little downtowns could solve our epic problems?

Newtonville is now gaining Greater Boston’s 15th Clover restaurant, with big tables, good for laptops — on the first floor of a new residential building. Independent restaurants have far outnumbered chains on Main Streets, but I predict a shift in that balance, as the bustle of Main Streets attracts the attention of chain owners, especially of ‘virtuous’ fast food chains like BGood, sweetgreen, Clover, and Garbanzo. On the topic of virtuous, a sign on Clover’s window in Newtonville reads: “What if a restaurant could solve global warming?”

Some people might say that walking to Clover and eating with its compostable cutlery is virtue signaling. That’s not my read. It offers a proof of concept of sustainable patterns of living a high quality-of-life. At the same time, it is not enough for small cohorts in exclusive settings to live “sustainably.” The models must be scaled.

This starts with recognizing the role Boston plays as our central city as an engine of opportunity, invention, and culture. Boston boasts the best public transportation, least carbon-intensive way of life, and most population in the region. In the early decades of car-mobility, policymakers turned their backs on the city, discouraging banks from making home loans in urban areas, disinvesting in public transportation, and paving paradise for easy suburban commutes. Now we need a pro-urban policy agenda.

Then, for suburban Main Streets to join Boston in saving us, we need to build them up along with our trains, bus routes, bike trails, and kayak-transport. Cities and towns of the region should be rezoning for elevator residences on Main Streets and their cross streets, and for townhouses and cottage courts in the walkshed of Main Streets. The state legislature has even mandated upzoning for communities served by the MBTA, and has lowered the voting threshold for pro-housing zoning reform at town meetings and city councils.

Inclusion of ample parking on every newly developed property is bad design. Let’s stop requiring that, and change our whole approach to parking. Parking fees should be decoupled from rent. In some places where significant parking is necessary to make development commercially viable, it could be worth building public garages and limiting on-site parking in new development, so cars do not live inside of every new structure.

Our current public policies codify car worship, favoring cars above all else. At the root of so many problems is our multi-pronged public subsidization of car use. Let’s end the subsidies.

Building infrastructure for non-car mobility is necessary but not sufficient to solve traffic. Trains and buses alone won’t work for the same reason that highway widening never works for long. With highway widening, people who had been avoiding traffic jams by staying home, or driving on side roads, or timing trips to avoid rush hour, will show up to drive on newly-widened uncongested highways … until enough drivers show up to congest it again. There is latent demand for open roadways. Analogously, expanding public transit services will attract some frustrated drivers, urbanists, and people with tight budgets away from clogged highways and onto trains and buses, but the road space they free up will be filled by more drivers, until the roads are clogged again, because of latent demand.

For suburbanites to choose non-car mobility, at scale, driving would need to be more expensive and public transportation awesome. As costly and politically daunting as these reforms are, they bring benefits that far exceed the costs: an expansive inventory of wonderful places to live and work, improved accessibility of the region for folks without cars, and reduction of climate-changing emissions, among other things. These kinds of reforms will encourage more people to live where non-car mobility is accessible; the market will then deliver more building if our governments will allow it.

Finally, not all of Boston’s suburbs are leafy and affluent; some little downtowns have been decaying since the flight of local industry and industrialization of agriculture. Programs that address place-based poverty with place-based strategies have a role in the agenda, along with people-based strategies such as housing vouchers, increased public benefits, universal basic incomes, or minimum wage policies.

There is no question that Greater Boston’s urban villages are adored and in great demand. I am lucky to have grown up in Newtonville, in Greater Boston, and to live here now. Good fortune is better shared than hoarded. Our urban villages are for social gathering. We need a pro-growth agenda to support inclusive, walkable, connected, sustainable development, the blossoming of urban villages on the transportation trellis, in Boston and around the region.

Assabet River Rail Trail in Hudson 2020, downtown Lynn 2019, downtown Salem 2018
Weston Center 2019, Newtonville 2020, downtown Lowell 2020
Downtown Woburn 2018, downtown Chelsea 2019
Downtown Walpole 2019, downtown Gloucester 2019, Central Square 2019
Downtown Concord 2019, downtown Salem 2018
Waltham’s Moody Street 2021

Amy Dain is an independent consultant in public policy research. Twitter and Instagram: @amydain

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Public policy research: housing and land use, data use in public management, and environmental issues. Greater Boston. Instagram, Twitter: @amydain

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Amy Dain

Amy Dain

Public policy research: housing and land use, data use in public management, and environmental issues. Greater Boston. Instagram, Twitter: @amydain