By Eliza Rosenberry
Nearly one thousand town residents and employees responded this fall to a survey about businesses on Great Road, results of which were presented at a December 6, 2016 Planning Board meeting. The study points to a desire for expanded dining and entertainment in Bedford, and also suggests some tactics for addressing perceived shortcomings.
Conducted over a few months by consultant Peg Barringer of FinePoint Associates, the survey asked respondents to disclose their current shopping habits and for suggestions on ways to improve the commercial corridor along Great Road.
“It appears that this population is very vested in the future of Great Road. It wasn’t actually a very short survey, it was a very lengthy survey,” Barringer noted. “I think that [participation level] was really indicative of great community engagement.”
Bedford’s Economic Development Coordinator Alyssa Sandoval oversaw the project.
Grocery stores, restaurants, and CVS were found to be the most popular establishments among survey respondents, who also reported their likelihood to visit more than one business when they are shopping.
Broadly, responses seemed to indicate an eagerness among Bedford residents for businesses that contribute to town culture, including entertainment and recreation options ranging from theater and music to bowling, public events, and arts instruction, as well as fine dining and outdoor seating at restaurants.
Barringer noted one response she was especially surprised to see: high levels of dissatisfaction with the amount of public art in town. “We really had no idea that was going to be so important to people. That was really a surprise,” Barringer explained.
Board member Amy Lloyd suggested that specific data point could point towards something larger. “I can’t help but wonder if — as much as I would be absolutely in favor of public art — if there’s a more fundamental underlying statement of a desire for placemaking,” Lloyd offered. “People want to express that they want that sense of a center, that sense of a place to arrive at, where community exists, where people are. I’m taking that desire for public art as not necessarily a very, very literal desire for a statue or two, but maybe there’s some deeper underlying desire there.”
The study comes as the Planning Board prepares to consider rezoning along Great Road.
“This Market Study will be a very helpful resource in the Great Road Business Rezoning Project that has just gotten underway,” said Chair Jeff Cohen and Lloyd in a statement. “A common challenge with commercial area rezoning is finding the right balance between regional market realities and the desires of local users; this study gives us reliable data on both fronts.”
An opportunity could exist for more restaurants in Bedford, as residents reported only a third of their restaurant spending occurred along Great Road and said they were not satisfied with the current selection of restaurants. People who work in Bedford during the day reported less than forty percent of their lunch purchases and less than twenty percent of after-work drinks and appetizer spending was done in this area, and Barringer noted those numbers could be higher.
Respondents said they would prefer more small, independent businesses over chain stores. Currently more than sixty percent of establishments along Great Road are independent, single-location businesses.
Barringer interviewed dozens of business owners who indicated business has grown or stayed the same in recent years, and who also noted the market in Bedford is on an “upward and upscale” trajectory. The study also showed traffic along Great Road is a significant hurdle for businesses and residents alike, and is an obstacle in leasing commercial properties along Great Road according to real estate experts. Pedestrian accessibility and regulations for signs were negatives from the business perspective as well.
Residents also cited dissatisfaction with bicycle and pedestrian accessibility, traffic concerns, and public spaces.
Three sections of Great Road were studied for this project: North Road near Bedford Farms; the new Bedford Marketplace; and the Great Road Shopping Center near Stop & Shop. While many acknowledged the full area is too large to expect pedestrians to walk the entire corridor, there could be opportunities to more strategically connect North Road to the Marketplace area.
Barringer suggested the town could employ some kind of linkage system in which developers in highly profitable properties with major tenants could be bound to also take on less profitable properties that might meet some of the expressed desires of survey respondents. She also noted that improving pedestrian access between nearby parking lots could help to alleviate traffic, so that shoppers could park once and walk to a variety of destinations rather than getting back in the car. Board member Sandra Hackman proposed the cultivation of a stronger community among town businesses could bring about some of the physical interconnection desired by survey respondents.
The full study is available online here.