Have you driven past the “old” Woburn Mall at the intersection of I-95/I-93 and Commerce Way lately? Yes, the anchor Market Basket is still on the corner but look again!
Where formerly a mix of big and little box stores co-existed in typical “mall-sprawl,” there will soon be an apartment block with 350 units—of which 25 percent are affordable, along with a variety of restaurants and lifestyle shops.
Some of the former stores on the site chose not to remain but the Market Basket is still in place, which was a plus, according to the developer. Plans are underway to connect this area with a walking trail to the nearby office parks, which offer job opportunities, and there is proximity to the Anderson Regional Transportation hub which houses commuter rail service and the Logan Express bus.
How this transformation came about was outlined in a recent Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) research report entitled “Rethinking the Retail Strip: Transforming Old Uses to Meet New Needs.” Details were presented in a Jan. 11 Zoom presentation, attended by some 220 interested persons.
Among those were Sandra Hackman, former Planning Board member and currently Bedford’s representative on the Council who also serves as its Secretary; Tony Fields and Catherine Perry, Planning Department; Jacinda Barbehenn and Chris Gittins, Planning Board; and Citizen reporter Dot Bergin.
David Gillespie, Vice President of Development at Avalon Bay Communities, summed up the story in this way: the old Woburn Mall was in rapid decline and losing revenue. The City of Woburn was receptive to rethinking the future of the property and citizens supported the concept of mixed-use residential/commercial on the site.
The project moved relatively quickly. Real estate developer Edens bought the mall in 2017, construction began two years later, the first residential units were ready for occupancy in 2021, and completion is expected this summer- 2022. At one time a cinema was planned for the site but Covid put an end to that. Instead, there is space for a public park.
Gillespie acknowledged some of the challenges of moving a project of this size forward. In some cases the tenants of the stores have control and are not willing to engage. The owner of a large mall may not be amenable to negotiation. Buy-in from the city or town is critical.
What can Bedford take away from this report?
Sandra Hackman offered these comments:
“The MAPC report was very exciting in suggesting possibilities for reimagining east Bedford in particular, as well as the North Rd. business district. The Stop and Shop plaza and surrounding area, for example, could combine housing and stores with better walkability and bikability as well as open space—including public access to the river.
“I’m hoping the Planning Board and staff will consider holding a public visioning process that would spawn a creative new master plan for these areas. The timing for such a reimagining is especially good given vacancies at the former Paper Store and Home Goods locations, as well as new zoning approved by Town Meeting. Perhaps a fresh blueprint would entice property owners to propose redevelopment that would respond to the needs of both residents and businesses, including existing large and small stores.”
Chris Gittins offered these thoughts on the potential for redeveloping the Great Road Shopping Center.
“The shops in the Great Road Shopping Center are foundational to a community. We need grocery stores, a hardware store, a furniture store, package stores, restaurants, and pet stores – to name just a few. However Great Road Shopping Center evolves, we want to keep those stores in town. It was lousy to lose The Paper Store.
“The parking lot is a poor use of land and an environmental disaster. It floods when there is heavy rain (as happened in the spring of 2021 when a lake developed at the lower end of the lot.) Most of the parking lot is unused most of the time. Unused parking is a waste. It doesn’t provide jobs or recreational space or property tax revenue.
“Personally, when the area eventually gets re-developed, I hope it becomes a walkable neighborhood with shops. (Along those lines, the recent redevelopment of the Woburn Mall is pretty interesting.) Hopefully, Town Meeting’s decision to re-zone the Shawsheen Subdistrict for mixed-use will encourage that. More recently, changing the zoning there to allow a fourth story on a building by Special Permit, allowed only if the additional floor is housing, was intended to encourage a developer to provide community benefits, e.g., recreational space, in exchange for enhanced development rights.
“The Planning Board and Planning Dept. can help develop a community-based vision for the area around Great Road Shopping Center; for example, by soliciting community input via charrettes. I’d support the Town using community input to create a “marketing” document for the area with the intent of encouraging developers’ interest. We don’t need to be passive. We can develop a vision for what we’d like the area to become and promote it. Obviously, nothing happens without the property owner giving the go-ahead, but that area along Great Road will change and, as it does, we want to attract developers whose vision is aligned with our own.”
Setting the scene for the MAPC Zoom presentation was an overview by June Williamson, Associate Professor and Department Chair, Sitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York. Prof Williamson’s latest book “Retrofitting Suburbia” (Wiley, 2021) offers these possible outcomes in making over a languishing mall:
- Disrupting automobile dependence, with its concomitant – “depaving,” i.e, more green space
- Improving public health,
- increasing resilience in the face of climate change,
- Leveraging social capital for equity,
- Supporting an aging society.
On a recent Twitter feed, Prof. Williamson responded to the question “Could suburban strip malls be the solution to Massachusetts’ housing shortage? I say, YES!” Her book shows colorful examples of “make-overs” all around the country. You can see some of the case studies here: https://retrofittingsuburbia.com/
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council presents a variety of programs on housing, community development, transportation, public health, public safety, and more. To the question “Why Strip Malls?” the answer is, they are ubiquitous. In Massachusetts, the median total area of strip malls for each community is 71 acres. They’re often underperforming. The future of strip malls is as cloudy as E-commerce, and changing consumption preference is modifying consumer behavior.
MAPC identified over 3,000 potential retrofit sites. If just the 10% most promising were transformed into mixed-use neighborhoods, Greater Boston could gain 125,000 new housing units. You can check out the research and the interactive tool at MAPC’s Rethinking the Retail Strip.