MassDevelopment

Panel Eyes John Fitch Revitalization

September 16, 2011 : Sentinel and Enterprise, by Michael Hartwell


FITCHBURG – Members of the Urban Land Institute’s Boston District Council toured Fitchburg Thursday morning to come up with recommendations to improve the business district along John Fitch Highway.

“One of the overriding issues is the flooding that occurs on John Fitch Highway,” said Scott Payette, co-chair of the Fitchburg technical assistance panel for ULI, which includes members with backgrounds in the public sector as well as real estate and private development. The panel recommended the city perform a storm-water study in the area to deal with the flooding and work on beautification, as the area is a series of strip malls, bare concrete and empty storefronts.

Michelle Landers, manager with ULI, said additional long-terms plans will require moving Baker Brook, which runs behind John Fitch Plaza where CinemaWorld is located, and installing trees and grass through swales along the sides of the road to absorb rainwater.

Another issue is drivers illegally traveling along the turning lane in the middle of John Fitch Highway, which causes traffic accidents.

“You could break it up with some islands in the middle,” said Landers. She said grass in these islands would also absorb rainwater, and the improved appearance would signal to businesses that it is a better place to set up shop than it was before.

“Retailers tend to be followers,” said Todd Finard, a retail developer and ULI panelist. He said once some businesses expand in the area, others will follow in a cascading effect. He said the trouble facing Fitchburg is to how to start that effect.

Payette said while Main Street is a good place for smaller boutiques, John Fitch Highway has different properties that are perfect for chain stores with a big footprint and large parking lots.

“It should complement the downtown area,” said Payette. He said while the downtown area has a lot of foot traffic, John Fitch Highway is away from residential areas and customers will have to drive there.

On the tour Thursday, Mayor Lisa Wong told the ULI volunteers that the more expensive developments are taking place at the north and south ends of the city, while the John Fitch Highway area is being ignored by businesses.

They traveled up and down the thoroughfare in a Fire Department tour bus before being deposited at the Massaferro Center at Fitchburg State University, where the 13-member panel conducted “stakeholder interviews” with property owners, business owners, residents and city officials. They then met for four hours to determine proposed solutions before making them public.

Landers said the panel also met with Wong the previous week to go over some of the problems, like flooding, traffic and the area’s appearance.

A detailed report of the panel’s findings and recommendations will be available at boston.uli.org within six weeks.

James Lydon, senior vice president for economic development with MassDevelopment, said ULI members selected Fitchburg as the neediest city in central Massachusetts, based on median incomes and the city’s ability to implement solutions. The group divided the state into four sections, the others being western, northeast and southeast, and also selected Fall River, Haverhill and Pittsfield to review and recommend solutions.

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