Two years in, Brockton officials reflect on downtown revitalization plan
December 15, 2017 : The Enterprise, by Marc Larocque
BROCKTON – For too long, Brockton did not have a proper plan in place for the future development of the downtown area, according to city officials.
But now that it does, everything has not always gone according to the timeline and proposals outlined in the Downtown Brockton Urban Revitalization Plan.
Even so, Brockton’s urban planning and redevelopment officials said the city’s downtown has made substantial progress toward revitalization in the nearly two years after the Urban Revitalization Plan was first presented to City Council, which later gave its final approval on May 9, 2016. The plan is also intended to make sure longer-term goals are not jeopardized by short-range projects in the downtown, said city planning and redevelopment officials, sitting down for an interview at the Brockton Redevelopment Authority office on Tuesday.
“The minute it’s published, everything changes,” said Rob May, Brockton’s director of planning and economic development. “But I think what’s important is that it gave us a vision of what we want to do. There’s some short- and long-term activities, but sometimes what was long-term or medium-term becomes short-term because, all of a sudden, someone shows an interest in it. It’s a little bit of juggling, but I think we’ve made progress so far.”
May referred to a quote by former U.S. president and Army general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
The Urban Revitalization Plan identifies 22 different properties and envisions redevelopment projects for each of them, scheduling them on an ambitious timeline spanning three different phases, with the final stage set for completion in fiscal 2026. The plan also identifies strategies that the city hopes will help unlock the potential of downtown development, such as the eventual re-introduction of two-way traffic.
May compared it to a “three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle,” involving both privately owned properties and others taken by the city through Housing Court due to a failure to pay taxes. Some of the aging, vacant buildings can be salvaged, but others will have to be demolished, in order for the city to spur new development, May said.
“We’d love to save all these properties, but they’ve been neglect for such a long time that it may not be economically or physically viable to save some of them,” said May, who was recently given the best comprehensive plan of 2017 award by the American Planning Association Massachusetts Chapter, recognizing the citywide Blueprint for Brockton that his office completed earlier this year.
When May was hired by the city in the summer of 2014, it was the first time Brockton had a city planner for more than six years.
Putting in place a planner, and then developing the downtown renewal plan, were both major steps after Brockton was virtually lost in the woods from a planning perspective, said Robert Jenkins, executive director of the Brockton Redevelopment Authority.
“That’s hard to come back from,” Jenkins said. “Even before then, there was never a plan like this. I think if you look at last document, it was in the ’80s, but it was boilerplate based on a mandate from the state.”
While some of the properties are being studied for feasibility by the BRA, and other projects are goals for the more distant future, May counted 10 projects in downtown Brockton that are now in various stages of development since the Urban Revitalization Plan was put in place. May attributed the downtown’s recent progress partly to the Urban Revitalization Plan, but also to the different partners in the development of the area, including the Brockton Redevelopment Authority and MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development agency. In May 2016, MassDevelopment assigned George Durante as a “Transformative Development Initiative” fellow to organize on-the-ground efforts to stimulate interest in the downtown. His hire came after the state had already identified downtown Brockton as a TDI district targeted for enhanced economic assistance.
“I think those 10 projects are mostly as a result of what we did with the plan and our partnership with MassDevelopment,” May said. “I’m really pleased with that.”
Those 10 projects include the former Standard Modern Printing building at 47 Pleasant St., which broke ground in April this year for a redevelopment project financed by a $3.3 million MassDevelopment loan, to create market rate housing composed of 14 two-bedroom units and 10 one-bedroom apartments. However, this private property was not originally identified in the Urban Revitalization Plan.
At 121 Main St., where the long vacant Kresge department store once stood until it was demolished by the city last year, there are now plans for a $20 million project by the nonprofit NeighborWorks Southeastern Massachusetts to construct a five-floor building with 48 apartments and commercial units on the ground level. The property was pursued by the city for back taxes, and was razed on an emergency basis in April 2016, before the former owner sold the property to NeighborWorks for $580,000 earlier this year.
May mentioned other projects going forward including the Ganley Building, which the state recently announced it would demolish, constructing in its place a new $23 million regional state Department of Unemployment Assistance Office. Phase 2 of the Trinity Enterprise Block project is also in the pipeline, along with a parking lot on Montello Street. May said Phase 2 is still about a year away from starting. Jenkins said Trinity is still aligning financing for Phase 2, which entails 102 new apartment units on the property, located between Petronelli Way and Centre Street.
The city also received a $10 million MassWorks grant in November 2016 to build a new downtown garage, which May, the mayor and others believe will lead to accelerated development for other projects, including those in the Downtown Brockton Urban Revitalization Plan.
“Once the garage goes, I think there’s going to be a little bit of a development boom,” Jenkins said. “It’ll solve a lot of our parking and circulation issues. And it will be good for people to see dirt being moved. That usually creates a lot of interest.”
Jenkins said that aside from the parking garage, the most critical parcel in the Urban Revitalization Plan is 93 Centre St. May agreed.
“I think it’s probably the tallest building in downtown Brockton,” Jenkins said.
However, Jenkins said he was unsure of the future of the eight-story building at this point, after the owner recently parted ways with a Boston developer, Ted Carman, who was expected to complete a $15 to $20 million historic renovation of the 93 Centre St. property. A consultant with the owner, John Monen, recently told The Enterprise that they still plan to go forward with a $14 million renovation using a revised proposal.
“I don’t know where the owner is at on that,” Jenkins said. “There is a need for expertise to pull that off.”
May said Monen still has a valid permit in place for the project.
Several long vacant properties identified in the URP are in need of rehabilitation or, more likely the case, demolition, Jenkins said. Those that were transferred to the BRA by the city, and are still being assessed, include First Parish Building, a three-story building with a damaged roof story at 19 Main St.; the old Hotel Grayson on Frederick Douglas Avenue; and the 11-15 Frederick Douglass Ave. buildings across the street.
Aside from that, redevelopment plans have been submitted for apartments at 27 School St., along with 69 N. Montello, May said.
Another part of the equation is tax credits. May said he fears that the federal government, through the tax bill now up for vote in Washington, may slash new market tax credits and other incentives that help attract private investment to distressed communities.
“That’s keeping me up at night just a little bit,” May said. “This could really affect some of our older properties downtown and could leave a hole in the financing package.”
Despite that concern and others that come up along the way, the planners keep planning. After meeting with The Enterprise on Tuesday, Jenkins, May and Durante said they were meeting with potential developers for 47 W. Elm St., a former five-story fire-damaged brick building that was taken for back taxes and demolished by the city earlier this year.
“There’s a lot of activity going on,” May said. “People don’t see it, but there’s a lot of interest, and a lot of progress.”