60-88 Broad Street’s Critical Role in Revitalizing Downtown Bridgewater

Bridgewater’s downtown area is struggling. Buildings are in disrepair, business investment is stalling, and pedestrian traffic is all but gone. And we’re not alone. Over the past few decades, small towns and cities across America have experienced the same decay. And like us, many experimented with consultants and community-driven approaches to revitalize their downtown areas. Fortunately for us, many of those other towns and communities have already figured out what works and what doesn’t and there’s now a good revitalization recipe for us to follow.

It all starts with residential density and new retail space. For Bridgewater, that means our downtown revival likely hinges on the success of the 60-88 Broad Street multi-use development project (see links below for full project details).

Here’s why…

The Brookings Institution Research Brief (see references) and other similar studies about small towns and big cities echo what our own Town Manager, Michael Dutton, wrote in his memo to the Planning Board in early January, 2021 where he stated “…in order to support a vibrant business community, you need proximate residential density.” Said differently, you can’t revive a downtown area unless you have a whole lot of people living in that area who walk around shopping in the local stores.

Here’s how the revitalization recipe works:

To kickstart revitalization, the town attracts a development partner who is willing to invest in building attractive mixed use residential and retail buildings in the downtown area. Those new living options attract new people (usually young professionals) who move to the area, creating a significant amount of new foot traffic for the local stores.

That growing population of new walk-in shoppers makes the area more appealing to businesses, who will start moving into the area to take advantage of the captive retail audience. Existing businesses will start relocating to the new retail space, which forces existing landlords to update their buildings to compete. That business demand and competition drives better building upkeep, safer environments, and other area improvements. Those improvements attract drive-in shoppers from farther away and the system gets stronger. Eventually, the whole thing is one big healthy and updated downtown economy.

This is a large part of the strategy and support behind the 60-88 Broad Street plan you see working its way through our town’s boards and committees. We don’t currently have enough residential density in the downtown area to support revitalization and we need this project to fix that. If successful, this project would replace the abandoned buildings on Broad Street with mixed use buildings with commercial space on the first floor and residential units on the upper floors. That project brings the residential density and new retail spaces that are critical to getting our downtown revitalization started.

60-88 Broad Street Before and After (example; actual proposal will vary)

Some additional takeaways:

  • Downtown revitalization efforts must be intentional in the types of businesses they attract, with a focus on experience-based businesses such as restaurants, entertainment venues or gyms that won’t lose business to online competitors
  • Most successful downtowns have a walk score (walkscore.com) exceeding 80 out of 100 possible points . The walk score rates proximity to key services and retail. Downtown Bridgewater currently has a walk score of 80. This project should improve that score.
  • Most successful suburban revitalization efforts include streetscape standards. This project includes those improvements.
  • Direct rail or bus service to the downtown area is common in successful suburban downtowns. This project is within walking distance to public transportation, which is a benefit.
  • Significant yearly entertainment (festival, etc) with regularly-scheduled events in downtown areas is important. Promotion of these offerings is critical. This project does not directly impact this goal, but should accelerate demand for these events.
  • Many of the most successful downtown retail districts are anchored by a performance hall within walking distance to food and beverage. This project does not directly impact this component, but could provide demand for repurposing the old town hall to support arts and entertainment.
  • A common character or theme is critical to the success of a downtown area. Building design for this project is being aligned with town preferences, but ongoing discussions are needed in this area

Here’s what I like about Bridgewater’s path forward

  • We have a developer who is willing to invest in our revitalization efforts and a plot large enough to create the necessary foot traffic. That is typically the hardest part of the strategy.
  • This plan understands the importance of residential units in kicking off the transformation
  • This plan includes streetscape efforts to make the general area more attractive to businesses
  • This is a known and respected strategy for revitalizing a downtown area

Here is what we’ll need to watch out for

  • We need to make sure the new mixed-use and renovated buildings are designed in a style that is similar to our town’s identity. We must also be comfortable accepting something close enough to keep the revitalization effort on track.
  • We need to attract the right types of businesses to the area. A leading cause of failure is mismatched retail that doesn’t connect with walk-in resident needs or heavily skews toward a single business type.
  • We need a published management dashboard for the overall revitalization effort with success metrics that are regularly discussed and decisioned. There are many moving parts here that need to fall into place to turn the promises into a real working downtown area. We need full visibility to how we’re tracking against those promises to keep us on track

Corrections or suggestions?

Did I miss or misunderstand a key opinion, meeting point, detail or important research paper?

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Resources and References

Disclosures

I have no conflict of interest disclosures for the 60-88 Broad Street project. My sole reason for supporting the project is my belief that it is critical to revitalizing the deteriorating downtown area.