Magic in Beantown

Revitalization: Boston Main Streets, a neighborhood commercial revitalization program, has become a model for other cities, including Baltimore.

May 28, 2000|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - Janice Williams remembers shopping in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood as a youngster, when sidewalks bustled with people heading to banks, delis, department stores and the supermarket.

That was about four decades ago. By the 1970s, suburban malls beckoned and customers drifted away. Dozens of Roslindale merchants closed their doors. "There was a lot of vandalism," Williams recalled. "It became a pretty desolate area."

Today, Roslindale has been transformed, thanks in large part to Boston Main Streets, a neighborhood commercial revitalization program that has spruced up storefronts citywide, recruited businesses, lowered vacancies and helped reduce crime.

Now, in the historically working-class neighborhood, mothers push strollers on brick sidewalks with old-style street lamps. Elderly women with pull-carts chat outside the new supermarket. Visitors strolling along blocks of Greek delis, pastry shops and used-record stores are tugged inside by eye-catching displays and aromas from six ethnic bakeries.

Boston's program, now in 19 districts, has become a model for other cities, including Baltimore, which launched Baltimore Main Streets this month. Proponents say the model created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation brings customers back to urban shopping districts by preaching self-help and limiting government handouts. It gives merchants and residents tools to organize, promote shopping areas, use grants to fix up storefronts and sidewalks and recruit new shops.

The endeavor has been a particular interest of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who notes the need for strong commercial districts in Baltimore neighborhoods. Over three years, more than a dozen neighborhood shopping districts will be targeted for revitalization, with five selected this year. The city will kick in $1 million for the program this year, with another $500,000 coming from the state and $26,000 for capital improvements from each commercial corridor. The city also hopes for contributions from foundations and corporations.

Within a year, city officials believe, districts should be cleaner and brighter, with more store window displays, special events to draw shoppers and new stores filling vacancies.

Since 1995, Boston has reaped more than $40 million in private investment in Main Streets districts - and spent just $5.7 million. The districts have gained 313 new businesses, 120 completed storefront projects and more than 2,300 new jobs. "You can go around a neighborhood and see the commercial districts have a whole new place in their communities, as a place the neighborhood is proud of," said Kathy Kottaridis, director of Boston's Office of Business Development, which oversees Main Streets.

In Roslindale, a former 19th-century streetcar suburb, commercial vacancies have dropped from 20.7 percent to 3.5 percent, and foot traffic has jumped, said Williams, program manager of Roslindale Village Main Streets.

Persistence has paid off for merchants and residents. Together, they persuaded the city to put a commuter rail station in the neighborhood - just 12 minutes from downtown Boston - and to clean up contaminated property to help a supermarket operator open a store there. "We have a lot of activist people willing to donate time," Williams said. "Others see that, and it feeds off itself."

About 10,000 customers per week now shop for traditional, organic and ethnic foods at the 2-year-old Village Market. Residents gather at the once weed-strewn Adams Park for summer concerts and picnics. Developers have snatched up vacant buildings at one end of narrow Birch Street - a former fish market - and brought in clothing and home furnishing boutiques with names like Ampersand, Muse and Zia.

When she began thinking of opening Muse, "Somebody told me things were happening here," said Karen Parrelli, though it never would have occurred to her to set up shop in a place she thought had gone downhill since the days when her father was growing up there. "When I saw Birch Street, I was surprised. For 25 years, it's been so depressed."

Now, people from all over Boston come to browse amid racks of long print dresses and "gently worn" clothing in a shop with hardwood floors and a tangerine-colored ceiling. She calls it "a little bit of Soho in funky Roslindale Village," and expects the momentum to continue with the block's next tenant, a wine bar and cafe.

Most changes have occurred since 1995, when Roslindale joined Boston Main Streets, launched citywide by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Roslindale had a jump start; it had won a Main Streets designation a decade earlier, when, at the urging of then-City Councilor Menino, it became one of the first urban areas to test the Main Streets model.

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