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A makeover for Waltham's Moody Street?

Posted December 19, 2008 07:21 AM

By Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff

Everything you need to know about saving downtown can be taught in college?

Quite possibly. An honors class at Bentley University has created a road map for reviving Moody Street in Waltham. Now the onus is on city and business leaders to follow through.
Over the last decade, Moody Street re-created itself as ‘‘Restaurant Row’’ for diners who come from all over the region to sample a variety of ethnic fare.

While eateries have been successful, many retail shops and service businesses are struggling, and vacancies are going unfilled. Despite the recession, Moody Street could be much more vibrant than it is, according to the Bentley report and there are several simple ways to accomplish that.

For starters, clean the gum and cigarette butts off the sidewalks, put up clear parking signs and readable meters, provide more trash receptacles, and consider actually clearing snow from the sidewalks so patrons might be able to get to stores. Store signs that are readable would also be beneficial.

‘‘The whole point of my getting involved in this and Bentley getting involved was not to point fingers,’’ said state Representative Peter Koutoujian, who initiated the report. ‘‘But the fact is we need to use this effort as a call to action.’’

Some of the suggestions were so simple, it begged the question: Why isn’t this already being done? But leaders, business proprietors, and land owners have had a hard time agreeing on a vision for the heart of the city. And they don’t always see eye to eye on who is responsible for what.

The city has to figure out which recommendations to adopt, the state has to help with funding if possible, and businesses must cooperate, said Koutoujian, a Democrat whose legislative district includes Waltham.

‘‘The business community of greater Moody Street needs to come together and speak with one voice,’’ he said. ‘‘If there’s going to be internecine disputes within this community, it’s going to make it very difficult for us to help them.’’

The 150-page report — covering marketing, branding, infrastructure, and the regulatory environment — was presented by the students to the mayor and other city officials on Tuesday.

The students came to definite conclusions on some topics (brick sidewalks, yes; angled parking, no) and suggested a variety of solutions for other conundrums.

‘‘Moody Street can be a destination, but it has to be advertised that way,’’ said Owen Bacewicz, one of the student presenters.

In some other downtowns, for example, shops will take out a group ad to show the variety available. The report also suggested that a simple sign like the one in Davis Square could mark Moody Street as a destination. (From some approaches there isn’t even a street sign to tell potential shoppers where they are.)

‘‘I think Moody Street needs to be retooled ... so it doesn’t die,’’ said Mayor Jeannette McCarthy in response to the report.

In a way, Moody Street is an old time ‘‘Main Street’’ with a mix of bargain and high-end businesses. Dentist offices share the street with jewelers, thrift stores, grocers, and book shops. The twist is that it’s also international — the African Market, Los Primos Barber Shop, and Waltham India Grocery represent the demographics of this city.

‘‘I love the eclectic nature of Moody Street,’’ said Nick Pappas, owner of Lizzy’s Ice Cream, which opened on Moody in 1995. ‘‘I think it’s a real strength that you need to build on.’’

That diversity also creates challenges for branding, he said, but the bottom line is that more coherent marketing would benefit all the businesses.

‘‘I think there’s really a problem in getting the process going,’’ said Pappas. ‘‘It would really benefit us if we can get ourselves together as a business community.’’

The report points out that despite the rise of malls, many other communities have succeeded in developing their ‘‘Main Street’’ into a popular retail destination. The students cited Somerville’s Davis Square, Cambridge’s Inman Square, and Watertown Square among other examples. One key feature that Waltham seems to be missing is leadership and cooperation, namely some type of organization that brings together city leaders, landowners, and business owners.

‘‘Despite several efforts, tenants on Moody Street have not been able to successfully establish a joint business development program,’’ stated the report. ‘‘It is important that the city of Waltham play a more active role in business development initiatives.’’

Waltham should borrow heavily from other communities, the students suggested. In Somerville, businesses can get grants of $35,000 or half the cost of storefront improvements. With the help of nonprofit organizations, Somerville also offers loans and business development workshops.

A survey of 630 consumers (and potential consumers) verified that people are primarily drawn to Moody Street for its restaurants and bars, but they also crave clothing stores and coffee shops, which are barely represented on Moody.

Although positive perceptions outweighed the negative, there is a lot of room for improvement, according to the report, which employed focus groups, interviews, and other research in the semester-long project. The potential for sales is much larger in Waltham — by about $76 million — than what is actually being spent in the city, according to the report.

Twenty percent of consumers surveyed said they were concerned about safety on Moody Street. Reinstating beat cops who walk along Moody could alleviate such fears, according to the report.

Half of the 40 businesses that completed the survey said parking was a problem and almost one quarter said the city’s regulatory environment was a negative for Moody Street, according to the students.

Several business owners complained that it was difficult to open a new business, which means a financial strain for what are often cash-strapped sole proprietorships. The students said they had a hard time getting specific examples of problems but recommended that the regulatory process be streamlined.

A quick parking fix would be to better advertise where to find the spots that seem to be adequate for daytime shoppers. During peak evening hours, there could be a need for more parking but students suggested: ‘‘Rather than rushing to add additional spaces, improved signage, lighting, advertisement, and a greater investigation into the efficiency of parking could enhance the parking experience.’’

Moody Street’s infrastructure, including parking, signs, and sidewalks, fared poorly in the report. Almost a quarter called it ‘‘unclean’’ or ‘‘unattractive’’ and other common adjectives were ‘‘depressing,’’ ‘‘run down,’’ and ‘‘congested.’’

Sally Collura, a city councilor who owns a Moody Street business, The Tea Leaf, said the city has helped revitalize Moody Street before — see ‘‘Restaurant Row’’— and can do it again. She hopes to spearhead more group efforts like the Holiday Prelude she put together recently, which included trolley rides, discounts, free raffles, and tastings — exactly the type of event the report recommends.

‘‘We need business people to band together to have a strong body to represent themselves to the city, and we need the city to focus again on the business scene in the downtown,’’ said Collura. ‘‘If I were not optimistic, I would not be here.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com.

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