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A question of character

In Franklin, Westborough, Lincoln, and other western suburbs, developers and local officials want to spend millions to revive their town centers. The goal is to create character - in a modern New England village. And it's not just about adding condos and shopping. The ingredients include outdoor dining, public art, mass transit, wrought-iron lampposts, and bike racks.

Lincoln's town center is hardly a hotbed of activity. A speed bump greets visitors driving in on the main drag.

Yet last week, a developer broke ground on a $7 million project to renovate a local shopping center and erect a 2 1/2 story building in this no-stoplight downtown. There are even plans for a restaurant, with the town's first-ever liquor license.

"Everyone's a little nervous," said Cathy Jahrling, one of the few customers grocery shopping at Donelan's Market in the town center on a recent morning. "Change doesn't come easily to Lincoln."

The same could be said of many New England cities and towns, yet change is on the way. In Franklin, Westborough, Marlborough, and other communities, private developers are building multimillion-dollar projects aimed at recreating downtown centers, often in their own image. The goal of some of the projects is to mimic the look and feel of a New England village, creating space for merchants, new apartments, and even new public commons.

The investment is anything but common. In Franklin, there is $28 million in construction. A Westborough developer won't disclose the cost of its 23-acre downtown redevelopment project, except to say it is in the tens of millions.

The changes don't come without public debate. Downtowns are often the psychological epicenter of their communities. In Newton, a city task force has been at odds for months over how to redevelop that city's center.

But Robert D. Yaro, a planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former faculty member at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, said the transformation is a sweeping one in "reaction to the monoculture of the suburbs."

Villages need more than 3-bedroom, 3-bath megamansions and conservation land, he said.

"Many towns have done a great job preserving their physical character, but not their characters," Yaro said, referring to the loss of affordable downtown housing and the population that once lived in urban centers. "They've gotten to be less interesting places, so now they're transforming dramatically."

In Lincoln, town officials are working with a local nonprofit developer to build a grocery store and expand the post office. In Franklin, a private developer will build offices, condos, and what local officials envision as a downtown sculpture park. In Westborough, a private developer is building luxury condos and retail with parking on the site of a former industrial abrasives factory. In Marlborough, a private developer will turn an old printing factory on the outskirts of downtown into dozens of luxury apartments.

Dennis Frenchman, chairman of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it's hard to predict whether such projects can bring back downtown centers.

"Can a single project that's rather large in scale, relatively speaking, add to the quality of life and sense of place? Or does it have to be built from the bottom up?" he asked. "That's a classic urban design question."

In Franklin, workers are building 27 condominiums in the city's faded downtown, with plans for 30 more in the works. Known as Franklin Center Commons, its renters are unlikely to include the mill workers and straw hat makers that put this manufacturing town on the map.

Developer John Marini hopes many will be students from nearby Dean College.

Marini is leading a $28 million reconstruction effort in the downtown, tearing down three buildings and replacing them with a mix of retail, office space, and housing. Students will use the downtown MBTA station and hang out in local cafés.

"It's going to bring kids in the daytime," Marini said. "They'll be walking. They won't have cars."

Urban planners call that "mixed-use" development, and at its most simplified, it is shops and retail centers that also include housing. Residents give retailers and developers a built-in audience. Town officials like it because it brings in revenue that doesn't burden the school system. Young professionals and empty nesters like it because it gives them smaller, more affordable places to live in the suburbs.

Marini built a similar redevelopment in downtown Canton. Himself an empty-nester, he now lives there.

In Lincoln, town officials are working with the Rural Land Foundation to renovate a tired shopping center in the heart of downtown. The plan will allow the post office to expand and create a new building to house a grocery store and other commercial businesses. For a while, town officials, residents, planners, and foundation members debated whether to allow apartments or housing at the site, but that idea never made it.

Selectwoman Sara A. Mattes said Lincoln wanted to keep its rural character and slow pace. An influx of single-family homes increased the population of the one-time farming town, but it is still small, with about 5,000 residents. Mattes said most of them didn't want to see office buildings and national chain stores in the town center.

"It's not been part of the Lincoln culture," Mattes said. "We're still bemoaning the loss of our pharmacy."

Few in Westborough bemoan their own loss: the sprawling abrasives factory that sat in the heart of downtown for decades. The former brownfield will soon be a 23-acre retail and housing complex, home to dozens of chain stores, a Roche Brothers grocery store, and luxury condominiums.

Investor and general manager Lou Petra has high expectations for its success. Known as Bay State Commons, advertisements bill it as situated in a "New England village type setting." It will include 44 condominiums in a four-story complex, with unit prices between $534,900 and $739,900.

They overlook a two-acre park, or "Great Lawn."

"This is a very good addition" to the downtown, Petra said. "It should be a win-win-win for the town, the retailers, and the developers."

Petra said the success of the project does not hinge on the number of residents living downtown, but on how well the project draws shoppers from surrounding towns. Petra said investors have studied the area's demographics and think the project is a good fit. The median family income in Westborough is $94,610, compared with $50,046 nationally, according to the US Census.

The Westborough project will also bring national chains downtown. It includes more than 300,000 square feet of retail space, not including parking, which is the equivalent of a typical Home Depot store.

Town Planner Jim Robbins said a Linens N Things, Paper Store, and Ted's Montana Grill will come in. Panera Bread, GNC, and Payless Shoes are also expected.

Robbins said there were more than 40 public meetings on the project, and it took two years to issue all the necessary permits. People saw the development as such an improvement, there were "no retail uses people didn't want," he said.

He said the city's design review board ensured that the buildings would fit in with the existing 19th century architecture. Many of the buildings have flat rooftops, some will be brick, others clapboard, he said.

"We wanted to make it unique," he said. "We didn't want it to look like it was plopped down from outer space."

In Franklin, Town Manager Jeffrey D. Nutting said people wanted the town center to be a celebration of the town's character, if not a show of its newfound prosperity.

In recent years, Franklin was one of the fastest-growing communities in the state. People were drawn to its two MBTA stops, proximity to Interstate 495, and affordable housing. The average 3-bedroom house cost $400,000 in 2006.

But at its heart, the community is a mill town that attracted factories because of its proximity to the Blackstone River.

In 2001, town leaders began looking at how to revitalize downtown, a one-way street that had become a speedway. There were a few stalwart businesses operating there, as well as a bevy of pizza parlors and nail salons.

"We're not a seaport or a tourist destination," Nutting said. "The goal is just to make it warm and friendly."

Change has come slowly. There's now a shop showcasing the work of regional artists and a boutique called Pretty In Pink. Residents would like a restaurant and a Trader Joe's market, Nutting said. And plans are underway to install sculptures to make the town center unique. Officials used a $50,000 state grant to pay for a statue of a boy waving a signature straw hat.

The town will also use a $5 million federal grant to redesign its downtown streetscape, creating two-way traffic and installing brick crosswalks and old-fashioned-looking street lamps.

Tiny Lincoln plans to make a different statement. The Rural Land Foundation will renovate one shopping complex, "the mall," as it is known locally. The mall is a modernist building that sits amid the traditional Revolutionary war era homes and white steepled churches. Town officials said it reflects a unique era in the town, which has a collection of Bauhaus period homes from the 1950s tucked into its rolling hills.

Town Planner Mark Whitehead said the community vision, and the construction plans, took five years of discussion and debate. And the outcome was this: People wanted a place where they "could run into each other and talk."

"I don't think it will be that much of a change," Whitehead said. "The new building going in there isn't all that much bigger than some of the single-family homes here."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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