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The center steps up

With no room to grow, Winchester has a plan to revitalize its core

The lovely Aberjona River, which runs through downtown Winchester, sometimes brings flooding, but plans are afoot to widen the river. The lovely Aberjona River, which runs through downtown Winchester, sometimes brings flooding, but plans are afoot to widen the river. (Photos By Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / July 31, 2011

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Winchester’s quaint town center, with its independent shops and boutiques, is known as the heart of the community, but a closer look reveals it is not beating as strongly as it could.

With roughly 95 percent of Winchester’s tax base reliant on residential property and no open space for new development, town officials have turned their attention to the underutilized town center.

A multimillion-dollar redesign of the town’s commuter rail station is underway, and the town is working to change its restrictive zoning laws and complete its first master plan since 1953. The idea is to borrow the best of the late 19th century, when housing, retail, and transportation were all located in the center.

“If you look at Winchester in the 1880s, there were a number of buildings in the center of town that had multiple stories, and now you have two-story buildings,’’ said Elizabeth Ware, the town’s planner. “There’s an opportunity for the town. I don’t think anyone were to object if some buildings in town were to have extra stories to accommodate new housing.’’

The town’s efforts have caught the attention of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, which, through its Great Neighborhoods Program, awarded Winchester a two-year $150,000 grant last month to fund the zoning analysis and help implement the center’s growth plan.

Combined with a separate $10,000 downtown development grant from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and in conjunction with the MBTA’s planned $15 million redesign of the center’s commuter rail station, Winchester center is preparing for a significant remodel.

“In the last 20 years, there’s only been one [center] site that’s been developed,’’ Ware said. “The biggest challenge will be how to balance keeping the character and qualities of the town center that people really love, with increased density. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive as long as there’s strong urban design and architectural design.’’

About three years ago, the planning board set about creating a new master plan, a state-mandated blueprint created by communities to forecast new growth. Since it hadn’t been done in over five decades, the planning board decided to take it up in phases, recently completing the first one focusing on housing and the town center, Ware said.

A consultant funded through the Housing and Community Development grant identified some of the center’s economic shortcomings, including congested parking, outdated zoning and building codes, flooding issues resulting from the Aberjona River, and limited pedestrian access. The study also identified a significant loss of potential retail and restaurant revenue, dubbed “sales leakage,’’ from residents spending $264 million a year outside Winchester.

“So the conclusion was that one needed to take a holistic look at the downtown and what you can do to begin to revitalize it a bit,’’ said Lance Grenzeback, chairman of the planning board. “A lot of the stores are small, probably the zoning is outdated, so it’s difficult for property owners to upgrade and make investments.’’

All the changes won’t come easily - or quickly. Still, officials are optimistic they can begin to present zoning change proposals to Town Meeting this fall to prepare for a vote next spring, Grenzeback said.

“What we’re anticipating is sort of a rolling series of changes,’’ he said.

In order to increase density in the center, according to study analyses, town officials must better manage parking to allow for higher turnover of spaces; eliminate some of the minimum parking requirements for new developments; allow construction of mixed-use and residential developments in the center without the need for a special permit; and seek relief from certain floodplain restrictions outlined in the state’s wetlands and rivers protection acts, Ware said.

“The present zoning for downtown has some issues, particularly when it comes to the redevelopment of sites,’’ Ware said. “Not only for properties that need to be revamped, but with the Aberjona River running through the town, you have to go to the conservation commission if you’re within 200 feet from a river.’’

Most of the center, Grenzeback said, is within 100 to 200 feet from the river, which puts major restrictions on certain types of development.

If the parking, floodplain, and zoning proposals are put into place, the studies show that the center will be able to absorb hundreds of new residential units, said Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. Winchester’s zoning challenges, combined with its comprehensive plans to address them, led to its choice as one of just five projects selected last month out of 33 applicants statewide to receive a portion of the $1.5 million pledged to the Great Neighborhoods Program by the Ford and Barr foundations, Leroux said.

“Whenever you’re changing local zoning, it’s difficult because zoning is not the most exciting issue and it can be complicated to get into the details, but at the same time, it really affects people’s properties,’’ Leroux said. “A lot of towns have to go to town meeting and they need a two-thirds vote [to approve the changes]. It’s a lot. . . . The big challenge is going to be translating all of these great ideas into real development.’’

Plans to address some of the issues could soon get underway, including an Army Corps of Engineers project to widen the Aberjona in key areas near the center to mitigate flooding, which could be completed by fall, Grenzeback said.

Another imminent project is the MBTA’s plan to improve ramp accessibility and spruce up the town center commuter rail station. Some have referred to the station as the “great wall’’ or “the great divide’’ since the state erected the overpass in town center in the 1950s to avoid blocking emergency vehicles as freight trains made their way through the street-level tracks. The station’s reconstruction design is at 15 percent completion, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

Ware said the town is working with nonprofit WalkBoston to improve the center’s walking conditions, as well as look into the possibility of cutting into parts of the wall to create more pedestrian accessibility. With the rail station acting as an anchor on one end and a supermarket on the other, as well as the potential for new restaurants in between, Ware said the center is ripe to attract new residents who will not feel they have to have a car to live in town.

“What this grant needs to do is capitalize on those aspects and try to encourage a denser development in the center of town that will increase the tax revenues without having to increase municipal services,’’ Ware said. “What we’re hoping is that we can get some decisions made within the next two years that will generate new zoning laws.’’

Felicity Tuttle, associate broker with Shanahan Real Estate Group in Winchester, as well as a member of the town’s Housing Partnership Board, said she doesn’t “really see anything that’s negative’’ with the town’s vision.

“I think more mixed use tends to attract a broader population,’’ Tuttle said. “When you have a broader population, you have more people of different cultures, people of different age groups. There are a lot of positives that can come out of that.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.

Roughly 95% of Winchester’s tax base is residential.
1953 was the last time Winchester completed a master plan prior to 2009.
$150,000 Great Neighborhoods state grant will be used for the next two years to revamp zoning bylaws.
20 years ago was the last time a major development took place in town center.
$371m is what a consultant estimated Winchester residents spend on retail and at restaurants per year.
$264m is how much Winchester residents spend on retail and at restaurants outside Winchester per year.
15 feet is how much the Army Corps of Engineers plans to widen the Aberjona River for flood mitigation.
100 new housing units downtown could lead to $3.2 million in additional annual spending on retail and at restaurants, according to town report.