Waltham's proximity to tech firms a big draw
City also boasts a lively mix of shops and restaurants
By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 2/10/2001
WALTHAM - Giant home-improvement and toy chain stores have spelled the death of many mom-and-pop businesses, but a handful of smaller stores are flourishing here in the shadow of Home Depot and K B Toys. [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Brickman's, for instance, has carved out a niche by featuring a large selection of hard-to-find decorative hardware.
And the Construction Site, a children's store with thousands of blocks for kids of all ages, is thriving.
The stores, on busy Moody Street, are evidence that with the right location and products, small businesses can go head-to-head against the giants.
Small retailers are not the only businesses booming in downtown Waltham, though.
An eclectic collection of restaurants along Main Street - from Carambola, a Cambodian restaurant that serves somlah kako, a vegetable stew with chicken and green papaya, to Trattoria La Campania, which offers a rich ricotta gnocchi - have won praise from critics.
In addition to good food and an enticing mix of small shops, such establishments are also succeeding because Waltham's population doubles during the day, to nearly 120,000. Most of the traffic stems from out-of-town motorists who are making their way through town on the way to other destinations in the center of the region's high-technology belt.
Waltham also offers cultural experiences, including the Charles River Museum of Industry; Gore Place, a private mansion; the Waltham Museum; The Rose Art Museum; and several theater groups.
Brandeis University and Bentley College, both in Waltham, offer performing arts productions and a lecture series that are open to the public.
Like many communities in Greater Boston, Waltham has seen a dramatic increase in home values.
The median price for a single-family house has risen annually since 1992, when it was $155,000. For the first 11 months of 2000, the most recent data available, the median price was $283,000 - an 82 percent increase - according to The Warren Group.
"The high-tech industry continues to attract buyers to Route 128," said Martin Coleman, a Waltham realtor. "We're getting lots of people who keep pushing the prices up because the region's companies are offering larges salaries, and buyers are willing to pay full price or better for the few homes that are available."
This week, 24 single-family homes were listed for sale. The lowest-priced dwelling is a three-bedroom cottage with a bathroom and a one-car garage on a tiny lot for $249,900.
At the other extreme is a 13-room Tudor, featuring five bedrooms, 3.5 baths, and a three-car garage on a half-acre lot, for $850,000.
In the midrange is a two-bedroom ranch built in 1952, with two baths, hardwood floors, two fireplaces, and a one-car garage, for $349,900.
"Waltham's central location is a big draw," Coleman said. "We're nine miles from Boston and surrounded by Route 128, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Route 2. Most people want to be near where they work. There are no drawbacks here."
But others say that Waltham faces more than a few challenges: traffic, aging school facilities, low test scores, and a commercial tax rate that is more than double the residential rate.
Mayor David Gately, 45, one of the few politicians who was not born in Waltham, said the city is set to launch the largest school construction program in its history next month. The $140 million project - with 90 percent of the money coming from the state - will involve the renovation or construction of eight elementary and middle schools.
And for the first time, a $500,000 line item has been inserted in the budget to preserve open space. The city recently acquired $2 million from the federal government to help clean up 23 acres of the former Murphy Army Hospital, which will be turned over to the city for use as public parks.
While crime dropped statewide by nearly 6 percent from 1998 to 1999, Waltham saw an 18 percent drop in all categories of crime during the same period.
But Gately acknowledged that scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests for 1999, the most recent data available, demonstrated many areas where improvement is needed.
"Obviously, we're not satisfied with those numbers and want to do better," he said.
This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 2/10/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company